Women in Constituent Assembly: They were just 15 but spoke for the entire society and helped draft our constitution
India became free from the British in August 1947. However, the process of India becoming a republic began much earlier. In December 1946, a constituent assembly was formed to debate and draft the constitution for the country. The constituent assembly had 299 members representing all provinces of the country. However, among these members only 15 were women. The debates in the constituent assembly took place over two years and 11 months and the contribution of these 15 women was exemplary to say the least. It was these debates and contribution of all members which decided the outcome in form of our constitution.
The women members were either voted or chosen to represent their respective provinces. They have left an indelible mark on the making of our constitution and consequently contributed to making India a self-governed republic which suffered from the foreign yoke for centuries. These 15 women were freedom fighters, lawyers, writers and politicians. They included already famous names like 1) Sarojini Naidu, 2) Sucheta Kriplani 3) Vijayalakshmi Pandit and other achievers like 4) Durgabai Deshmukh, 5) Hansa Jivraj Mehta, 6) Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, 7) Ammu Swaminathan, 8) Dakshayani Velayudhan, 9) Kamla Chaudhary, 10) Leela Roy, 11) Purnima Banerji, 12) Renuka Ray, 13) Malati Choudhury, 14) Annie Mascarene and 15) Begum Aizaz Rasul.
Below are the short profiles of the women who were part of the constituent assembly but are hitherto lesser known.
Durgabai Deshmukh represented Madras at the constituent assembly. Durgabai was born on 15 July 1909 in Rajahmundry. She participated in the Non-Co-operation Movement at the young age of 12 years. She later became part of the Salt Satyagraha movement in Madras in May 1930 along with Andhra Kesari T. Prakasam.
In 1936, she established the Andhra Mahila Sabha, which within a decade became a great institution of education and social welfare in the city of Madras. She was the Chairwoman of several central organizations like Central Social Welfare Board, National Council for Women’s Education and National Committee On Girls’ and Women’s Education. She was a Member of Parliament and the Planning Commission. She was also associated with the Andhra Educational Society, New Delhi.
Her interventions on Prohibiting the Devdasi System and Opening up Hindu Religious and Educational Institutions for all Sections of the society in the constituent assembly are exemplary.
Durgabai Deshmukh was awarded the 4th Nehru Literary Award in 1971 for her outstanding contribution to the promotion of literacy in India. In 1975, she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
Hansa Jivraj Mehta
Hansa Jivraj Mehta represented Bombay at the constituent assembly. She was born on July 3, 1897, to the Dewan of Baroda Manubhai Nandshankar Mehta. She studied journalism and sociology in England. Along with being a social activist, she was also an educator and writer. She wrote many books for children in Gujarati and also translated many English stories including the Gulliver’s Travels.
She was elected to the Bombay Schools Committee in 1926 and became president of All India Women’s Conference in 1945–46. She proposed a Charter of Women’s Rights at the All India Women’s Conference convention held in Hyderabad. She held different posts in India from 1945 to 1960, such as the vice-chancellor of SNDT Women’s University, member of the All India Secondary Board of Education, president of Inter-University Board of India and vice-chancellor of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, among others.
Her interventions on Social, Economic and Political Justice for Women of India and Presentation of the National Flag in the constituent assembly are memorable.
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur represented the Central Provinces and Berar/General. Amrit Kaur was born on 2 February 1889 in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Daughter of Harnam Singh, son of the erstwhile Maharaja of Kapurthala, she was educated at the Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset, England, but gave it all up to become Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years.
Amrit Kaur worked tirelessly for women’s education and healthcare. She urged for their participation in sports. She was part of the team that framed the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties and fought for the uniform civil code (UCC).
She was India’s first Health Minister and she held that post for ten years. She was the founder of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and argued for its autonomy. 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.
