India has had its significant share of influential women politicians over the years. It’s a tradition that goes back to the freedom struggle, which had significant participation by women.
When the Constituent Assembly of India was formed in 1946 to draw up a Constitution for the soon-to-be independent nation, it had 15 women members. They are mainly known as freedom fighters but they were also opinionated political leaders, who were unafraid to speak their minds and passionately advocated their beliefs.
Gandhian thought had a profound impact on these women leaders because his call to actively join the struggle for freedom empowered women from all walks of life. They were firm believers in Gandhian ways of social reform and diligently followed his philosophy, both to achieve their political ideals and in their personal lives as well.
Going through their Constituent Assembly speeches, one is immediately struck by the fact that these women participated in deliberations about a variety of topics. They represented different communities, had contrarian viewpoints and brought distinctive suggestions to the table, even if they weren’t adopted later on. They had progressive views on women’s issues but that is where the similarity ends. They had diverse ideological opinions on different subjects, went back and forth with other political leaders on a wide spectrum of concerns and actively participated in debate on the topics that they were passionate about.
The women members of the Constituent Assembly were Ammu Swaminathan, Dakshayani Velayudhan, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Durgabai Deshmukh, Hansa Mehta, Kamla Chaudhary, Leela Roy, Malati Choudhury, Purnima Banerjee, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Renuka Ray, Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kriplani, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Annie Mascarene.
Rights and liberties
These women were strong proponents of a rights-based Constitution and emphasised the need for inalienable human rights. Ammu Swaminathan believed that Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy were the two most important pillars of the Constitution with freedom of speech, association and worship being the most significant. Begum Aizaz Rasul wanted the establishment of an independent agency to ensure their implementation and she also held the opinion that Fundamental Rights should have fewer exceptions to ensure strong civil liberties. While Dakshayani Velayudan enthusiastically supported freedom from forced labour, the right to constitutional remedy was the most fundamental for G Durgabai.
Decentralisation was an important concern since these women were representing their provinces and princely states during an uncertain time when states were being consolidated. Annie Mascarene and Begum Aizaz Rasul commended Sardar Patel for India’s peaceful unification, while maintaining a unique balance between centralisation and independence of provinces. Annie Mascarene represented Travancore-Cochin and she strongly favoured independent provincial elections and financial decentralisation. Renuka Ray and Purnima Banerji supported independent sources of revenue for provinces and local bodies. Dakshayani Velayudan, on the other hand, criticised the lack of decentralisation in the Constitution.
When it came to the question of religious minorities, these women were firmly opposed to separate electorates. Begum Aizaz Rasul was the sole Muslim woman in the Assembly and she was proud that the Constitution established India as a truly secular state. She believed that reservation acted as a barrier between the minority and majority, keeping communalism alive. She wanted Muslims to give up their separatist tendencies and stated that Muslims of India want neither special privileges nor discrimination. Banerji wanted state control over religious instruction in schools to prevent fanaticism and religious bigotry. For her, religious education meant comparative religions or elementary philosophy.
Caste and gender
On the matter of Dalit rights, Dakshayani Velayudan had a very strong voice. She was the only Dalit woman and the youngest member of the Assembly. “Communalism, whether Harijan, Christian, Muslim or Sikh, is opposed to nationalism,” she said. She believed that Harijans belong wholeheartedly to the Hindu fold, and she wanted them to act as Hindu representatives in Muslim provinces. She said that the demand for separate electorates by Harijans was because of lack of correct ideology and she was personally, completely opposed to reservations. She believed that economic upliftment of Dalits was most important, unlike other Dalit leaders who prioritised social and political upliftment. She iterated a need for a governmental campaign against untouchability, and credited Mahatma Gandhi for the upliftment of Harijans.
These female leaders were truly progressive when it came to women’s issues. Ammu Swaminathan was a founding member of Women’s India Association and she was satisfied that the Constitution gave equal rights to women. For Hansa Mehta, social, economic and political justice was of utmost priority and she wanted both equality of status and opportunity for women. They wanted the complete abolition of social customs like purdah and Devadasi system and some even supported prohibition.
Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur modelled the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties and made sincere efforts for the adoption of a Uniform Civil Code. All these women were firmly opposed to the idea of reservation for women but Purnima Banerji wanted only women to refill the Assembly seats vacated by women.
The debate over India’s national language was a major concern and Begum Aizaz Rasul accepted Hindustani as the language but clearly stated that Devnagari script would be accepted only after a 15-year transition period. Durgabai actually wanted a national language which could absorb words of other languages and demanded an equal obligation for Hindi speakers to learn any one provincial language.
Deficiences and restrictions
These women presented some unique suggestions in the Assembly. Begum Aizaz Rasul suggested naming the Parliament as Indian National Congress to permanently commemorate Congress’ participation in the national struggle and so that the glamour of the word Congress wouldn’t influence voters. She supported Indian membership of the Commonwealth because she believed that India’s views aligned with nations working towards world peace and opposing communism. Durgabai wanted the government to ensure a high standard in films and she wanted the state to undertake direct responsibility for the protection of children.
Purnima Banerji wanted the word “sovereign” to be dropped from the Preamble and the inclusion of the term “Purna Swaraj”. To commemorate the symbolic importance of salt in India’s freedom struggle, she also asked that the salt manufactured in India should be free of any duty. Ray and Banerji wanted more focus on education and they voiced the need for a coordinated central educational policy for a uniform national minimum standard of education.
All of these women were not far behind in bringing out the deficiencies of the Constitution as well. Both Swaminathan and Ray criticised the Constitution’s length and bulkiness. Banerji opposed written restrictions on Fundamental Rights, since they made the constitution more rigid. Malati Chowdhury critiqued the Constitution for borrowing heavily from other countries. Despite this, these women leaders were eventually proud of the final product, especially since it was able to accomodate extremely diverging views of the members.
Though there were 15 women members, their participation was limited. Some of them were nonexistent from discussions and some even quit the assembly in protest. All of them weren’t extremely vocal and their engagement was ultimately less, especially compared to their male counterparts. But their contribution still deserves to be highlighted. These women who shaped the Indian Constitution were not only freedom fighters, but political leaders and social reformers. Remembering their voice is valuable, so that girls can be inspired to have strong opinions and to ensure improved representation of women in today’s dynamic political arena.
Ilika Trivedi is a research assistant at the Centre for Policy Research.