The first of its kind platform archiving the lives and contributions of women politico-public figures in Modern India. As the first edition, we are launching the stories of the 15 women members of the Constituent Assembly.
As an organization working to empower women to join politics, decision making and governance, it is essential to bring out the journeys of these women leaders and change-makers whose stories, achievements and challenges remain absent or in the margins of history.
We are specially focusing on the anecdotes that humanize these women and our audiences can look at their holistic personalities. The effort is to inculcate an interest in understanding the journey of these women beyond the common known facts. What makes these women? What drove and inspired them? What was their camaraderie with other freedom fighters? What issues did they raise in the constituent assembly debates? And other such insights are presented in the detailed essays.
This platform is a step towards bringing these narratives to the fore and promoting them as role models for inspiration amongst young girls.
I see gaps in this House and my heart is sore because of the absence of those Muslim brothers to whose coming I am looking forward under the leadership of my old friend Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah. I think if any persuasion were necessary, if any fine wands of magic were necessary to bring them in, it would be the essential sweetness, the essential wisdom, the essential creative faith of Dr. Rajendra Prasad.”
These were the words of Sarojini Naidu as she addressed the constituent assembly while congratulating Dr Rajendra Prasad on his chairmanship, saddened by the painful partition of India and the lack of her Muslim brothers.
She connected the importance and necessity for gender equality with India’s independence, suggesting that without women, there is no nation.
First Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress and went on to become the first woman Indian State governor (United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh). Naidu played a crucial role in advocating for women’s suffrage and thereby achieving women’s right to vote in India. She also went to London along with Annie Besant, to present the case of women’s right to vote to the Joint Select Committee. This led to congress’ promise to establish the same and after independence it was officially enacted. As a crusader for gender equality, in 1917, she established the Women’s Indian Association along with Annie Besant as well as a magazine called “Stri Dharma” to present international news from a feminist perspective. She was also one of the founding members of the women’s wing of Congress, which aimed at fashioning prospects for women political participation.
She stayed for 21 months at Aga Khan Palace detention camp along with Mahatma Gandhi and many other leaders in 1942.
Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu shared a great camaraderie which can be seen by their affectionate nicknames for one another. In a letter dated Aug 8 1932 to Naidu, he addressed her as Bulbul and signed off as ‘Little man’. Somewhere along the line she referred to him as a “Micky Mouse,” and Gandhi did not mind it.
She was appointed to the Constituent Assembly from Bihar and discussed the importance of adopting a national flag in the Assembly while recalling the challenging and tiring times when India did not have a flag to represent itself at various international podiums, “I have suffered the most terrible moments of anguish in free countries, because India possessed no flag……. Remember this Flag, there is no prince and there is no peasant, there is no rich and there is no poor. There is no privilege there is only duty and risibility and sacrifice”.
Under her governorship of United Province- her undying love for poetry bound her to regularly host Shayars and Poets and promote art.
As she was an active member of the Congress Working Committee from early on, she had to let go of attending those meetings as she was the Governor of UP and couldn’t be part of active politics which was reminded to her by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
She didn’t prepare her speeches at all, to speak “was as easy for her as it is for a fish to swim,” as she herself said.
Time’s list of the most powerful women who defined the past century (published in 2020), “100 Women of the Year” featured Rajkumari Amrit Kaur as the ‘Woman of the Year’ for 1947 with the tag “Championing an Independent India”. This project features “influential women who are often overshadowed” by dedicating special covers. It was in 1936, that Gandhi sought to include more women in the independence struggle, he wrote to Amrit Kaur – “I am in search of a woman who would realise her mission. Are you that woman, will you be the one?” And she definitely proved to be that woman.
Interested in working for the betterment and welfare of women and children in 1926 she co-founded All India Women’s Conference, served as its secretary and later in 1933 as its President. She tirelessly worked towards eradication of various social evils that were entrenched in the Indian society such as the purdah system, child marriage, child illiteracy, and the devadasi system. She also made her stance on women’s education, right to vote and marriage equality as well as divorce.
She was appointed as a member of the Advisory Board of Education by the British government but resigned in 1942 in support of the Quit India Movement as did many others, and was imprisoned. She took a spinning wheel, Bhagavad Gita and Bible with her to jail. Gandhi and Rajkumari used to write to one another even during their jail times, in the book “Letters to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur” Gandhi is seen using the terms ‘idiot’ or ‘rebel’ for Kaur, and would sign his letters as ‘robber’ and ‘tyrant’, which depicts their long friendship and trust towards one another.
She was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the Central Provinces and Berar. She spoke for inclusion of constitutional equality of men and women which is reflected under Articles 14, 15, and 16. She also strongly encouraged for inclusion of Uniform Civil Code as it would protect women against the disparities and irregularity in the personal laws, for which she even wrote a letter to Sardar Patel. She was a member of Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights, Minority Rights, Finance and Staff, Advisory Committee and Provincial Constitution Committee.
Kaur joined Nehru’s cabinet as the first health minister of independent India, making her the first woman to join the cabinet and she retained the health portfolio for 10 years. She introduced the AIIMS Bill and founded India’s premier medical institution. In 1950, she also became the first female and first Asian president of the World Health Assembly, WHO’s governing forum and also led India’s delegation to the World Health Organization several times.
She set up the Tuberculosis Association of India, the Central Leprosy and Research Institute, was vice chair of the board of governors of the League of Red Cross Societies and chair of the executive committee of St John’s Ambulance Society. She is reminisced for donating her ancestral estate in Shimla into a rest home for the nurses from AIIMS. She also played an imperative role in setting up the Amrit Kaur College of Nursing as well as the National Sports Club of India.
A princess who left everything behind,championed for a gender equal society with no patriarchal boundaries.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’) was presupposed to say “All men are born free and equal” later changed to “All human beings are born free and equal”. This pioneering change was credited to Hansa Mehta who made sure that the language of Universal Human Rights was made inclusive and with no gender discrimination. This small alteration had a colossal impact.
