On February 18, 1956, the then minister of health, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, introduced a new bill in the Lok Sabha. She had no speech prepared. But she spoke from her heart. “It has been one of my cherished dreams that for post graduate study and for the maintenance of high standards of medical education in our country, we should have an institute of this nature which would enable our young men and women to have their post graduate education in their own country,” she said.
The creation of a major central institute for post-graduate medical education and research had been recommended by the Health survey of the government of India, a decade ago in 1946. Though the idea was highly appreciated, money was a concern. It took another 10 years for Kaur to collect adequate funds, and lay the foundation of India’s number one medical institute and hospital.
Kaur’s speech in the Lok Sabha sparked a vigorous debate in the house over the nature of the institute. But the bill moved fast, gaining the approval of members of both the houses, and by May that year, the motion was adopted.
The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) was born. “I want this to be something wonderful, of which India can be proud, and I want India to be proud of it,” said Kaur, as the bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha.
In the past few months, as India has been battling a global pandemic, the role of the country’s apex medical body has come under discussion on several occasions. Significantly, it is the first prime minister of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is credited for the heights reached by AIIMS. It is true that AIIMS came to be under the Nehru government. However, the real driving force behind it was Kaur.
A princess of the Kapurthala princely state, a student at Oxford university, a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and an important member of the Constituent Assembly, Kaur was all of this and much more. Members of her family like to remember her as someone who believed in simple living and high thinking. The pages of history, on the other hand, celebrates her determination to drive out the British, her feminist zeal, and also the many contributions she had made to the health infrastructure of the country.
The Kapurthala princess
As a member of the Kapurthala princely family, Kaur had an interesting history. Her father, Raja Sir Harnam Singh, had converted to Protestant Christianity after a chance meeting with a Bengali missionary named Golakhnath Chatterjee in Jalandhar. Singh went on to marry his daughter, Priscilla, and had ten children with her. Kaur, the youngest among them was born on February 2, 1889.
Kaur, therefore, was brought up as a Protestant Christian. After spending her early years in India, she was sent off to England for her education. “Princess Amrit Kaur was as much a product of Edwardian England as she was of India,” suggested her obituary in the New York Times in 1964. She completed her schooling from the Sherborne School for Girls, in Dorset, and then went to study at Oxford University. Thereupon, she returned to India in 1908 at the age of 20, and embarked on a life of nationalism and social reform.
“It is important to note that though a devout Christian, she was very much against missionary activities,” says Siddhant Das (27), great grand nephew of Amrit Kaur, and an entrepreneur who is currently living in Chandigarh, but spends most of his time doing research on her life and career. “She was a zealous patriot who believed that missionaries were alienating Indians from their cultural roots,” he explains.
The Gandhian and social reformer
Upon her return from England, Kaur was immediately drawn towards the ideas of nationalism, as she interacted with leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi. She was mesmerised by the teachings of Gandhi, and shared an enduring, special friendship with him, as is evident from the collection of letters shared between the two, that have been compiled in the book, ‘Letters to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’.
“What drew me to Bapu was his desire to have women in his non-violent army and his faith in womankind. This was an irresistible appeal to a woman in a land where women were fit for producing children and serving their lords as masters,” she is quoted as having said by American philosopher Richard Gregg in his introductory note in ‘Letters to Amrit Kaur.’
Though she wanted to join the naionalist movement soon after she returned, her family was against her involvement in the struggle, and therefore she kept away till her father passed away in 1930. During this period though, she was actively involved in social reforms particularly those related to women. Consequently, she waged a battle against the purdah system, the devadasi system, and child marriage. In 1927, she helped in the founding of the All India Women’s Conference and later served as its president.
By 1930, as she joined the Gandhian movement, she was imprisoned for her participation in the Dandi march. She gave up all her princely comforts to join Gandhi at his ashram in Sabarmati. “I remember Rajkumari sitting at the spinning wheel and eating along with other ashramites, the simple fare prescribed by Gandhiji,” wrote political activist Aruna Asaf Ali about her fondest memory of Kaur. “Rajkumari Amrit Kaur belonged to a generation of pioneers. They belonged to well- to-do homes but gave up on their affluent and sheltered lives and flocked to Gandhiji’s banner when he called women to join the national liberation struggle,” she added.
