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Your Friday Feminists: The Women Who Shaped The Indian Constitution

How many do you know?

Celebrating the 15 women responsible for framing the Indian constitution

We go back in history this week, to commemorate Republic Day and to celebrate the women of India’s first Constituent Assembly. These fifteen women come from different social classes and circumstances (as varied as Rajkumari Amrit Kaurs Oxford-educated royal childhood to the much humbler beginnings of Dakshayani Velayudan, married by a leper priest in Sevagram, overseen by the Gandhis). But they shared a fierce nationalism and idealism that makes them true feminists in every sense of the world.

So this Republic Day weekend is dedicated to Ammu Swaminathan, Annie Mascarene, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Dakshayani Velayudan, Durgabai G. Deshmukh, Hansa Mehta, Kamla Chaudhri, Leela Ray, Malati Chowdhury, Purnima Banerji, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur,  Renuka Ray, Saorijini Naidu, Sucheta Kriplani and Vijaylakshmi Pandit.

Get to know these women better :

Ammu Swaminathan

Social activist and Rajya Sabha MP from Madras State, on the constitutional equality provided to women:

People outside have been saying that India did not give equal rights to her women. Now we can say that when the Indian people themselves framed their Constitution they have given rights to women equal with every other citizen of the country. That in itself is a great achievement and it is going to help our women not only to realise their responsibilities but to come forward and fully shoulder.
Annie Mascarene

Freedom Fighter and first woman MP from Kerala, when arguing against the role of the Center in Provincial Elections:

I am a believer in politics as nothing but ethics writ large.
Begum Aizaz Rasul

First woman Leader of Opposition of a State Assembly (Uttar Pradesh, 1950-52) & Minister for Social Welfare and Minorities (1969-71), on reservation and separate electorates for the minorities:

For my part I have from the beginning felt that in a secular state separate electorates have no place. Therefore the principal of joint electorates having once been accepted, the reservation of seats for minorities to me seems meaningless and useless….. I repeat that in the new set-up with joint electorates it is absolutely meaningless to have reservation of seats for any minority….. We feel that our interests are absolutely identical with those of the majority, and expect that the majority would deal justly and fairly with all minorities.  
Dakshayani Velayudan

The first Dalit woman graduate in India, who was both a staunch Gandhian and supporter of Ambedkar, in response to separatist demands:

Communalism, whether Harijan, Christian, Muslim or Sikh, is opposed to nationalism. What we want is not all kinds of safeguards. It is the moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs of this country.
Durgabai G. Deshmukh

Freedom fighter, lawyer, social activist, Lok Sabha member, first woman member of the Planning Commission and founder chairperson of the Central Social Welfare Board. On reposing faith in the youth:

The object of this is to lower the age to 30 from 35 for a seat in the Council of States. It was held for some time that greater age confers greater wisdom on men and women, but in the new conditions we find our boys and girls more precocious and more alive to their sense of responsibilities. Wisdom does not depend on age. 
Hansa Mehta

Writer and translator of several children’s books in Gujarati and also as the Indian Delegate to the UNHRC responsible for changing the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from “all men are created equal” to “all human beings”. While welcoming the Constitution’s remarks on the equal status of women in the country:

The women’s organisation to which I have the honour to belong has never asked for reserved seats, for quotas, or for separate electorates.What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice. We have asked for that equality which can alone be the basis of mutual respect and understanding and without which real co-operation is not possible between man and woman. Women form one half of the population of this country and, therefore, men cannot go very far without the co-operation of women.
Leela Roy

Freedom fighter, member of National Planning Committee of the Congress and founder of Jayasree, the first magazine edited, managed, and wholly contributed by women writers.

Malati Choudhury

Freedom fighter, outspoken activist for education, equality and freedom of speech.  In 1988, she refused to accept the Jamnalal Bajaj Award from the hands of Rajiv Gandhi because, in her eyes, he had failed to adhere to Gandhian principles.

Purnima Banerji

Freedom fighter and secretary of the Allahabad City Congress Committee, she sang the national anthem after the Constitution was passed on November 26, 1949. On religious instruction in schools:

There are in my Province ‘Maktabs’ and ‘Pathasalas’ which perform the function of imparting education to children of school going age. But we have seen that the religious instructions given there are of sucha nature that, instead of broadening the mind of the child, they mis-educate the mind and sometimes breed a certain type of fanaticism and religious bigotry as a result of receiving education in these ‘Maktabs’ and ‘Pathasalas’
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur

Freedom fighter, co-founder of All India Women’s Conference, first woman to hold Cabinet rank in independent India as Health Minister in Nehru’s government, first woman President of the World Health Organization (1950), driving force behind the setting up of All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS). On the plight of Indian women:

The abolition of early marriage and purdah…will remove two of the main obstacles in the way of the spread of female education. Needless to say that the position of the widows in Hindu homes, marriage laws and the laws relating to the inheritance of property by women need radical alteration. 
Renuka Ray

Freedom fighter and social activist, known for her championing of women’s rights and inheritance rights in parental property. On territorial representation without reservations for women in the parliament:

Women in this country have striven for their rights, for equality of status, for justice and fairplay and most of all to be able to take their part in responsible work in the service of their country.
Sarojini Naidu

Bulbul-i-Hind (Nightingale of India). Freedom fighter, poetess, first Governor of an Indian state, former President of the Indian National Congress.

I think that the time has come in the onward march of the world-civilisation when there should be no longer any sex consciousness or sex separation in the service of the country.
Sucheta Kriplani

Freedom fighter and first woman to become Chief Minister of an Indian State (Uttar Pradesh). On 15th August 1947, Sucheta sang Vande Mataram in the Constituent Assembly.

 

Vijayalakshmi Pandit

Freedom fighter, diplomat and first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly, on India’s role in a post-Raj world order:

We have had too much talk of rights in recent years and very little about obligations…At this moment in our national history, we cannot afford to fritter away our energies in any talk or action which will defeat our objective, nor must we indulge in unreasoning fears.
Find out more about the early days of Indian Feminism here.

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