As a part of the constituent assembly she argued for social, political and economic justice for women. One of her significant contributions to the debates was to ask for Uniform Civil Code (UCC) as a justifiable part of the Constitution. She was also a part of the committee for drafting a Hindu Code Bill. Mehta downright rejected reserved seats, quotas or separate electorates. “We have never asked for privileges. What we have asked for is social justice, political justice and economic justice,” she said in December 1946.
During her last session in the assembly, Rohini Kumar Chaudhari who was representing Assam made a rather sexist remark stating his displeasure over the fact that the assembly had made no provision for “protection against women” in the Constitution, as “women are trying to elbow us out”. And equating the same to protection against cows, it was Hansa Mehta who retorted in a humble manner, “The world would have thought very little of the men if they had asked for protection against women in this Constitution”.
Meeting Gandhi (Sarojini Naidu introduced her to him) in Sabarmati Jail in 1918 was the turning point in her life. This meeting left her “visibly moved”, as she later wrote in her book Indian Woman. And post this she joined the freedom struggle against the British.
She led Desh Sevika Sangh (a women’s group which fought against the British) in a Satyagraha campaign that picketed foreign cloth and liquor shops in Bombay. Along the period of time, she organised many more protests and was appointed the President of the Bombay Congress Committee.
She broke the clutches of the caste system and didn’t change her mind about marriage. She married outside her caste ( to a man from Brahmin sub-caste lower than her’s according to caste hierarchy in India).
She won the provincial elections from the Bombay Legislative Council seat in 1937, became first woman to be elected to the council,in the general category, as she refused to contest from a reserved seat. Represent Bombay in the Constituent Assembly as well. She was the Parliamentary Secretary of the Education and Health Departments, brought various positive changes such as setting up vocational, commercial and technical schools.
She became President-1946 of the All India Women’s Conference. During her presidency, she drafted the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties, asking for gender fairness and civil rights for women. The charter also asked for equal pay, equal distribution of property and fair marriage laws. She also asked for the addition of a woman’ right to divorce, the core explanation for which was explained in her book, Indian woman. She wanted women in India to be seen as individuals, and not having their rights dependent on either their husband or family.
In 1964, she vigorously campaigned to legalise abortion. In 1946, she became a participant of the United Nations sub-committee on the status of women. She was the vice-chair of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Committee, with Eleanor Roosevelt. She also went before the Cripps Mission to speak on the behalf of Indian women.
Along with all revolutionary work that she did, she wrote many books for children in Gujarati and also translated many English stories including the Gulliver’s Travels for her children as well. The government also awarded her with the Padma Bhushan in 1959.
She was one of the first leaders to call for An Indian Constituent Assembly in order to frame the Constitution, which as per her was an important step towards claiming independence. During her debut speech at the UN General Assembly in 1946, Pandit expressed her optimism that “women of all countries will have the occasion to participate more fully with men in all departments of life, including the work of this Assembly, thus helping to create a better and more balanced world.”
She attended her first political meeting at the age of 16. She became the president of All Indian Women’s Conference (AIWC) from 1941-43. She began her journey in the election to the Allahabad Municipal Board and in 1936, won the elections to the provincial legislature of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Hence, she became the minister of local self-government and public health, making her the first woman in pre-independent India to hold a cabinet position, and resigned later on as a mark of protest against the participation of British India in the Second World War.
In 1944 after her husband’s death, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit found herself impoverished and had to reorient her life.
In 1946, she was reinstated to her position as minister of Local Self-Government and Health in the United Provinces and later elected to the Constituent Assembly.
In the same year, she undertook her first official diplomatic mission as leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1947, 1948, 1952, 1953, and 1963, she also led India’s delegations to the General Assembly. In September 1953 she became the first woman to be elected president of the U.N. General Assembly.
Her diplomatic work continued 15 years and took her to 3 different continents. She helped renovate India-Britain relations in the post-independence time, particularly after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the crisis thereafter in 1956. On returning to India, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit served as the Governor of Maharashtra from 1962 – 1964.
Her brother’s death came as a shock to her and she was elected to Lok Sabha in a by election in the Philpur constituency of Uttar Pradesh, which Nehru represented for seventeen long years. Upset with Indira Gandhi’s emergency proclamation and suspension of democratic processes from 1975 to 1977, she protested against her niece. In 1979, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was seen as India’s representative to the UN Human Rights Commission.
In an interview, she said – “Lots of women now have done much more than I did in my time. The reason why I got publicity was that at that time women had no rights” this perfectly depicts a patriarchal society which existed at that time, where women were not given opportunities as men, though there were exceptions to this.
On the occasion of her death, President Ramaswami Venkataraman described Pandit as a “luminous strand in the tapestry of India’s freedom struggle. Distinctive in her elegance, courage, and dedication, Mrs. Pandit was an asset to the national movement.“
The personal account of Pandit’s third and final term in Naini Central Jail in Allahabad which has been published now is called “Prison Days”. She recorded her experiences in her diary to keep busy during her imprisonment, in which she narrates her time in jail and the adversities she faced along with others who were a part of the freedom struggle: supplies mixed with dirt and stones, lack of water and hygiene facilities, surviving on an allowance of 9 annas a day, and the hard ground to sleep on.
Sucheta was 10 years old when she, along with her siblings heard about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre from her father. She recalls her state of mind in her autobiography-“I could understand enough to feel great anger against the British. We vented out anger on some of the Anglo-Indian children who played with us, (her and her sister) calling them all kinds of names,” In her book, An Unfinished Autobiography she recalls herself as a shy child, self-conscious about her appearance and intellect.
From 1963 to 1967 she served as the first female Chief Minister of an Indian State, i.e. United Provinces. During her tenure, she was able to handle the economic slip of the state along with a firm administration marked with transparency. In this period, there was a 62-day strike by the state employees. Mrs Kriplani didn’t budge until the workers were ready for a compromise. This shows her statesmanship as well as efficiency.