Ammu Swaminathan represented the Madras province at the assembly. She was born in 1894 in Anakkara of Palghat district, Kerala. She formed the Women’s India Association in 1917 in Madras, along with Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins, Malathi Patwardhan, Mrs Dadabhoy and Mrs Ambujammal. She became a part of the Constituent Assembly from the Madras Constituency in 1946.
Her interventions on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles in the constituent assembly are noteworthy. In a speech during the discussion on the motion by Dr B R Ambedkar to pass the draft Constitution on November 24, 1949, she had famouly stated, “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.”
She was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1952 and Rajya Sabha in 1954. In 1959, she became the Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies with Satyajit Ray as President. She also presided over the Bharat Scouts and Guides (1960-65) and the Censor Board.
Dakshayani Velayudhan represented the Madras province at the constituent assembly. Dakshayani was born on July 4, 1912, on the island of Bolgatty in Cochin. She belonged to the Pulaya community who suffered from discrimination and untouchability. She was among the first generation of her community to be educated. She became a leader of the underprivileged classes.
In 1945, Dakshayani was nominated to the Cochin Legislative Council by the State Government. She was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1946.
Her interventions on Harijans as Hindu Candidates from Muslim Provinces, Freedom from Forced Labour, contributed immensely to the making of the constitution. Dakshayani concurred with DR BR Ambedkar on many issues related to the Scheduled Caste community during the Constituent Assembly debates, including Reservations for Harijans.
Kamla Chaudhary represented the United Provinces at the assembly. She was born on 22 February 1908 in Lucknow.
In 1930, she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement launched by Gandhi ji. She was imprisoned several times during the freedom movement. She was the vice-president of the All India Congress Committee in its fifty-fourth session and was elected as a member of the Lok Sabha in the late seventies.
Chaudhary was also a well-known writer of fiction and her stories usually dealt issues of women and the emergence of India as a modern nation. She was also a member of the Uttar Pradesh State Social Welfare Advisory Board post-Independence.
Leela Ray represented West Bengal at the assembly. She was born in Goalpara, Assam in October 1900. She graduated from Bethune College in 1921 and became assistant secretary to the All Bengal Women’s Suffrage Committee and arranged meetings to demand women’s rights. In 1923, she along with her friends founded the Dipali Sangha where combat training was given to women. She took part in the Civil Disobedience Movement and was imprisoned for six years.
Ray was instrumental in forming the Dacca Mahila Satyagraha Sangha, which played an active role in the anti-salt tax movement. She became the editor of a journal, Jayashree, which had the blessing of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1937, she joined the Congress and in the next year, founded the Bengal Provincial Congress Women’s Organisation. She became a member of the women’s subcommittee formed by Subash Chandra Bose in 1938.
In 1947, Leela Ray founded the Jatiya Mahila Sanghati, a women’s organisation in West Bengal. In 1960, she became the chairwoman of the new party formed with the merger of the Forward Bloc (Subhasist) and the Praja Socialist Party. She died in June 1970 after becoming disillusioned with the Left politics.
Purnima Banerjee represented the United Provinces at the assembly. She was born in 1911. She was arrested for her participation in the Satyagraha and Quit India Movement.
Her interventions on State’s Control over Religious Instruction in Schools and Relevance of the Upper House are noteworthy. In her speech she had requested that the curriculum in schools should be in the control of the Government and should be of such a nature that it broadens the mind rather than create an exclusiveness.
Purnima became the secretary of the Indian National Congress committee in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. She was responsible for engaging and organizing trade unions, kisan meetings and work towards greater rural engagement in the 1940's.
Renuka Ray represented the West Bengal province in the constituent assembly. She was born in 1904 to Satish Chandra Mukherjee, an ICS officer, and Charulata Mukherjee, a social worker and member of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). She came in contact with Mahatma Gandhi at an early age of sixteen and left college to answer Gandhiji's call for boycotting the British Indian educational system. Later, she lived for a while in London and completed her BA from the London School of Economics.
