It was the last few weeks before the Indian constitution was to be introduced. On November 22, 1949, members of the Constituent Assembly sat in a semicircle, under the Parliament dome. Each one spoke about the intrepid journey. The process had begun nearly three years ago. In the 11 sessions, spread over 165 days, the Drafting Committee had come up with a draft.
As each member spoke, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri (Assam: General) drew a pitiful comparison between cows and women. “We have in this Constitution cow protection to some extent but there is no provision at all for protection against cows. There is also no provision in this Constitution for protection against women. 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.”
Hansa Jivraj Mehta, gave a befitting reply: “The world would have thought very little of the men if they had asked for protection against women in this Constitution; I am very happy to see that the Constitution does not include that provision. Otherwise men would have had to hide their faces before the world.”
The reply, sharp but polite was an indelible marker of Hansa Mehta and her beliefs. Born on July 3, 1897 to the Dewan of Baroda Manubhai Nandshankar Mehta, Hansa studied journalism and sociology in England. It was here in 1918 that she met Sarojini Naidu and thus Mahatma Gandhi. “When Gandhiji was arrested in 1922, Sarojini Devi went to Ahmedabad with a group of women from Bombay. We went to Sabarmati Jail to see Gandhiji and Sarojini Devi introduced me to him. That was the first time that I saw him at close quarters and for no reason at all, I was visibly moved,” Mehta writes in her book Indian Woman.
Six years later she married Jivraj Narayan Mehta, briefly the personal doctor of Mahatma Gandhi. Marrying a “vaishya Mehta” outside her caste created an uproar among the Nagar Brahmins but Maharaja Sayajirao III, Gaekwad of Baroda and her idol, was happy to learn about the inter-caste wedding. In the book Mehta mentions how Sayajirao sent word to her father that, he would like to be present at her marriage, “and he did grace all the functions,” she adds.
Mehta continued to participate in the freedom struggle. The increasing number of women revolutionaries had become a trouble for the Britishers. Visalakshi Menon in her book “Indian Women and Nationalism, the U.P. story” mentions an incident from 1930 when Kamla Nehru and Hansa Mehta arrived at the Delhi Railway Station shouting slogans ‘Inquilaab Zindabaad’. In order to drown the slogans, the British made the train engines hoot non-stop.
Such actions and associations resulted in Mehta’s arrest and that of her husband. “The Servant of India”, a weekly published by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, published this update on Mehta’s arrest in 1932: “Dr. Jiv. ‘N. Mehta and his wife Mrs. Hansa Mehta have both been taken into custody. Dr. Mehta is not known to be an active politician and his detention in jail can be explained only on the ground of his harbouring a Congress worker in the person of his wife.”
After her release Mehta stood for Bombay Legislative Council and won the provincial elections continuing to be a flagbearer of equality for all. On December 19, 1946, while discussing the matter of joint electorates in the Constituent Assembly, Mehta said, “The women’s organisation to which I have the honour to belong has never asked for reserved seats, for quotas, or for separate electorates. What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice.”
As member of several Committees in the Constituent Assembly — including the Fundamental Rights sub-committee — Mehta was against “too many personal laws” and for a progressive common civil code. “The Civil Code that we wish to have must be on a par with, or in advance of, the most progressive of the personal laws in the country. Otherwise, it will be a retrograde step and it will not be acceptable to all,” Mehta said.
She was part of the group convened to “amend and codify certain branches of the Hindu law”. Passing laws including the Sarda act that forbade child marriage, movements that ensured birth control for women and education for all women were championed by Mehta.
She remained a staunch fighter for women’s rights in India and abroad. As the Indian delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (1947-1948) Hansa Mehta is credited with making a significant change in the language of Article 1 of the UDHR. “The world can thank a daughter of India, Dr. Hansa Mehta, for replacing the phrase in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It said, ‘All men are born free and equal’. Now it is changed, ‘All human beings are born free and equal’. How appropriate, how fitting it is,” remarked Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary General of the United Nations in 2015.
Mehta maintained this link with the UDHR principles while co-drafting the fundamental rights. She wanted an abolition of the purdah system. “Any evil practised in the name of religion cannot be guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, we were told that raising this question will hurt the religious susceptibilities of some people,” said Mehta during her speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 22, 1949.
Mehta’s contribution to the Constitution and nation-building were towering. On August 14, 1947 members of the Constituent Assembly gathered and waited for the clock to strike 12. Right after midnight when, then President Rajendra Prasad took the pledge of freedom, Mehta presented the country’s first national flag on behalf of the women of India. “We have donned the saffron colour, we have fought, suffered and sacrificed in the cause of our country’s freedom. We have today attained our goal. In presenting this symbol of our freedom, we once more offer our services to the nation,” she said.
Mehta would go on to serve many positions, on the board of UNESCO and as the first Vice Chancellor of the M.S University in Baroda. She remained the staunch educationist, reformer and feminist who believed in equal rights for everyone till her death in 1985.
(Women behind the Constitution is a special #GenderAnd series. Read about Dakshayani Velayudhan, the first and only Dalit woman in the Constituent Assembly)