She speaks of her husband’s advice to her in her book, “I was keen to start political work. I used to feel small before the veteran jail-goers, as I had not graduated from jail life. Kripalani wanted me to do any work of my choice, not necessarily politics. Early in life, his advice to me was ‘Apna daman saf rakhna,’ pointing towards the honour of his wife, which was of utmost importance as per the Hindu religious laws.
She is remembered for her active participation during the Quit India movement. Prior to the Quit India movement, she founded the women’s unit of the INC in 1940 with the intention to increase political awareness among women. “I had to go from state to state, meet the Provincial Congress Committee leaders, meet all the women workers, and set up little women’s units in each state,” she had said.
She was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh, as a member of the Flag Presentation Committee. She was included in the subcommittee which was assigned the task of laying down the charter for the Constitution of India.
Sucheta Kriplani was the epitome of confidence and intellect, she never apprehensive of taking a political stance that different from her husband’s. Both of them broke away from Congress and her husband formed his own party Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party. She won the New Delhi Parliamentary constituency in 1952 from her husband’s party but left his party soon and returned to Congress. In 1957, she won the same seat from Congress’ ticket. This was not the only novel at that time but also revolutionary when asked about their different political allegiances, she said: “What can be a better example of democracy within a family?” Kripalani was a part of several delegations to foreign countries and organization. Talking about Kriplani, Kanchanlata Sabharwal of the then Congress recalled, “A woman, not only in politics, but in other fields as well is always better than a man because she has resilience and affability. Sucheta ji had both in abundance .”
A part of several delegations to foreign countries and organizations such as Parliamentary Delegation to Turkey (1954); International Labour Organization (1961), United Nations General Assembly (1949); and the United Nations Seminar on Civic Responsibility and Increased Participation of Asian Women in Public Life (1956). She also started writing on International policies as she visited a few countries as an Indian delegate.
The eve of independence is famous for India’s Prime Minister’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech, but this is to remember that the session also witnessed Sucheta Kriplani singing Sare Jahan Se Achcha, Vande Mataram as well as the national anthem Jana Gana Mana.
Pulayas were considered untouchables and had to tolerate discrimination by the upper castes in the princely states of Cochin and Travancore. The outdated rules as per which a Pulaya had to keep distance of 64 steps from the upper castes as well as make a particular sound at every four-five steps. An organisation named Pulaya Mahajana Sabha was formed to protest against the restrictions on the movement of the depressed classes. It was this organisation which found a novel way to defy the king’s order which stated that no Dalit organisation could hold a meeting in his land. They held a meeting in a boat affixed to an iron pole in the Vembanad lake. This way the royal decree was not disobeyed and a revolutionary message was sent.
This ‘Meeting on the Backwaters’ was the inspiration for the name of Dakshayani Velayudhan’s memoirs, “THE SEA HAS NO CASTE”. Born in Mulavukad Dakshayani was a member of the Pulaya community. Dakshayani created history by wearing a cloth to cover her upper body and also the first to receive an education. she received love and affection from her parents and never felt like a ‘cast out’. Her mother was her inspiration, she says, “When I started my menstruation, I was nine, during holidays, she sketched and explained what was happening to the body and asked my father to get some sanitary pads to take to school”
She pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, where she was the only girl in the class. She recollected how an upper caste professor didn’t let her touch the experiment equipment and therefore used to watch lab experiments from a distance. She was the first Dalit woman in the state to receive a degree. All this while, she was an active participant in movements based on caste slavery abolition and equality for all.
Her marriage to a Dalit leader was officiated by a leper and attended by both Gandhi and Kasturba. She approached politics as a pragmatic means to overturn and eliminate discrimination. She was nominated to Cochin Legislative Council seat in 1945 and she gave her first speech in English, condemning untouchability and asked for proportionate reservation in panchayats and municipality.
“Down the memory lane of politics” is the title of her political journey, she called her nomination to the Cochin Legislative Assembly as “interesting” and election to the Constituent Assembly as “historic”. She was the only Dalit woman as well as among the youngest in the Constituent Assembly. Dakshayani was criticised for disrupting the assembly sessions by asking way too many questions. She also had to face sexist comments for taking more than her time limit. In response to which, the chairperson stated, “You have exceeded your time limit, I’m only allowing you to speak because you’re a woman”.
She tried to make sure that the constitution provides a ‘new framework of life’ to Indians, she opposed separate electorates or reservations and supported a common national identity for all. Dakshayani said in one of her speeches in the assembly -“As long as the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans or by whatever name they may be called, are economic slaves of other people, there is no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage. Personally speaking, I am not in favour of any kind of reservation in any place whatsoever.” She was of opinion the best way for annihilation of inequality based on caste was through structural changes and continuous state propaganda.
Even though she was an ardent follower of both, Ambedkar and Gandhi, she didn’t blindly follow all their stances rather used to challenge their views based on her own convictions. She organised a national conference of Dalit women in 1977 and formed Mahila Jagriti Parishad (MPJ), which was attended by over 200 Dalit women.
At the age of 8 she was married to her cousin, Subba Rao. She decided to leave him in order to pursue her education and her family supported her in this decision. Durgabai ended her own child marriage and in doing so she embraced herself to go through the journey of India’s freedom struggle, constitution making as well as emancipation of women. She was 12 years old when she learnt that Gandhi was to visit Kakinada and she wanted him to address a gathering of Devadasis and Muslim women. Her want or so to as her wish, in itself is proof enough of what she was going to become, a trailblazer.
The caveat to do the same was that she was to collect five thousand rupees. She was able to do so with the help of her Devadasi friends as well as found a venue at a time when hosting Gandhi’s meeting meant imprisonment. Her childhood reflects her nationalist feelings and there were various instances where she proved her patriotism.
