“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved” — Babasaheb Ambedkar.
What a powerful statement to make. To have such a worldview in the early 20th century, when the country was going through grave political turmoil, speaks volumes about the vision of Ambedkar. He envisioned an India where rights were universal, and inclusive, of women.
But how often do we remember Ambedkar when it comes to issues pertaining to women’s empowerment? What remains lesser known about him was how he single-handedly ensured that a progressive vision for the emancipation of women made its way into the Constitution. To this end, he framed numerous pieces of legislations to protect and safeguard the interests of women.
As a student in London and New York, young Ambedkar was highly influenced by the civil liberties and women’s emancipation movements in the West. As the first law minister of independent India and chairman of the Constitution drafting committee, Ambedkar held critical positions which influenced the legislative framework of the country. Even before Independence, Ambedkar was an active elected member of the imperial government on the issue of women’s rights.
The Hindu Code Bill, introduced by Ambedkar as law minister of independent India, reveals his views on gender equality, and his strong stance against a caste-based society.
As early as the British Raj, laws to govern Hindu communities had appeared to help closed communities regulate themselves, and, till as late as the Rau Committee in 1948, there was still no consensus on several key issues of a Universal Hindu Code.
Despite the presence of women in the Constituent Assembly, questions of gender did not crop up in the Hindu Code Bill until they went to Ambedkar for his comments.
After over two decades of meaningless debates, the Hindu Code for the first time included the right of women to divorce, the right of inheritance to daughters, and the right of widows to equal property rights. Simultaneously, the regressive language around caste-specific rules was also deleted.
This Bill, later, turned into a series of Acts, including the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, and forms the legislative bedrock of women’s claims to shared property even today.
As part of the Constituent Assembly debates, Ambedkar also ensured that universal adult franchise was an integral part of the republic, enabling voting rights (which was earlier reserved only for the privileged) for women and other minority groups.
Ambedkar wanted women to have higher participation in all walks of life, especially, in the political arena. Even as a legislator under the colonial regime, Ambedkar was one of the first activists to root for the rights of working women.
He argued that “it is in the interest of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the pre-natal period” and it was the responsibility of the government to bear some of the burden of her maternity as the people’s interest is the primary responsibility of the government. As a direct result, basic rights for mine and factory workers, as well as protections for women, children and working mothers were passed as early as 1938.
Thus, at each step, Ambedkar challenged the deep-rooted patriarchal foundations of Indian society and helped in drafting a Constitution which has stood the test of time.
I would like to emphasise that in keeping with the spirit of Ambedkar’s vision, the Delhi government recently launched the free bus rides for women initiative to enhance their participation in the city’s workforce. Preliminary data suggests that there has been an increase in daily ridership of women from 32 per cent to 42 per cent within a month.
The Delhi government, over the past five years, has rolled out many steps to ensure the safety of women in the city such as the installation of CCTV cameras, deployment of bus marshals, running an exclusive helpline number for women through the Delhi Commission for Women, etc. The government’s initiative to install 1.4 lakh CCTVs in the city, is one of the largest mass deployment of CCTVs by any government in the world.
To further the safety of women in the city, the government is also in the advanced stages of installing street lights under the Mukhyamantri Street Light Scheme: This will help to light up all the dark spots of the city, on the basis of recommendations of the citizens themselves. However, the lack of control over police services, which comes directly under the Union home ministry, holds back the Delhi government in keeping check of the rising incidents of crimes against women.
In these testing times, when the entire nation is gripped with incidents of women being raped, assaulted and murdered, I would like to remind everyone that the Constitution of India drafted by B R Ambedkar will bring the offenders to court and justice will be served.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 6, 2019 under the title “A time to remember.” The writer, a senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, is minister of social welfare and SC/ST in the Delhi government.