After her return, she championed women's rights and inheritance rights in parental property. In 1932 she became President of All India Women’s Conference. She was also its President between 1953-54. She was a member of the Central Legislative Assembly between 1943 and 1946. In 1952–57, she served as Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. In 1957 and again in 1962, she was the member for Malda of the Lok Sabha.
She was also President of the AIWC in 1952, served on the Planning Commission and on the governing body of Visva Bharati University in Shanti Niketan. She served as a Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation. She established the All Bengal Women’s Union and the Women’s Coordinating Council.
Her interventions on Equality of Status and Justice for Women and on the Question of Religious Minorities and Majorities in a Secular State are exemplery. She vehemently opposed the amendments made to include 'minority' rights in the constitution and said that this was a back door method of bringing in separate electorates and could lead to separtism eventually.
Malati Choudhury represented Orissa at the Constituent Assembly. She was born in 1904 to a distinguished family in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). In the year 1921, at the age of 16, Malati was sent to Santiniketan to study at Viswa-Bharati. During the Salt Satyagraha, Malati Choudhury along with her husband joined the Indian National Congress and participated in the movement. They educated and communicated with the people to create a favourable environment for Satyagraha.
In 1933, she formed Utkal Congress Samajvadi Karmi Sangh along with her husband which later came to be known as the Orissa Provincial Branch of the All India Congress Socialist Party. In 1934, she joined Gandhiji in his famous “padayatra” in Orissa. She set up several organisations such as the Bajiraut Chhatravas for the upliftment of vulnerable communities in Odisha. She protested against the proclamation of Emergency by Indira Gandhi and was eventually imprisoned.
As a member of the Constituent Assembly, she advocated the role of education, especially adult education in rural reconstruction.
In 1988, she refused to receive the prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Award from the hands of the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as she believed that Rajiv Gandhi had not done anything to promote Gandhian values.
Annie Mascarene represented Travancore and Cochin Union at the assembly. She was born into a Latin Catholic family from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala in 1902. She did a double MA in history and economics in 1925 from Maharaja'S College Travancore and then went on to earn a degree in law following her return from a teaching stint in Ceylon at the Maharaja's Colleges for Arts and Law, Trivandrum.
She was one of the first women to join the Travancore State Congress and became the first woman to be part of the Travancore State Congress Working Committee. She was one of the leaders of the movements for independence and integration with the Indian nation in the Travancore State. She was imprisoned for various periods from 1939—47.
At the constituent assembly, her Tribute to Sardar Patel for Unifying India Without Bloodshed is significant. Terming Sardar Patel as 'The Bismarck of India', she said that he has so moulded the destiny of democratic India that all States have been given a safety valve so that they may develop without fear.
Mascarene was elected to the First Lok Sabha in the Indian general election, 1951. She was the first woman MP from Kerala and one of only 10 elected to Parliament in those elections. Prior to her election to Parliament, she had served briefly as Minister in Charge of Health and Power during 1949-1950.
Begum Aizaz Rasul
Begum Aizaz Rasul represented the United Provinces at the Constituent Assembly. She was born on 2 April 1909 as Qudsia Begum to Zulfiqar Ali Khan and Mahmuda Sultana. She and her husband Nawaab Aizaz Rasul joined the Muslim League and entered electoral politics after the enactment of the Government of India Act 1935. In the 1937, she was elected to the U.P. Legislative Assembly.
In 1950, the Muslim League in India dissolved and Begum Aizaz Rasul joined Congress. She was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1952 and was a member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly from 1969 to 1990. Between, 1969 and 1971, she was the Minister for Social Welfare and Minorities. She had keen interest in sports and was the President of the Indian Women Hockey Federation for 20 years.
At the constituent assembly, she was instrumental in speaking for 'minority rights' and supported India’s Membership of the Commonwealth. She opposed the proposal to reserve seats in the parliament for minorities.
In 2000, she was awarded a Padma Bhushan for her contribution to social work.