She left her school as a sign of protest against English language education and even began the Balika Hindi Paathshala to promote Hindi education. Volunteering at a khadi exhibition in pre independence times, she denied Jawaharlal Nehru to enter without a ticket, eventually he had to go back.
The title of her autobiography “Chintaman and I” was inspired by her husband. She got married to Chintaman Deshmukh, who later became the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank of India as well as the Finance Minister in India’s Central Cabinet during 1950-1956.
She was an active participant of the independence struggle but found time to complete her education. She did her B.A and her M.A in Political Science in the 1930s from Andhra University. In 1942 she obtained her Law degree from Madras University and practised as an advocate. The freedom struggle became her training ground. She played significant role in the Satyagraha movement and was arrested for the same, spent nearly three years in jail. A revolutionary freedom fighter, a dedicated social activist and an proficient lawyer, Durgabai reached new heights which no one imagined.
During her imprisonment she witnessed the conditions because of which many illiterate women were jailed for the offenses she didn’t commit, but they end up confessing due to lack of awareness and education. This became a motivational force for her to become a criminal lawyer and dedicate herself to the cause of women empowerment. She initiated adult literacy programmes for widows, deprived or abandoned women and later on founded Andhra Mahila Sabha, an organisation which worked for women across various fields. A true Gandhian, she propagated his ideology and views by setting up schools for women, training them in spinning and weaving. She also translated his speeches to Tamil so that his message could be disseminated as much as possible in her hometown.
As a part of the Constituent Assembly elected from the Madras Province, she was the only female member of the Panel of Chairmen in the Constituent Assembly. She made key contributions to the debates, defending women’s property rights under the Hindu Code Bill, judiciary’s independence, Hindustani as the national language as well as lowering the age for candidates to council of states from 35 to 30. She also argued for neutrality of governors, high standard of films and expressed her dissent towards human trafficking. She reportedly moved 750 amendments through her Constituent Assembly career.
“ The purpose of a democratic constitution is to find a device and to establish a machinery to find out the general will of the people and also to give scope for the general will to prevail.” She said while talking about the democratic credentials of the constitution and went on to add “It is a people’s Constitution and a Constitution which gives free and ample scope to the people of India to make experiments in socialism or any other ism in which they believe would make this country prosperous and happy.”
Post this, she held various significant positions and represented India internationally. She became a member of the Planning Commission, she garnered support for development of national policy on social welfare which led to the establishment of Central Social Welfare Board in 1953. The Government of India established the National Council on Women’s Education in 1958 and Durgbai was its first chairperson. She was also one of the leading advocates of family courts in India, an idea which was inspired from her travels as an Indian delegate to different countries.In the same year she headed the National Committee on Girls’ and Women’s Education. She also represented India in the World Food Congress held in Washington DC in 1963.
Indira Gandhi gave her the title of ‘Mother of Social Work in India’, many call her the ‘Iron Lady’ while others a ‘born leader’. She was awarded the Nehru Literary Award in 1971 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1975. She was also given Paul G Hoffman Award and UNESCO Award (for outstanding work in the field of literacy). The Central Social Welfare Board introduced a yearly award to recognize voluntary organisations for her exemplary contribution to women’s welfare and empowerment in her name.
Born on 2nd October 1900 in Assam, her family hailed from erstwhile Dhaka. Her father, Rai Bahadur Girish Chandra Nag was a deputy magistrate full of fearless patriotic spirit and her mother, Kunjalata who taught Leela to be selfless and gallant. Her home served as a temple of patriotism and devotion. Apart from her parents, she was influenced by Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Sister Nivedita.
Her school education was completed in Dhaka and she graduated from Bethune College in 1921, where she was awarded the Padmabati Gold Medal for her excellent performance. Subsequently she became first woman to attain an MA from the University of Dhaka in 1923. While she was student at the Dhaka University she contacted Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose as he was involved in relief work post the Bengal floods of 1921. She formed the Dhaka Women’s Committee and raised donations and relief goods to provide help to him.
She completed her studies at the time of Non cooperation and Satyagraha movements were taking place throughout the country. in such a scenario she was trying to crave a niche for herself by defying the age old norms of gender division which were at the fore of the freedom struggle at that very moment. Highlighting the critical role that Leela Roy played in discarding the perception of masculinity attached to politics, S.D Gupta, the author of a paper on the Nationalist-Feminist movement said “that women’s role in the struggle against colonial masters had to necessarily be tailored in a way that would complement her roles as ‘mistress of the house’ and the ‘mother of man’, for picketing of liquor or foreign cloth shops and for spinning and weaving of khadi*.”
Along with her twelve friends she founded the Deepali Sangha in 1923 which focused on women’s all round development. Then she founded several Girl’s free primary schools such as Nari Siksha Mandir, Siksha Bhavan, Siksha Niketan and New High School. Leela also enabled women in attaining vocational training and organised Dipali exhibition for the same. She also contributed to Muslim women’s education and Qamrunnessa Girls’ School in Dhaka was an effort in the same direction.
In 1925, joined Sree Sangha- a well known revolutionary group and was the first female member to be a part of the “all male party”. She formed Deepali Chhatri Sangha, a student wing of the same. ‘Mahila Atma Raksha Fund was set up and was one of the first sel defense groups in the region as well as ‘Gana Shiksha Parishad’ for dissemination of female education at mass level. Founder-editor of a women centric magazine, named by Rabindranath Tagore as ‘Jayasree’ in 1931 was managed and handled by women. She was detained under Bengal Ordinance Act from Dhaka and was the first female detainee. She was imprisoned in different places from 1931 to 1938. Subhas Chandra Bose became the President of All India Congress and she became a Member of the Women’s Sub-Committee of the National Planning Commission. Then in 1939 when Netaji started the Forward Bloc Party in 1939, Leela Roy was one of the core members. She went on to become the editor of ‘Forward Bloc Weekly’ founded & edited by Subhas Chandra Bose. She was
Leela Roy was again arrested in 1942 due to her participation in the Quit India movement and after her release in 1948 she was elected as the member of the Constituent Assembly, the only woman member from Bengal to be elected .
