70 long years ago, on 26 January 1950, the Constitution of India came into effect at the behest of 389 members working day in and night out to set a framework for the newly independent country. Out of these 389 members, 15 were women. A minimal representation, but a paramount one. These women, hailing from different faiths and socio-economic backgrounds had one common goal: to frame a Constitution that was equal to all Indians—by gender, caste, class and more.
When we think about the Constituent Assembly, we think about a congregation of men seated around a table exchanging and inspiring differing ideologies: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar brandishing his owlish glasses through the air as he makes a strong case for a fight against caste, Nehru’s topi askew on his head as he emphasises on the word ‘secular’, Vallabhai Patel stoic and offering more conservative measures. After all, our history books are filled with the glorious tales (and pictures) of the men responsible for framing the document that governs our country even today. However, names like Begum Aizaz Rasul, Durgabhai Deshmukh, Renuka Ray, Purnima Banerjee and many more are—as with most things in a country as patriarchal as ours—brushed to oblivion.
These stalwarts, visionaries and trailblazers are not to be forgotten. Being women, their disposition in an India that was only just learning to unchain from foreign masters and one which rarely favoured the ‘weaker sex’, they knew more than any about the need to frame a Constitution which would be open, fair and accessible to all. Today, we remember their priceless contributions into helping frame an India that is—by definition at least—a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic nation.
Born into an upper-caste Hindu family in Kerala, Ammu Swaminathan was a social reformist and educator who fought long and hard for equality for all citizens of India. An activist and champion for women's rights, she later formed the Women’s India Association in 1917 in Madras, along with Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins, Malathi Patwardhan, Mrs. Dadabhoy and Mrs. Ambujammal. She played a considerable role in the Quit India Movement and was an ardent follower of Gandhi. Swaminathan, who was famously called ‘Ammukutty’, became a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly and played an instrumental role in drafting the Indian Constitution. In 1952, she was elected as the member of the Rajya Sabha from Madras constituency. In a famous speech regarding the Constitution, she had said:
“Equal right is a great thing and it is only fitting that it has been included in the Constitution. People outside have been saying that India did not give equal rights to her women. Now we can say that when the Indian people themselves framed their Constitution they have given rights to
women equal with every other citizen of the country.”
Begam Aizaz Rasul
The only Muslim woman in the Constituent Assembly, Begum Aizaz Rasul was very vocal about her opposition to having a separate electorate for Muslims, while drafting the Constitution. Calling the idea of having a separate electorate for Muslims “a self-destructive weapon which separates the minority from the majority for all the time”, Rasul, who was also a member of the Muslim League, convinced the other members of the Constituent Assembly to provide for a more secular India in every way.
Dakshayani Velayudhan made history by becoming the first Dalit woman to be a part of the Constituent Assembly. The leader of the (then titled) ‘depressed classes’, Velayudhan was also among the first few members of the Pulaya Community to be educated and the first woman to wear an upper cloth. Velyudhan’s efforts to fighting for Dalit rights is as instumental as Ambedkar’s.
Also read: Does History Remember These Women?
Durgabai Deshmukh was 12 while participating in the famous Non-Cooperation movement. A reformer, Durgabai later became the Chairwoman of several central organizations like Central Social Welfare Board, National Council for Women’s Education and National Committee on Girls’ and Women’s Education. A member of Parliament and the Planning Commission, she formed the Andhra Mahila Sabha in 1936 and in 1971, she received the Nehru Literary Award for her infinite contributions to the promotion of literacy in India.
Leela Roy was a radical, feminist and social reformer. After graduating college in Kolkata, she was made assistant secretary to the All Bengal Women’s Suffrage Committee and arranged meetings to demand women’s rights. Along with her friends, she even founded the Dipali Sangha in 1923 and helped in the functioning of schools that were paramount in acting as hotspots of political discussions featuring famous leaders and freedom fighters. She was also the first woman from the state of Bengal to be elected to the Constituent Assembly. In 1947, she founded the powerful Jatiya Mahila Sanghati in West Bengal and in 1960, she assumed the role of chairwoman of the political party that was formed by the merger of Jatiya Mahila Sanghati and the Forward Bloc.
