When India gained Independence in 1947, it had already set itself apart from other democratic countries in two important ways – the Constituent assembly which had started its work in December 1946 had 15 women members, and universal adult franchise was almost a certainty in the soon to be republic. Women were first granted the right to vote in provincial legislatures in the early 1920’s, stand for elections by late 1920’s and later through the Government of India Act, 1935.
Voting was restricted to people who owned property and by 1935 it expanded to include wives and widows of existing male voters, or women with some literary qualification. In the 1937 provincial elections, historians point out that roughly 2 per cent of the women participated in the election. The first woman to be elected to a legislative assembly was Dr. Muthu Lakshmi Reddy in 1927. By 1947, just 20 years after they first contested in provincial assembly elections women had earned themselves the right to represent their provinces in the constituent assembly.
The 15 women who sat down in the constitution hall to debate, discuss, dissect, and deliver a just constitution for newly Independent India had lived through an incredible set of circumstances. Between them, they had seen child marriages, indignities because of their caste and religion, violence, widowhood, loss of property and intermittent education.
Some had caused uproar by marrying outside of caste. They had participated in the freedom struggle, but in a patriarchal society they were seen more as support systems in the fight for independence, not as agents with full capacity to fight battles of their own choosing. In the star-studded chambers of the constituent assembly, these women managed to bring to the table this diversity of experiences and lend intellectual weightage to arguments.
Their contributions to the debate and to the constitution are a reflection of the world these women occupied, and the lived experiences that shaped their passion and beliefs in pre-independent India. They objected to reservations for women, and reservations along communal lines, something they stood against even when women first got the green signal to stand for legislative assemblies.
Dakshayani Velayudhan vehemently opposed separate electorates for socially depressed classes. She observed “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”. Her views were echoed by Begum Aizaz Rasul who pointed out that reservation is a self-destructive weapon, which separates the minorities from the majority for all time.
They also made a strong argument for equality at the economic, social and political level for women. Purnima Banerji and Renuka Ray, in particular, made a strong case for equality in education and raised several red flags on the question of religious education in publicly funded schools. Some of the strongest arguments made were during the debate for the Hindu Code Bill. Members like Durgabai Deshmukh, Hansa Mehta, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur all made a case for a uniform civil code arguing that a common code will mean more just laws that would ensure equality in all spheres for all women.
Purnima Banerji debated at length about the rights of detained people and called for lowering the qualifying age for membership in the state legislature. They disagreed amongst themselves on the question of language for the union. They brought up issues of centralisation, individual liberties and minority rights, legislative finances. They stood up again and again, and in the midst of all the clamour and clang that reverberated through the constitution hall, they raised their voices for a union that would bear the imprint of both men and women.
They did this in the midst of distasteful comments in the assembly that asked for protection from women, men who were resistant to the idea of full equality in all spheres – public and private. They did this even as men pointed out that the women were ruled by heart, and men by head and “if the heart were to rule and the head to take a secondary place then it is felt by many thinking men and thinking women too, that the affairs of government might go somewhat awry”. And this was in the face of just 15 women.
Seven decades on, we have mostly forgotten these women, and have wholly erased their contribution from our collective memory. Our gendered writing of history continues to accord more attention to the men and what the men said and did. Our current readings of history bestow glory primarily on long dead women who fought battles with bravery. The rest are painted with broad strokes of victimhood and being rescued by men from oppression.
These 15 women were not the only women architects of an independent, republic India. Women like Muthulakshmi Reddy, the mother-daughter duo of Herabai and Mithan Tata, Begum Hamid Ali, Radhabai Subbarayan, Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins, Dorothy Jinarajadasa all played a role in the emancipation of women, and enlisting them in the freedom movement. What needs to be learnt is the circumstances, and the long road that brought these 15 onto the stage to join hands and sign up for the task of creating a sovereign, secular, republic.
#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read more about the 15 women architects of the Indian Constitution: Annie Mascarene, Begum Aizaz Rasul, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Durgabai Deshmukh, Amrit Kaur, Ammu Swaminathan, Hansa Jivraj Mehta, Dakshayani Velayudhan. You can read our entire reportage here.