The Calcutta and Noakhali riots of 1946 led her to set up National Service Institute and she immersed herself in relief work as well as Jatiya Mahila Sanghati – a women’s organization at Dhaka and Calcutta
. She resigned from the Constituent Assembly as she vehemently opposed India’s partition. Post which she formed East Bengal Minority Welfare Central Committee, working for destitute as well as abandoned women and tried to help refugees from East Bengal.
She along with her close associates merged Forward Bloc with Praja Socialist Party. Hence became the Chairperson of the West Bengal State Praja Socialist Party, a new political party. She was imprisoned for the last time due to her participation in the ‘Save East Bengal’ movement in 1964.
The survival of the institutions she established in Bengal and Bangladesh are witnesses of her devotion and belief to create an educated women power. Her life was dedicated to forming a new feminism and her work provided women to walk on that path which can be clearly perceived from the editiorial board of Jayashree which declared that “Women’s magazines meant household tips, cooking, sewing, knitting and so on. We wanted to stay away from all that. Ours was an endeavour for Indian independence—a journal through which women could express their own views and spread political awareness. Jayashree created space for many such views to be aired. We at ‘Deepali Sangha’ always made it a point to take up projects that would require women to come out of their walled existence and participate in public activities.”
In 1941, M.A Jinnah who was the leader of Muslim league asked Begum Aizaz Rasul why she didn’t join the League, when so many people were. Her response was that the idea of Pakistan didn’t convince her. Qudsia was the only Muslim woman to be a part of the Constituent Assembly.
She was born in a royal family and her father was Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Khan as Qudsia. Her father encouraged her to live a liberal and modern life, not restrict her to the religious rules and laws. She got married to a young taluqdar (landowner) Nawaab Aizaz Rasul. Soon after the enactment of Government of India Act 1935, Begum along with her husband entered electoral politics. And in 1937 elections, she won from a non-reserved seat and became a member of the U.P legislative assembly. This was truly praiseworthy as at that time most political positions were seen as reserved for men and that too winning from a province like United Provinces, she indeed proved to be a firebrand leader.
Even though she was married to a landowner, she was a critic of the zamindari system and supported farmer’s rights. During her tenure, she was leader of opposition and deputy president, she held her seat till 1952.
She formally gave up her purdah in 1937 during her first election. In her autobiography, “From Purdah to Parliament” she recalls “There was much propaganda against me, specially a ‘Fatwa’ by the Ulemas that it was un-Islamic to vote for a non-purdah Muslim woman,”
As a part of the Constituent Legislative Assembly, she was elected as the Deputy Leader of the Delegation and the Deputy Leader of Opposition. She was a staunch critic of separate electorates for Muslims and described the idea as “self-destructive weapon which separates the minority from the majority for all the time…. 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.” On the other hand, she also introduced an amendment in their interest,
for any minority residing in any part of India “having a distinct language or script shall be entitled to have primary education imparted to the children through the medium of that language and script”.
She moved several amendments such as need for substantial time for ministers to hold office, supported India’s membership to the Commonwealth, was apprehensive of curbs put on to the Fundamental Rights as well as spoke in favour of naming the Parliament as Congress as well as making Hindustani the national language. During the discussion around government’s power to acquire property, Rasul highlighted the need for ensuring ‘just compensation’. She also spoke of applying the Swiss method and a single non-transferable vote. Begum’s speeches had simplicity, optimism as well as made the desired impact.
Begum Aizaz Rasul held several significant positions both prior to and post independence. She served as Member of Rajya Sabha in 1952 and as member of UP Legislative Assembly from 1969-90, where she also was the Minister of Social Welfare (1969-71). She was also the Vice-President of Uttar Pradesh Women’s Food Council as well as theIndian Red Cross Society. Due to her keen interest in sports, she served as the President of the Indian Women Hockey Federation , a post she held for 20 years and was also President of the Asian Women’s Hockey Federation.
She travelled as well, as the member of Prime Minister’s Goodwill Delegation to Japan in 1953 and Indian Parliamentary Delegation to Turkey in 1955. She was a literary enthusiast and has authored many books and articles. In the year 2000, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her contribution to the society. Her spirit and her itch to see reforms in her country, her hope to see a better India where women were not just seen as wives, is summed up in this quote which she said to her husband-
“After my debut in politics and when I came out of purdah, I had told my husband that I would not accept invitations from people who kept their ladies in purdah. This applied to both Hindus and Muslims as most of the taluqdars did not bring out their wives.”
In response to her speech given in Bombay, Gandhi in a letter to her in 1946, wrote:
“Even otherwise, I know that you have no control over your tongue and when you stand up to speak, you blab anything that comes to your mind. This speech also is quite a specimen, if the newspaper report is correct. I have sent the report to Bhai Thanu Pillai. You can read it. Such indiscreet talk can do good neither to you nor to the poor people of Travancore. Besides, by your act, you put the whole fair sex to shame”.
Gandhi ji also wrote to Pattom Thanu Pillai, member of the Travancore State Congress probing him to re-evaluate her role as co-minister in the Kerala Legislative Assembly.
This fiery and bold personality of Annie Mascarene was evident in her speeches even though they were categorized as provocative as they were coming from the “fairer sex”. Due to her courageous and outspoken temperament she had many face offs with the law. She served 18 months imprisonment 1938 for sedition, 2 years in 1942 for inflammatory speech and 6 months in 1946 for supposedly spreading rumours that provoked violence.
Unapologetic and powerful, she was born on 6th of June in 1902, into a Latin Catholic family in the Travancore State of India. She pursued a double masters in History and Economics in Travancore. She later moved to Sri Lanka to work as a lecturer. On her return to India she completed her LLB degree from Thiruvananthapuram. She played a crucial role and fought to integrate and fortify Travancore’s position in the newly independent India.
