Popular narratives of history have led us to believe that men alone were architects of the Indian Constitution. Among the 299 members of the Constituent Assembly, 15 were women. Very little is known about them. They came from different walks of life—lawyers, freedom fighters, politicians, and suffragettes. Led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar they discussed, debated and put forth their opinions while defining the principles that would guide the then recently Independent India. Annie Mascarene was in many ways a singular character amongst the women in the Constituent Assembly.
On February 21, 1946 Mahatma Gandhi wrote to a political worker regarding a speech the person had delivered in Bombay. Gandhi wrote, “Even otherwise, I know that you have no control over your tongue and when you stand up to speak, you blab anything that comes to your mind. This speech also is quite a specimen, if the newspaper report is correct. I have sent the report to Bhai Thanu Pillai. You can read it. Such indiscreet talk can do good neither to you nor to the poor people of Travancore. Besides, by your act you put the whole fair sex to shame.”
The letter was addressed to Annie Mascarene. Gandhi had also written to Pattom Thanu Pillai, member of the Travancore State Congress and colleague of Annie, asking him to reconsider her role as co-minister in the Kerala Legislative Assembly.
Gandhi’s admonishment notwithstanding, Annie Mascarene had already established herself as an intrepid fighter and leader in Travancore’s emerging political scene. She along with Accamma Cherian and Rosamma Punnose were the first women to join the Travancore State Congress. A brilliant orator, she went on to lead Travancore’s prolonged fight against its dewan to seek a place as a state in newly independent India. She was repeatedly arrested for her activities. Her record includes 18 months in 1938 on charges of sedition; two years in 1942 for inflammatory speech, and six months in 1946 for spreading rumors that incite people to acts of violence.
Born in 1902 in Trivandrum, Annie graduated with a double MA in history and economics from Maharaja’s College in Thiruvananthapuram before moving to Sri Lanka to serve as a lecturer. She also completed her LLB degree from Thiruvananthapuram on her return.
Travancore, as a princely state, was undergoing a metamorphosis aided by movements calling for greater participation of people from across castes and religions, and for a more responsible government representative. In 1932, the Travancore regent signed a legislative reform bringing to life its first bicameral legislative assembly. It did not go far enough in establishing a just participation for all communities. This alongside the repeated undermining of minority communities in the princely state led to a coming together of various religious and caste organisations. The joint political conference went a long way in giving a platform for those opposed to government policies. It eventually led to the formation of the Travancore State Congress in 1938 with the idea of establishing a responsible government on the basis of universal adult franchise.
P.T. Haridas, in his paper “Genesis of the Travancore State Congress”, points out that this party ran on the platform of accession to Independent India. Annie Mascarene went on to become one of its more vocal presidents’. The dewan C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer was determined to see Travancore established as an independent state post 1947. Mascarene’s appetite for politics, politicking and policy making were honed during her time in the state congress. The dewan and the ruling government saw her as a threat and her work amongst the Travancore citizens as an impediment to his ambitions for the princely state. M. Sumathy in her work “Emergence of Travancore State Congress and Early Activities of the Party” points out that in April 1938, there were repeated attacks on her life and property, and assaults on other members. Continual complaints yielded very little results. Mascarene went on to publish a pamphlet detailing the assaults much to the chagrin of the local police.
Annie Mascarene went on to serve as a member of the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly from 1948-1952, and briefly from 1949-1950 as a Minister in charge of Health and Power, the first time a woman had held a ministerial post in the Travancore legislative assembly. She also earned the distinction of being the first and only women amongst 10 people elected to the first Lok Sabha as an independent candidate from Thiruvananthapuram in India’s first general election in 1951. She went on to represent Travancore-Cochin in the constituent assembly.
Annie Mascarene’s arguments in the Constitution Hall were tinted with the same principles and fervour that coloured her career in the princely state of Travancore. She firmly believed that while centralisation of power was necessary for a successful democracy, too much centralisation could alter the very nature of democratic institutions. She argued that provincial autonomy and more importantly provincial elections, and legislatures need to maintain their independence, and the Centre cannot assume the role of “custodian of justice”. She struck down K.M. Munshi’s argument of expediency and reality as reasons for Article 289 – the appointment of an election commission by pointing, “We are here laying down principles – rudimentary principles – of democracy, not for the coming election but for days to come, for generations, for the nation. Therefore principles of ethics are more suitable to be considered now than principles of expediency. I am a believer in politics as nothing but ethics writ large.”
She stated that the constitution gave enough leeway for provinces to experiment, err and evolve. She pointed out that in an age of democratic experiments, and it would bode well if India, like many other democracies let itself be guided through its democracy. She also expressed satisfaction with section 306B of the draft constitution, which tasked certain states to comply with central government directions. Annie Mascarene believed that this would help in bringing all states on par with each other. She took great pride in the fact that Travancore had a semblance of democracy with adult franchise very early.
Mascarene’s experiences in the politics of her state, and her fight to push the state to become a part of Independent India helped shape her views on the rights of provinces versus the necessity for centralisation of powers. She believed that an evolving democracy like India will need a strong Centre and hoped that “when the nation has attained full stature and we can stand on our own legs, we can amend the Constitution and distribute powers equally.”
#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read more about the 15 women architects of the Indian Constitution: Begum Aizaz Rasul, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Durgabai Deshmukh, Amrit Kaur, Ammu Swaminathan, Hansa Jivraj Mehta, Dakshayani Velayudhan. You can read our entire reportage here.