Remembering the Women Who Helped Shape India's Constitution

The Centre for Women’s Development Studies’ 2018 calendar revolves around two women members of the constituent assembly – Dakshayani Velayudhan and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

New Delhi: The contributions and role of the women who helped draft the constitution of free India was front and centre last week at the release of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies’ 2018 calendar  – ‘Women at the Midnight Hour’. The calendar revolves around two of those eminent women members of the constituent assembly – Dakshayani Velayudhan and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

At a time when the agency of adult women to govern their own lives has come under threat, and with the country completing 70 years of independence, the CWDS has chosen to draw focus to the 15 women in the 299-member constituent assembly. “Yes, there were only 15,” said Malavika Karlekar, under whom the organisation has been producing calendars for over a decade.

According to her, the CWDS calendar grew organically out of an exhibition which was aimed at recording the history of women over a century and a half through photographs. These images in the ‘Representing Indian Women 1875-1947: A Visual Documentary’ exhibition eventually became a part of the organisation’s calendars.

For the 2018 calendar, the photographs were contributed by Meera Velayudhan – the daughter of Dakshayani – and Manjari Mehta, whose grandmother Vijaya Lakshmi was an eminent part of the assembly.

“What’s really of significance about these women is that individually they had such diverse trajectories. And together they contributed towards a very rich history,” said Meera, who along with Mehta launched the CWDS calendar at the India International Centre Annexe on December 7, an event attended by members of several women’s organisations and those part of the academic community.

Meera’s mother was the first Dalit woman from Kerala to graduate from Madras University. In 1945, she was nominated to the Cochin Legislative Council that elected her to the constituent assembly. “That’s the most important part about the members of the constituent assembly – the rich and diverse trajectories that existed,” said Meera, whose mother played an active role in the assembly and spoke for making untouchability illegal.

Dakshayani, who features in the first six months of the CWDS calendar, strongly opposed reservation or separate electorates and worked towards a vision of India free of caste or community barriers. She held that the assembly should offer the people a “new framework of life”.

Dakshayani at a function with C. Rajagopalachari, governor general of India, to her left. Next to him is N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, senior member of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. Courtesy: Meera Velayudhan/CWDS

An integral contribution that the members made during the debates, according to Meera, was laying emphasis on concepts of liberty and non-discrimination, which she says are among the key principles of the constitution.

“These principles are under threat today,” added Mehta. “This is a moment so frightening in the life of our country, the moment when this powerful document is being lost.”

Mehta’s grandmother Vijay Lakshmi, who she says was an important figure in her life when she was growing up, was the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post in pre-independent India. A decade before independence, she moved a resolution demanding a constitution, and among other issues, she spoke on the ‘Centrality of New Asia in Post-Raj World Order’.

According to Aparna Basu, who was present in the Parliament House when the transfer of power took place on August 14-15, the 2018 calendar draws attention to the fact that the courage and enthusiasm displayed by members of the constituent assembly and others in the freedom struggle helped provide women with a political narrative in post-independence India.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. A cropped version of this iconic photograph showing only the two leaders became very popular shortly after independence. Courtesy: Manjari Mehta/CWDS

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. A cropped version of this iconic photograph showing only the two leaders became very popular shortly after independence. Courtesy: Manjari Mehta/CWDS

Basu, who is the secretary general and president of the All India Women’s Conference, recalled how she happened to be in the assembly hall that day. Her father was a member of the constituent assembly, and asked Basu – who was a teenager at the time – to join him at the assembly hall owing to her passion towards politics and current affairs.

“I was thrilled because how many such historic moments occur in a lifetime? To be able to witness it would be a rare opportunity,” she felt at the time. The assembly hall – now Parliament House – was “brilliantly-lit that day”, she recalled, adding that the proceedings began at 11 am with the signing of the ‘Vande Mataram’. Following the speeches, most revered among which was Jawaharlal Nehru’s, a group of women sang ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’ and the first few words of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’.

Nehru’s iconic ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, which he ended in a choked voice, brought tears to the eyes of several members that morning, Basu recalled. The women members of the constituent assembly – representing the women of India – then formally presented the national flag to the assembly. The cover of the CWDS 2018 calendar features 11 of these women.

“As we came out of the building, there were thousands gathered at what we now call Vijay Chowk,” she said. “Enthusiasm of the people was unbelievable. Every one of us felt that we were embarking on a journey of building a new, independent and vibrant India.”

Cover image of CWDS 2018 calendar featuring 11 of the 15 women members of the constituent assembly. Courtesy: Meera Velayudhan/CWDS

Sharada Nayak, who was also present at the Parliament House on the historic day 70 years ago, got an opportunity to meet several of these women when she was in college at Lady Irwin. “They talked to us girls and we sort of imbibed a lot of their activism, idealism and energy that they brought to whatever they were doing,” she shared.

What was extraordinary about those 15 women, according to Subhashini Ali, was that none of them were a proxy for anyone. Not one was a part of the constituent assembly because she was somebody’s daughter, wife or widow. This is something that is no longer true for most female members of the parliament.

“They came from different levels of conservative families, traditional families. They were all women who knew what the plight of Indian women was. They knew the kind of humiliation, violence and discrimination that Indian women faced and they came to speak about all these things.” They spoke of bonded labour and about the problems of minorities. Many even asserted the need for equality of languages and propagated states’ rights as opposed to a strong Centre.

“The remarkable part is the tremendous hope they had, it’s also this hope that also made them very unrealistic,” said Ali. Most were against reservation for women in the parliament and believed that new India would be one with gender equality.

From left: Aparna Basu, Sharada Nayak, Subhashini Ali and Malavika Karlekar at the CWDS 2018 calendar launch at India International Centre Annexe. Credit: Amanat Khullar

From left: Aparna Basu, Sharada Nayak, Subhashini Ali and Malavika Karlekar at the CWDS 2018 calendar launch at the India International Centre Annexe. Credit: Amanat Khullar/ The Wire

According to Ali, more than being unrealistic, they were speaking from a strong sense of belief and of hope in the future. “They were looking back and looking at how far they had come. They couldn’t believe we would not be going further.”

The vision of India that they had is being lost today, believes Ali, the president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. A large part of the country, she said, does not even accept the tenets of the constitution.

“We’re just divided into people who are trying to put each other down on the basis of birth. We can never become a true democracy like this,” she said.

At a time when women still do not have the right to marry of their own free will, those pushing for removing caste barriers are being laughed at and the killing of Muslims in broad daylight has somehow become acceptable, the constitution is something that we must speak of and value now more than ever.

“We should remember these 15 remarkable, brave women who didn’t think they were representing only themselves. They always spoke on behalf of other women,” said Ali. “It’s also important to remember the debates that went into the making of the constitution. We better start taking it seriously now because it’s about to be snatched away from us.”

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