In 1942, she became a part of the Quit India Movement and two years later was elected as secretary of the Travancore State Congress. The British in response attacked life and property of Mascarene and her allies. She was also a firm believer of women’s representation and demanded for the same in the 1940’s in order to break the chauvinist barriers of politics. She received a fair share of sexism throughtout her career as politics was associated with masculinity.
After joining the Constituent Assembly, she addressed the speakers of the house, and said, “On behalf of those few ladies here, I hope that you will give us sufficient protection and opportunities for expressing our opinion in this House”. Though she believed that centralization of power was necessary for a democracy to function, she argued that too much of centralization could lead to democracy being transformed. She demanded for partial provincial autonomy and said that the centre cannot assume to be the complete “custodian of justice”. She held the opinion that India is still discovering itself and rules should not be set in stone as it will impede her development and therefore made this statement in the assembly-
“We are here laying down principles – rudimentary principles – of democracy, not for the coming election but for days to come, for generations, for the nation. Therefore principles of ethics are more suitable to be considered now than principles of expediency. I am a believer in politics as nothing but ethics writ large.”
Her being an outspoken and bold woman made it difficult to succeed in politics, she had quite a few tiffs, one was with the dewan of Travancore and another instance was where she accused the Minister of Public Works – John E Philipose for corruption while working in Chief Minister Parur T.K Narayana’s ministry.
She was the first woman post-independence to serve as a Minister in the state (1949), as she was appointed as Minister in Charge of Health and Power in the Parur T K Narayana Pillai Ministry. Mascarene was elected as an independent candidate in the First Lok Sabha, 1951. She was the first woman MP from Kerala and comprised one of 10 elected to Parliament in those elections, she spoke about women under representation in politics. Her career took a down turn after her unsuccessful attempt in the 1957 Lok Sabha elections.
In a dominion like politics which was seen as masculine and earmarked for men, Annie Mascarene with her unflinching speeches made sure that her voice was heard. She was influential not just in bringing onto fore Travancore and provincial autonomy but also uplifting women.
At the age of 13, Ammu agreed to marry Subbarama Swaminathan, her late father’s close associate who was twenty years senior to her. When Swaminathan suggested marriage to her, she said yes but put down a few conditions of her own. These were shifting to Madras, getting an English education and that nobody is to ask her what time she would reach home as her brothers are not asked that question. Though Swaminathan’s family were against this prospect as he was marrying outside of his caste, but they both got married .
Affectionately called as Ammukutty, she was born in Palakkad district of Kerala in 1894 to Govinda Menon and Anakkara Vadakath Ammuamma and received informal education at home. Ammu had four children herself, who were given equal education as well as freedom to choose their careers. Her daughter, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal became a crucial part of Indian National Army fromed by Subash Chandra Bose and her youngest child, Mrinalini Sarabhai became a famous dancer.
In 1914, Ammu became politically conscious and later in 1919 formed the Women’s India Association along with other women leaders. It was one of the first organisations to speak of constitutional rights for women as well as adult franchise. It also tackled social issues such as child marriage and devadasi practice. Representations on equality of voting rights were made before the Montague Chelmsford Commission, 1917 and Southborough Commission in 1918.
Joined Congress in 1934 and actively participated in the Quit India Movement in 1942, as a result of which she was imprisoned for an year. Even during her jail time, she stoop up against caste system and condemned the behaviour of people towards lower castes. On such instance took place in 1943 in the Vellore jail when she heard one of the inmates calling a worker by “Shudrachi” (lower caste) and Ammu replied “I am a Shudrachi too. Say what you want.” Another instance of her courage was her open criticism of Nehru’s responding to the title of “Panditji”.
Her fearlessness reflected not just in her thoughts but actions too, which were apparent all throughout her political career. She was fascinated with elegant and cursive writing and maintained detailed diary entries of her foreign trips, wrote about the “scary storms” and “at the amount of milk a cow gave”, things which amazed her. Being a die-hard feminist and watching her strong mother take care of her and her siblings after father’s demise she despised practices which widowed women were to follow such as having to shave heads, wear white saris and break their bangles after their husbands’ death.
As a part of the Constituent Assembly, though she opposed caste based discrimination completely but her support for equality of status and abolishment of untouchablity was absolute, said “Hindus have always been known to be tolerant towards all religions”. She vehemently fought for the Sarda Act as well as many other Hindu Code Bills, as someone who went through child marriage herself she argued for reforms in religious laws. In her speech when the draft constitution was presented in 1949, she optimistically said “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.”
Her only criticisism for the constitution was that it became a “long and bulky volume” with too many details. Post independence she was politicaly active and was elected as Lok Sabha member from 1950-1957 as well as member of Rajya Sabha from 1957-1960. While being an MP she also pushed for maternity benefits for women. In 1959, an ardent movie buff, she served as Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies. Later she presided over the CBFC and the Bharat Scouts and Guides. She also went to Russia, USA, China and Ethiopia as a goodwill ambassador.
She was a strong willed feminist since a young age and mirrored her faith in equality in her activities as a social reformer and political leader. Her undeniable strength and valour are seen in her stances against injustice taking place around her.
Her granddaughter Subhashini recalled that Ammu once scolded her ,”What kind of a grand-daughter of mine are you?” as she mentioned that she will ask for her husband’s suggestion on what sari she must wear. “I have never seen a woman like her —– so independent and fierce.”
A feminist story writer and a key participant of India’s freedom struggle, Kamla Chaudhry was born in a prosperous family in Lucknow on 22nd February 1908. Her family’s loyalties lied with the imperial government. Even though she belonged to a affluent background, she struggled to complete her education. As a young child she witness discrimination and oppression of women which formed the basis of her literary career in the later years. She married J.M Chaudhry in 1923.