Kamla Chaudhary was made the Vice-President of the 54th All India Congress Committee in 1946. A follower of Gandhi and his philosophy, Chaudhary was arrested numerous times for her involvement in the fight for independence. She was also a known Hindi-feminist writer.
Hansa Jivraj Mehta
She was responsible for ensuring that Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’) was changed from “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal”. Born to the Dewan of Baroda, Manubhai Nandshankar Mehta, Hansa Jivraj Mehta studied philosophy and journalism in England. She used her education to return to India and provide for its masses, by teaching and also translating many books for children in Gujarati, including the Gulliver’s Travels. In 1945, she was elected as the President of the All India Women’s Conference.
Nicknamed “toofani” by Mahatma Gandhi for her dazzling energy and belief in the fight for freedom, Malati Choudhary not only played a significant role in the Civil Disobedience Movement, she was also a powerful voice of dissent against tyranny and inequality, and fought for the upliftment of vulnerable communities in Odisha through organisations like Bajiraut Chhatravas, which she founded. She was brought in as an important member of the Constituent Assembly in 1948.
Purnima Banerjee played an important role in the drafting of the Constitution by staying loyal to her socialist ideology. As secretary of the Indian National Congress committee in Allahabad, there responsibilities included engaging and organising trade unions, being a part of farmer meetings and working with all concerned parties towards promoting greater rural engagement. She was also Aruna Asaf Ali’s younger sister.
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur not only made history by becoming India’s first Health Minister, she was also Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years. Extremely vocal about women participation in healthcare and sports, she also founded the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the most famous chains of medical schools and hospitals in the country.
The daughter of an ICS officer and a social worker, Renuka Ray served as the legal secretary of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), after obtaining her degree from the London School of Economics. In 1934, she put forth the famous document: “Legal Disabilities of Women in India; A Plea for a Commission of Enquiry”, where she argued for a uniform personal law code, in terms of the situation of women in the eyes of the law in India. In 1952, she became the president of the AIWC and served on the Planning Commission. In addition to these roles, she was also credited with establishing the All Bengal Women’s Union and the Women’s Coordinating Council.
Despite being overshadowed by the illustrious legacy of her brother, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit held her own ground when it came to contributing to India’s fight for independence and framing the outline of what it was to become. In 1936, she was elected to the Assembly of the United Provinces, and a year later became the first Indian woman to become a cabinet minister (the minister of local self-government and public health).
Sucheta Kriplani is credited with having established the women’s wing of the Congress party in 1940. Kriplani, who served as a member of parliament from Delhi and later, became India’s first woman Chief Minister (in UP), Kriplani is said to have led the Constituent Assembly in singing Vande Mataram, Saare Jahan Se Achcha and the national anthem.
Annie Mascarene played a key role in incorporating the fight for independence in Travancore. Not only was she among the first women to join the Travancore State Congress, she was the first woman to be part of the Travancore State Congress Working Committee. Elected to the First Lok Sabha in the elections of 1951, she was the first woman minister of parliament from Kerala. She had also served as the Minister in Charge of Health and Power from 1949-1950.
Author, freedom fighter, activist: no introductions are necessary for the ‘Nightingale of India’. The first woman to hold the position of President of the Indian National Congress and the first woman Indian State governor, Naidu was known to use her literary prowess and zeal to take India’s fight for independence across the world and to make others sympathetic to its cause. She was also a known champion for women's rights and having studied deeply about women suffrage in England, she fought for women’s right to vote in India. In fact, her contribution is credited for helping represent women’s vote and universal suffrage in India’s Constitution.
(Edited by Neha Baid)