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The invisible women engineers of the Indian Constitution

Imagine, how it would have been, had our constitution been a small pocketbook which we could carry around everywhere. If this was a reality, we could just whip out the book if we were illegally detained at a police station. Or maybe, rattle on the articles of the constitution as an act of defiance, when some law official tried to intimidate us with dire consequences if we didn’t bribe them enough.

Annie Mascarene (left) and Durgabai Deshmukh

Although the idea seems quite far-fetched, we can’t deny the convenience of accessibility and the quick availability of knowledge about our rights. This was what social activist and political worker Ammu Swaminathan suggested when the constitution was drafted. One of the 15 women of who helped in forming the Indian Constitution, Ammu applauded equal rights given to Indian women and hoped that the document would help people realise their duties and responsibilities towards the State.

In 1950, the Indian Constitution came into being. Sixty-six years after the document was formulated, India is still stuck in the age-old gender battles. Reservation for women in the parliament is still a hot topic for debate, and so are so many gender-related social issues that still need to be sorted out.

Begum Aizaz Rasul photographed with the lady member of the Ceylon Parliamentary Delegation

However, the 15 women from 1950s were liberated beyond imagination, at a time when the only role women had was in the kitchen. While the Indian women were raising kids and were happy running their households, these ladies were making waves with their daring voices, and upsetting quite many male colleagues in the parliament.

They took on issues that were relevant at that time: the practice of Devadasis, a tradition where women offered themselves towards god, and then was openly used in prostitution by the priests; illegal police detention, child marriage. These women, who were educated, deemed how important it was for women to learn and be educated so that they knew about their rights. They spoke against child marriage and minority rights. It was not enough that certain rights were dispensed to the elite and powerful… they wanted every Indian to have all these rights.

by Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 9 November 1931
Hansa Mehta with her husband, circa 9 November 1931

The parliament too made some token concession. Some of these members were allowed to speak beyond their allotted time in the Rajya Sabha, given more speech time than their male colleagues because they were women!

While history has made us familiar with the names of Sarojini Naidu and Vijaylakhsmi Pandit, the remaining 13 members’ contribution has been obscured with the passage of time.

Vijaylaxmi Pandit with her brother Jawaharlal Nehru

Begum Aizaz Rasool spoke about the need to do away with purdah and a uniform civil code, and Hansa Mehta, an advocate and a politician, advocated for women’s rights. Sections from her charter of rights for Indian women, created in 1927, were later adopted into the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. She went to become the UN’s Human Rights Council and put India on the global map.

Purnima Banerji fought against illegal detention, Dakshayani Velayudhan fought for Dalit rights. Annie Mascarene emphasised that centralisation was important. Durgabai Deshmukh suggested the appointment of judges in provincial high courts, need for independence of judiciary, process of appointing the governor, and establishment of new high courts in new states. Purnima Banerjee worked on a clause that to ensure there’s no community or religion based discrimination in state-aided schools. Renuka Ray aimed for proper budget allocation for education.

Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu

These women were more advanced in their thoughts than the bunch of squabbling parliamentarians that India has today. In the Constituent Assembly debates, they debated for the need to do away with reservations for women. Equality in all aspects was what they strived for young India.