She became politically active in 1930, siding away from her family’s beliefs and became a part of the Indian National Congress. She participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement and continued to be a part of the freedom movement till the very end, enduring imprisonment as well in this journey.
She was an elected member of the Constituency Board of India and hence played an important part in the drafting of the Constitution as well. later served as the member of Provincial Government of India as well as the Senior Vice President of All India Congress Committee in its 54th session. She held various significant positions at the City Congress Committee, District Congress Committee, Provincial Mahila Congress Committee throughout her career.
A keen observer she captured the essence of women’s life and their inner world in her stories. Her writings fundamentally were courageous as well as interesting focusing on the social activities of those times. She highlighted the trauma women go through and how traditional culture binds girls in shackles. Her stories covered themes such as female desires, mental health of women, discrimination, and widowhood. As such subjects were not openly discussed at that time, her books were not that valued even though they depicted the reality and made the reader question the society.
She later also wrote stories on India’s birth as a new nation in the post independence era.
An ardent follower of Gandhi’s principles one of her notable books is titled “Gandhi Ban Jau”. Unmaad (Passion)-1934, Picnic -1936, Yatra (Journey)-1947 and Bel Patra (Leaf Letter) are her most renowned story collections.
An advocate of women empowerment, she worked for their upliftment by providing them employment opportunities through Khadi and village industries as well as tried to improve the condition of education for girls by connecting the villages/backward areas with educational institutions.
A woman of words, who used them to forge a way forward for gender equality, her life is an example of chasing one’s goals and striding ahead no matter what.
Known as “Mother of Odisha”, called “Numa” by her followers and nicknamed as “Toophani” by Mahatma Gandhi, Malati Choudhury was a force to be reckoned with.
Born on 26th July 1904 in East Bengal, her father dies when she was two years old and was raised by her mother Snehlata Sen. Malati chose to work on the ground and help people, away from formal politics even though her family was packed with politicians.
She completed her education at Shantiniketan where was admitted to Viswa- Bharati. Tagore’s values and teachings shaped her personality and embedded in her the feeling of patriotism. He affectionately called her “Minu” and the six years she spent at Shantiniketan shaped her identity. As a student she had an outgoing personality and participated in various activities at school. She met her husband, Nabakrushna Choudhury in Shantiniketan and got married in 1927. He went on to become the Chief Minister of Odisha and thereby the couple shifted there. It was here in Odisha that Malati worked at length with the farmers and started creating means of rural development as well as education and empowerment of all. She joined Indian National Congress along with her husband and participated in the Salt Satyagraha. She set up Mahila Bahini along with Rama Devi post this.
Malati played a significant part in the peasants uprising in Odisha in 1930s and also established Utkal Provisional Kisan Sabha. The Krisaka Andolan was led by her and the speeches she made proved to be influencial in mobilisation of people against the government. Along with organising literacy campaigns, she financed the publication of “Sarathi” which was an Oriya weekly discusiing the farmers’ conditions.
Utkal Congress Samajvadi Karmi Sangh, later known as Orissa Provincial Branch of the All India Congress Socialist Party was formed by Malati and her husband in 1933. It was a Marxist organisation aimed at unifying workers against oppressive forces such as casteism and untouchability. Both of them donated their house to the organisation and Malati sold her jewellery to provide funds.
Due to her increased popularity, Malati played an important role in Gandhi’s padyatra in Odisha in 1934. She organised charka spinning movements and civil disobedience marches against the capitalist forces in different regions. She was arrested during her marches several times (1921, 1930, 1936, 1942). She even went to the jail without any hesitation with her two-year-old Uttara on her lap. Bajiraut Chhatravas was established in 1946 with an aim to educate children of freedom fighters, backward classes and under privileged sections of the society and Utkal Navajeevan Mandal set up in 1948 focused on rural development and tribal welfare in Orissa. Both of these institutions were set up by Malati Choudhary.
She was selected as a member of Constituent Assembly of India and also became the President of the Orissa Pradesh Congress Committee. Though she quit the assembly soon to work with Gandhi in Naokhali and focus on her work with tribals, farmers and Dalits.
In a letter which was wriiten 25 years after the assembly first met, she explained how she felt unfit for the job. She recalls feeling like a ‘helpless school student’ sitting at the last bench. She was unable to grasp the elite nature of Constitution framing and thought that it will not reflect the voices of the marginalised classes.
She writes “when the eminent jurists like Shri Gopalswamy Ayangar, Shri Ambedkar, Munshiji, Durgaben Desmukh, sitting in the first row, were found busy in writing the Constitution of our country collecting materials from the constitutions of different countries, I, sitting in the last row, was feeling like a helpless school student. The thought crossed my mind that I did not have a place in the Constituent Assembly. The attempt to write the Constitution of our country by borrowing from the constitutions of other countries did not appear to me proper”. With CPI leader, Nagabhushan Patnaik she set up a Civil Liberties Organisation in the 60s which was a novel concept to understand at that time. She was also amongst the first to raise her voice against killings of Naxalites.
During the draconian Emergency proclaimation in 1975, Malati protested against Indira Gandhi which resulted in her imprisonment.
Due to her relentless work for the society she received various awards over the course of time such as The National Award for Child Welfare in 1987, Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1988, Utkal Seva Sammaan in 1994, and The Tagore Literacy Award in 1995 as well as many others. She declined to take Jamnalal Bajaj Award from the then PM Rajiv Gandhi as she was of opinion that he didn’t propagate the ideas and views of Gandhi ji. Born into a family of politicians, she left the comfort of her house to fight against the oppressive system. She toiled and worked for the people at the ground and ushered towards socialism. Thereby, working with and for the people..
