In 1950, the Indian Constitution came into being – 299 members deliberated for 2 years, 11 months and 17 days, discussing and debating not just Indian citizens’ duties, but questions of rights, freedom and equality. Fifteen of those members were women, but history textbooks tell us very little about the women whose contribution to building a free India was significant and wide-ranging.
That’s where the blog 15 For the Republic: Women Architects of the Indian Constitution comes in. It was started by Priya Ravichandran, a Chennai-based researcher and member of the Takshashila Foundation, who felt that history focuses on stalwarts like Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Patel, or social reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, but tells us little about the Purnima Banerjis, the Dakshayani Velayudhans and the Hansa Mehtas who have had a tremendous impact on the country’s future.
Ravichandran, who likens her role in this project to being a palanquin-bearer from Sarojini Naidu’s poem of the same name, set about researching each of the fifteen women in an attempt to find out more about them – their lives, their work, and what became of them after their political careers. Ravichandran is quick to point out on her blog that hers is “not a scholarly pursuit”, but rather that her blog is a valuable introduction to the women whose names rarely find mention when talking about the framing of the Constitution and the laying of the country’s foundation. Two posts are up so far: the first about Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the Constituent Assembly, who worked to make untouchability illegal; the second about Hansa Mehta, whose vision of human rights found its way into the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. The remaining will be staggered over the next few months, with the last one going up by August 15 this year.
We spoke to Ravichandran over the phone from Chennai to chat about her fascinating endeavour.
What got you started on the project?
From April 2012 I’ve been reading about the drafting of the Constitution, and was pleasantly surprised by the speeches I read by women members of the Constituent Assembly. The Rajya Sabha had just published a selection of a few women’s speeches in the Assembly online. I knew that there were women freedom fighters, but the women members I was reading about here were looking beyond just freedom fighting. They fought against the practice of women being used as Devadasis; against practices like police detention and child marriage; they fought for women’s education and minority rights; for legislation such as the Sarda Act; they sought to move conversations about rights beyond the elite – and I found it fascinating.
In textbooks, when we are told about the people who built India, we are told about Ambedkar, Nehru, Gandhi, but rarely about the women who contributed too. We might know of Sarojini Naidu and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, but there were other women who played a significant role in envisioning the country’s future (and did much more than standing around singing Vande Mataram, which is how I guess we tend to imagine them). Women like Durgabai Deshmukh, a lawyer, politician and social worker, or Hansa Mehta, a writer, educator and human rights activist, whose interests were varied and valuable, as their speeches to the Constituent Assembly showed.
All I knew about most of the 15 women involved in drafting the Constitution was from their speeches, but I wanted to learn about their backstories – not just their role in shaping the country, but what their lives were like before they got to the Constituent Assembly and what they did afterwards.
I thought it would be nice to put these stories together – these were women waiting to make their mark on the world, they wanted to shape India’s narrative and their contributions were so significant, but few noticed them.
There were 299 members of the Constituent Assembly, only 15 of whom were women. Even for its time, was that a very low number of women to have?
15 may not seem like such a small number given that we didn’t know of these women at all, and given that there had been no women in constituent assemblies around the world before then. But for its time, it is a low number, considering the number of Indian women who had been involved in the independence movement and were a part of every aspect of it, starting from the protests against the Simon Commission set up to study constitutional reform in 1928.
Women got voting rights very grudgingly, it’s true, but in some parts of India they’d had it quite early: Madras in 1921 had given voting rights to wealthy and educated women. Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur had even witnessed the suffragette movement in other parts of the world, and India had given women the right to vote much before others. Given that, it is a low number.
On your blog, you talk about the criticisms the women received of being the ‘wrong’ gender for politics. You mention “tasteless jibes that called for protection against women for men”. What were these jibes?
Some women members were allowed to speak beyond their allotted time – their male colleagues allowed them to because they were women. But some of the comments made about women were surprising, because nationally, the kind of power these women had was not to be sneezed at.
Few of the jibes were actually terrible, but one incident stood out for me as being a particularly in-your-face sexist moment.