In her battle for a free India, she became one of the few women members of the Constituent assembly. She along with Hansraj Jivraj Mehta were the only female members to be ardently in support of the uniform civil code in the constitution.
The passionate health minister who created AIIMS
Nihar Mahindar Singh, the 58-year-old grand niece of Kaur, recalls that as a child she would visit Kaur’s house in New Delhi frequently, as she was getting treated at AIIMS. “I never received any preferential treatment for being her family member. I remember spending hours at a stretch on the corridors of AIIMS. I didn’t even know back then that aunt B (as Kaur was referred to in her family), had created the hospital,” she says, adding that it was much later, and by word of mouth from her family members that she learned of her grand aunt’s contribution in building AIIMS.
As an institute of healthcare and medical research, AIIMS had to have some unique features. To begin with, it was the first of its kind in Asia to prohibit doctors from private practise of any kind. Secondly, the doctors at AIIMS were to devote their time not only to treating patients and teaching, but also to carry out research. “All the staff and students were to be housed in the campus of the Institute in the best traditions of the Guru-Sishya ideal to stay in close touch with each other,” writes V. Srinivas, the deputy director of administration at AIIMS in his article, ‘The making of AIIMS: The parliamentary debate’.
As health minister, Kaur was the pivotal force in ensuring the unique status enjoyed by AIIMS. Yet, it is worth noting, that she was in fact not the first choice of Nehru to be part of the cabinet. “In August 1947, for the woman member of the cabinet, Nehru thought of Hansa Mehta, but took Rajkumari Amrit Kaur at Gandhi’s insistence,” writes author Sankar Ghose, in his book, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru – A Biography’. Writing about why Kaur was not preferred, he explains, “she was sometimes indiscreet and intemperate in her criticism of Congressmen.”
Nonetheless, Kaur went on to become India’s first health minister. When the issue of funds for AIIMS came up, it was she who was instrumental in acquiring a huge amount from the New Zealand government. Over the years, she rallied around and was successful in getting donations from international bodies like the Rockefeller foundation, and the Ford foundation, as well as from the government of Australia, West Germany, as well as from the Dutch government.
During its diamond jubilee celebrations at AIIMS, Srinivas wrote a feature on Kaur for the Press Information Bureau (PIB), wherein he emphasised that Kaur protected the autonomous nature of the institute and ensured that an international face was created for it. “Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s vision envisaged selection of students for admission to the under-graduate MBBS course in AIIMS is made after an open advertisement, on the results of an open competitive test, strictly on merit with equal opportunities to students from any part of the country,” he writes. It was her efforts, therefore, that led to entrance examinations being conducted for admission at AIIMS from 1956.
By 1961 itself, AIIMS had attained global repute as it was placed alongside the best of institutes from America, Canada and Europe.
Kaur chaired her last governing body meeting of AIIMS on August 14, 1963, wherein she donated her residence at Shimla, Manorville, to AIIMS as a space meant for the relaxation and recreation of the doctors and nurses of the institute.
Apart from passionately laying the foundation of AIIMS, she also founded the Indian Council of Child Welfare and became its first president. She was president of the Indian Leprosy Association, the Tuberculosis Association, and vice-president of the International Red Cross Society. She led the Indian delegation to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for four years and was president of the WHO assembly in 1950.
Her largest campaign as health minister though, was against Malaria. “At the height of the campaign, in 1955, it was estimated that 400,000 Indians who otherwise would have died had been saved by mitigation of malaria in their districts,” says the NYT obituary.
Earlier this year, Kaur was listed by TIME magazine as the woman of the year 1947. In noting her achievements and contributions, the magazine writes, “In leaving her life of luxury, Kaur not only helped build lasting democratic institutions, she also inspired generations to fight for the marginalized.”
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