By Ila Ananya
I don’t remember ever reading about the women who helped draft the Indian Constitution in history class in school. Of the 299 members who drafted the Constitution (a process that took 2 years, 11 months and 17 days), 15 women were a part of the deliberations. Beyond fighting for freedom, they fought against child marriage, the practice of women being used as Devadasis, and for women’s education and minority rights — but who were these women?
There had been no women in constituent assemblies in any country around the world before this. Many of them were part of the All India Women’s Conference, and women like Hansa Mehta, who was part of the constituent assembly from 1946-1949, was also the President of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). Here, she drafted the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties that demanded women be treated equal to men, be given civic rights, education and health, equal pay, and the equal distribution of property.
And then there were also women like Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who represented Indian women internationally, and was responsible for asserting India’s foreign policy. For 15 years, she went from Russia to the US, to Mexico, Great Britain, Ireland and Spain, and was also the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.
Each of these women did all kinds of things and seem to have understood the changes happening in India in different ways. Some, like Leela Roy, who resigned from her post to protest India’s Partition a few months after she joined, worked for women’s suffrage through the All Bengal Association. In 1923, she had gone on to start Deepali Sangha, a women’s group that taught social and political awareness to women.
Not all of them were uncritical of the Constitution and the process of drafting it. “The attempt to write the Constitution of our country by borrowing from the constitutions of other countries did not appear to me proper,” wrote Malati Devi Choudhury — who Gandhi called ‘Toofani’ — in a letter from her diary, which she wrote 25 years after the assembly first met. Her discomfort with the constitution came from strongly believing that despite adult franchise, the Constitution would not give the uneducated and poor a voice. She went on to Orissa to begin a series of measures in rural areas.
You can read more about women like Purnima Banerji and Dakshayani Velayudhan in Priya Ravichandran’s cool blog 15 for the Republic.
“Dakshayani Velayudhan was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. She served as a member of the assembly, and as a part of the provisional parliament of India from 1946-1952. At 34, she was also one of the youngest members of the assembly, ” writes Ravichandran. This and other amazing details in her blog.
You can read our interview with Ravichandran here.