In the Constituent Assembly debate on November 22, 1949, when the debates were nearly through, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri, a male member of the Assembly from Assam, affiliated to the Congress, said he wanted the Constitution to include protection from cows and women:
“It is the foolish man who wishes to give them votes and send them to the legislatures and thus create troubles […]. We really need protection against women because in every sphere of life they are now trying to elbow us out. In the offices, in the legislatures, in the embassies, in everything they try to elbow us out. They succeed for two reasons: one, our exaggerated sense of courtesy, and then because of their having some influence in the ear of those persons who have authority.”
You mention that your aim in writing this series is to bring greater attention to women who contributed significantly to India’s history, and to push for a more inclusive study of history. What has the research process been like? Given that they aren’t usually mentioned in history books, has information about these 15 women been hard to dig up?
Some of the women have been easier to look up – some of them have done work so extensive that there is plenty of information available on them. Hansa Jivraj Mehta, for example, was easier to research because she was a public figure and made speeches to the UN.
Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first woman I made a post about on the blog, was much harder to write about because there was no direct source that I could turn to. I had to depend on reading about Kerala’s history for a better sense of the times she lived in.
It’s been particularly hard to get a sense of these women’s personalities just from their speeches. I’m also limited in a sense by geography – I’m based in Chennai, and have to rely on the information I can find online, or that I can get from lawyers whom I’ve spoken to, who’ve studied this particular area. Some of the women may not have said much during the Constituent Assembly debates, but might have during the sub-committee meetings on Language or Fundamental Rights, for example, the minutes of which are not available online as far as I know. So that took some extra searching for.
There are still two people about whom I haven’t found anything at all, and three people whose contribution to the debates I haven’t yet figured out. But some of this might just have to do with variations in the spelling of their names in different places, and I’ll have to modify my searches.
What about these women did you find particularly fascinating or inspiring?
All of them are very inspirational. You see the work they’ve done, the effort, the heart they’ve put into it. I wish we could have at least roads named after them – that would force us to think about them and learn their names. Their ideas were futuristic, and they seemed to understand the changes happening around them in the country much more clearly than the men. Many of the issues they discussed during the Constituent Assembly debates were issues they had already been working on during the freedom movement. Begum Aizaz Rasool spoke about purdah and a uniform civil code, and Hansa Mehta was amazingly vocal when it came to fighting for women’s rights. Sections from her charter of rights for Indian women, created in 1927, were later adopted into the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, and she was eventually appointed to the UN’s Human Rights Council. She had the phrase “All men are born free and equal” in the Declaration changed to “All human beings are born free and equal”. Some, like Mehta, were speaking on an international stage, putting India on the map.
It’s hard to believe that almost 70 years after these debates were held, we’re still talking about some of the same topics: the question of reservations and justice for women remains. In some way I wonder if the women’s movement has not moved beyond that little cocoon that they built. During the Constituent Assembly debates, interestingly, many of the women members did not want reservations for women – political, social and economic justice was their goal.
What I find most inspirational is that these women had the confidence to be themselves, to say this is who we are and this is what we do. Nothing in the accounts of their lives says that these women had to fight to be political, or fight to be able to leave home to work. Was it that they didn’t have these battles at all – was it the times that allowed them to do this – or that these were never recorded?
Social activist and political worker Ammu Swaminathan, among whose children were the Indian National Army doctor Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal and the dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, had two conditions for marriage. One, that she would be allowed to study and work even after she was married. And two, that she could come home whenever she wished and could not be questioned about it. (She wanted the Constitution document to be so small that it could fit in one’s pocket and be easy to carry around, to widen its reach and accessibility.)
The more I read about Durgabai Deshmukh, the more I’ve grown to love her as a person, she is one of my favourites. But this is really because there’s a lot more about her available to be read – a lot is known about her work and personality, which has helped me build a more complete picture of her for myself.
You also had Purnima Banerji, who fought against illegal detention, Dakshayani Velayudhan who fought for Dalit rights, and several others whose idea of the nation was inclusive and far-reaching. Learning about them has been incredible.
How about a sneak peek at what’s coming up next?
Next up is Purnima Banerji. She was activist Aruna Asaf Ali’s sister, and was quite close to Nehru and his family, as correspondence between them shows. You’ll find out more about her by the end of the month!
For more info, head over to Priya Ravichandran’s blog here.