15 remarkable women who helped shape India’s future
By 10.45 am on December 9, 1946, the Constitution Hall in New Delhi’s Rafi Marg was filled with towering political figures from across the country.
Wearing overcoats and shawls, they sat in neat rows and applauded when Sachchidananda Sinha — one of the oldest parliamentarians at the time — took the chair to inaugurate the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Thunderous applause followed after Sinha, quoting Urdu poet Iqbal, exhorted all to be guided by “wisdom, toleration, justice and fairness to all”. Then, all of them shuffled into lines to sign the register against their names: 192 men and 15 women.
The demand for a body to form the Constitution was an old one but it was only in 1934 that the Indian National Congress adopted a resolution to create a Constituent Assembly that would be “representative of all sections of the Indian people, to frame an acceptable Constitution.”But the absence of universal adult suffrage meant that the representation of marginalised groups, especially women, was low.
Most of the 15 women who made it to the CA were upper caste, upper class and literate – only one was Muslim and another Dalit. The then United Provinces sent the highest number – four – followed by Madras state with three. Together, they contributed around 2% of the total volume of debate in the CA, according to an analysis by the PRS Legislative Research, with G Durgabai (Madras), Begum Aizaz Rasul (United Provinces) and Renuka Ray (West Bengal) speaking the most.
To measure their contribution by these statistics, however, would be a mistake.
“What was striking about the women are their diverse histories , which point to the rich history and trajectories of women’s leadership and activities in pre- independence era …their interventions were about varied freedoms, non- discrimination, equality, liberty, core principles underlying the Constitution and about citizenship in a new nation,” said Meera Velayudhan, president of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies and daughter of Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only Dalit woman member.
At 34, Dakshayani was one of the youngest and most remarkable members of the CA.
Hailing from the oppressed Pulaya caste in Kerala, Dakshayani was the first in her community to attend school and college – she was India’s first Dalit woman graduate -- and to wear an upper cloth. Her family had organised one of the first public challenges to state-sanctioned caste oppression by organising a meeting on boats tied with rope off the coast – after all, the sea had no caste -- in defiance of a royal diktat that forbade such a meeting on land.
A close associate of MK Gandhi, she married her husband Velayudhan – also a CA member -- in Wardha’s Sevagram Ashram. But her inspiration also lay in the writings of Bhimrao Ambedkar, and she edited an Ambedkarite publication in Madras.
In the assembly, she argued against separate electorates, appointment of governors and said the final draft of the Constitution should be adopted following a ratification through a general election. Ten days after the assembly met for the first time, Dakshayani stood before it and delivered her first speech.
“I submit that a Constituent Assembly not only frames a Constitution but also gives the people a new framework for life…what we want is not all kinds of safeguards. It is the moral safeguards that give real protection to the underdogs of this country,” she said.
Her most powerful intervention came on the abolition of untouchability in November 1948. “The working of the Constitution will depend upon how the people will conduct themselves in the future, not on the actual execution of the law. So, I hope that in course of time there will not be such a community known as Untouchables,” she said.
Another remarkable woman member was Rasul, born to a branch of the ruling family of Malerkotla who became one of the few women to win in the 1937 election, only to relinquish the Muslim League and join the Congress after Independence. Rasul was key in developing a consensus among the Muslim members to give up the demand for a separate electorate, and her first intervention in July 1947 was to demand autonomy for ministers from party affiliations.
“If that principle that the majority should not discriminate against any minority is accepted, I can assure you that we (Muslims) will not ask for any reservation of seats,” she said in November 1948.
The debates provide a glimpse of the concerns of the time. Constitutional scholar Madhav Khosla points out that the issue of representation was one that the Assembly debated a great deal about. While reservation on the basis of religion was rejected, reservation on the basis of caste was adopted.
On the issue of reservation for women in elected bodies, the sentiment seemed to be unanimously opposed.
Hansa Mehta, a member from Bombay, categorically 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.
Renuka Ray, from Bengal, pointed out, “Ever since the start of the women’s movement in this country, women have been fundamentally opposed to special privileges and reservations.” Purnima Banerji, from the United Provinces, argued against separate electorates for women, but was of the opinion that a seat vacated by a woman should be filled by a woman alone.
“It’s important to remember that most of the women who formed part of the Constituent Assembly came from privileged backgrounds and were thus exposed to enough opportunities to be able to make such arguments against reservation,” said Priya Ravichandran, a Bengaluru-based writer who worked on a web-based resource titled Women Architects of the Indian Constitution.
Niraja Gopal Jayal, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, pointed out that while the section on fundamental rights was meant to be gender neutral, matters pertaining to social rights of women were placed in the chapter of Directive Principles – which is not enforceable in courts.
“The visibility of women is therefore greater in this chapter of the Constitution, with many articles explicitly mentioning women — e.g. the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to an adequate livelihood, just and humane conditions of work, and maternity relief, and of course, the contentious uniform civil code — being located here, in the only non justiciable section of the Indian Constitution,” she wrote in her 2013 book, Citizenship and its Discontents.
Indeed, many of the women, including Ray, Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Central Provinces) were in favour of a Uniform Civil Code, which nevertheless did not get passed. The issue of a civil law that overrides personal laws in favour of a common set of rules remains a contentious one, even today.
Two women -- Malati Chaudhury from Orissa, and Leela Roy, a close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose from Bengal -- resigned from the assembly soon after the December 9 meeting. Chaudhury left to join Gandhi in Noakhali, where communal tension between Hindus and Muslims had sparked bloody riots, and Roy was made in-charge of Forward Bloc after Bose left the country.
Many of the women members went on to have illustrious political careers after Independence. Rasul became the social welfare minister in Uttar Pradesh and was also elected to the Rajya Sabha. Durgabai was elected to Parliament and later became a member of the Planning Commission. Ray served as a member of both the West Bengal assembly and the Lok Sabha.
Sucheta Kriplani went on to become the country’s first woman chief minister, when she succeeded Chandra Bhanu Gupta in the 1960s in Uttar Pradesh. Other well known members included Sarojini Naidu (the first woman to be appointed as the governor of a state), Kaur (who founded the All India Institute of Medical Sciences) and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, (who was elected as president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953). Dakshayani concentrated on social work, organising a conference of Dalit women in 1977 and working among sweepers in Delhi.
What united these exceptional women was an abiding faith in the Constitution and great hope in its power to vanquish centuries-old bias and discrimination.
As Rasul put it in November 1948, “As a woman, I have very great satisfaction in the fact that no discrimination will be made on account of sex…I am sure women can look forward to equality of opportunity under the new Constitution.” Seven decades later, their conviction is both visionary and a challenge for today’s leaders.