Daughter of Satish Chandra Mukherjee, an ICS officer, and Charulata Mukherjee, a social worker and member of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), Renuka Ray belonged to a prominent family. Every person in her family had a first to their name. Born on 4th January 1903, she received her education from Loretto House School and Diocesan College, Calcutta. Ray was an ardent follower of India’s independent struggle from her teen days, she met Gandhi at the age of 16 and was tremendously influenced by him. So much so that she boycotted the British Education System in order to join his call for action. Later, she went back to finish her education on Gandhi’s persistence. She went to Kensington School and the London School of Economics to pursue a B.A.
After her return to India, she joined AIWC and worked with determination for women’s rights and inheritance rights in parental property. As AIWC’s legal secretary in 1934, she submitted a document ‘Legal Disabilities of Women in India; A Plea for a Commission of Enquiry’ which depicted their vow to legitimately review the situation of women under the Law in India. In 1952 she became the President of the AIWC and also became a part of the Planning Commission and served on the governing body of Visva Bharati University in Shanti Niketan.
Once on her visit of different coal mines of the Jharia Coal Belt, she was horrified to see the kind of working conditions women were employed in. with her colleagues she drew up a report demanding that women should not be allowed to continue working in such hazardous occupations. She closely worked on prevention of women trafficking and the condition of women labourers.
Ray argued that the women’s movement in India was profoundly different from the movement in the West. As the Indian movement focused more on restoration of rights rather than establishment of rights, which women enjoyed in the past.
She served as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly from 1943 to 1946, then of the Constituent Assembly as well as the Provisional Parliament. She was the Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation, in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1952-57. In 1957 and later in 1962 she became member of Lok Sabha. She played a significant role in the famine in Bengal and brought a ray of hope to hundreds of stranded girls and women, affording them relief in rescue homes.
In 1959, she also presided over a committee on Social Welfare and Welfare of Backward Classes, which is popularly known as Renuka Ray Committee. This committee recommended that the Ministry of Home Affairs should have a separate department for backward classes.
As a member elected to the Constituent Assembly from West Bengal, she made her stance clear on different issues through her well-informed speeches such as women’s rights- equality and justice for women, devdasi system, human trafficking, minority’s rights and bicameral legislature provision. She also held secularism as an extremely important ideal and her views reflected the same. She asserted, “We have never stood nor do we stand today for Hindu domination; we do not want that Hindus as such as a religious community shall override any other interests.”
Like the various other women in the assembly, she too was against reservation of seats for women, “When Mahatma Gandhi gave his call so specifically to the women of this country to take part in the national movement, all the social barriers of centuries broke down.” She also made clear in her speeches that it is essential to uphold socialist beliefs and ideals to make sure that the economy blooms, reflecting her anti-capitalist stance.
She supported the view in the assembly that social laws of marriage and inheritance of different communities should not have any discrimination attached to sex or caste, was in favour of bring state-recognised institutions under government control, and that citing salaries to be given to officials in the constitution would be inappropriate with respect to the modern times, as money value was bound to change.
Ray also set up All Bengal Women’s Union in and was one of the founding members of the Women Co-ordinating Council, under which several women’s organisations worked together especially during the time of emergencies.
Her political career continued post-independence as well and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1988. Her memoir is titled ‘My Reminiscences: Social Development During Gandhian Era And After’. The Telegraph in their review noted that the book provided “a broad view of Indian social development through the first decade of the 20th century till the Seventies”.
The name Purnima was given by Rabindranath Tagore and she was nicknamed ‘Norah’ by the Nehru family. Born in 1911 to Bengali family in 1911, her elder sister Aruna Asaf Ali was a renowned freedom fighter.
Purnima Banerji was the symbol of grit and determination. She was a part of Congress since its formation and was the secretary of INC’s city committee in Allahabad. She was deeply involved in organising trade unions, kisan meetings as her role as the secretary. She actively took part in the 24 day Dandi March in 1930 and in 1941 along with Sucheta Kriplani started individual satyagraha. This led to her imprisonment then and later in 1942, for the Quit India Movement. her imprisonment didn’t stop her from taking her B.A. exam, which she appeared for from the jail. She was an ardent socialist and her Marxist ideologies diversified the philosophical umbrella of Congress.
Purnima Banerjee was a committed socialist as well as a Gandhian, which was reflected in her speeches and interventions in the Constituent Assembly. She demanded that “right to livelihood and right to earning honourable bread” along with education be made a part of the Fundamental Rights. States control over religious teaching and instruction in schools, appreciation of other’s religion as well as point of view, no discrimination in state aided/state educational institutions, these were some of the focal points of her vision.
‘All religious education given in educational institutions receiving Statewide will be in the nature of the elementary philosophy of comparative religions calculated to broaden the pupils’ mind rather than such as will foster sectarian exclusiveness.‘
Other important subjects she argued upon were rights of the detained, limits to preventive detention, and if the detainee is the earning member of the family then a maintenance allowance should be provided, education planning, and qualifications of Rajya Sabha members. She also wanted salt to be a gift for free India and thereby recommended that it should be kept duty free. An advocate of freedom of expression and association, she argued that these must not be circumscribed under any situation.
Her significant argument came during the discussion on preventive detention, where she stated that “any form of detention of persons without trial is obnoxious to the whole idea of democracy and to our whole way of thinking”,
Banerji believed that ultimate sovereignty lies with the people and therefore suggested that the term “sovereign” be removed from the Preamble, which was not agreed upon by the other members. She also wanted salt to be a gift for free India and thereby recommended that it should be kept duty free. According to her, Constitution is a means to achieve a just society, nevertheless it depends on the people who are in power to take our society to glory.
Like her other colleagues, she too was not in favour of reservations of seats for women but she did demand that seats previously held by women if vacant should be returned to women candidates.
She is remembered for leading the chorus in singing Jana Gana Mana post its official adoption as the national anthem on January 24th, 1950.
One of the most fascinating but surprising facts about Purnima is that there are no pictures/paintings of her available on the internet. Hence we resort to this collective picture of women from the constituent assembly.