How far have Indian women come?

Women have made progress, but they are still far away from realising the dreams of the republic’s founding mothers.

Sarojini Naidu was one of the vigorous members of India's freedom struggle movement [Getty Images]

On January 26, 1950, the single most important document in the history of independent India came into force: its constitution.

Over the last six decades the constitution of India has been called many things: an experiment, a miracle, an aberration, a cornerstone and even an embarrassment.

Interestingly these were much the same things that the Republic of India itself was called in its foundational years – a well-meaning experiment in self-determination that was bound to fail.

It has become a hobby of late for historians of the Indian republic to pick on those original sceptics and jeer at them. But in those initial years of freedom – a period of great trysts with destiny, audacity, venality and cruelty – these doubts in the Indian republic were not without merit.

There just seemed to be too many obstacles in India’s path to respectable nationhood. India was born to throbbing rancour within and without. In Pakistan it had an instant arch-nemesis.

Within its borders it was divided into hundreds of pieces both politically – in the form of the princely states and provinces – and socially, thanks to a multitude of languages, religions, castes and other partitions of varying porosity.

Each time this young nation was faced with a crisis these original doubts resurfaced. Anything from a war with China to Nehru’s failing health in the 60s was pointed out as signs of the republic’s impending collapse.

Yet it has survived and, on many accounts, survived well. Much of the credit for this survival and institutional tenacity is owed to the Indian constitution and to the founding fathers and mothers who drafted this document.

Role of women

But what role did women play in the drafting of this document? Did they play any role at all? And if they did, how has it made the republic better or worse for women?

These questions summon particular gravity given the ongoing debate on the state of women in India. To be fair there has never been a period when disappointing news about Indian women have not been forthcoming.

Female foeticide, misogyny, rape, violence against women, dowry and maternal healthcare have always been problems.

But a rash of brutal sexual assaults in India’s biggest cities have unleashed uncommonly sustained outrage. There is talk of tougher punishment, better policing and even new legislation.

In this climate it is worth looking back at the role of Indian women during the foundational period of modern India’s history. Their role was considerable.

The body that debated and drafted India’s constitution was called the Constituent Assembly. It met for the very first time on December  9,1946. According to the records of the parliament of India, on this opening day 207 members presented the credentials and signed a register. Nine of these were women.

Over the next several months the strength of the Assembly would fluctuate as more members joined and left it. (Many left to move across the border and join Pakistan’s own constituent assembly.)

Ultimately the Assembly would have a membership of 299 members of whom 15 were women.

It is impossible to overstate the diversity of the backgrounds of these women.

There were names like Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Sarojini Naidu and Sucheta Kripalani who had all been vigorous members of India’s freedom struggle movement and were very known all over the country.

Then there were members like Ammu Swaminathan, Begum Aizaz Rasul and Dakshayani Velayudhan who were less known then and even lesser so today.

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the member for “Central Provinces and Berar/General”, was an aristocrat belonging to the royal house of Kapurthala in Punjab. A graduate of the Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset and then Oxford University, Kaur would go on to become an ardent Gandhian before independence and a formidable politician and diplomat afterwards.

Dakshayani Velayudhan, by contrast, was born to a poor school teacher and coconut farmer of the low Pulaya caste in Kerala.

Many firsts

In a memoir published in 2012 Velayudhan’s daugher, Meera Velayudhan wrote this about her mother: “There were many firsts in my mother’s life – the first girl to wear an upper cloth, the first dalit woman graduate in India, a science graduate, a member of the Cochin Legislative Council and of the Constituent Assembly. Many assertions were also made, of not walking with shoulders bent nor making way for the upper castes when walking on the road.” (At the time lower caste women in many places in Kerala were forbidden to cover their breasts.)

Thus even though the contingent of women in India’s Constituent Assembly were very small, they represented extremes of female Indian reality across geographic and social spectra.They also made their presence felt.

The constituent assembly took two years, eleven months and seventeen days to draft India’s constitution. It held eleven sessions, comprising 165 days, on debates and discussion.

The transcripts of these debates and discussions form an integral part of India’s “creation myth”. They deserve to be known and read widely. They are not. And if any of the discussions are quoted they are usually the ones pertaining to speeches made by the titans of India’s constitution story: Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and above all, B R Ambedkar.

Substantial contributions were made by the women in the assembly too. These range from the hot-topic of whether the assembly should meet on Sundays – thereby depriving Christian members from the chance to attend church services – to the much more substantial debate over whether the parliament should have seats reserved for women.

For instance this is Renuka Ray speaking on August 30, 1947 on the topic of religious education in public funded schools:

“Surely denominational schools cannot be run by a democratic secular state. Such schools may be recognised or even aided, but as the State, we envisage under the new Constitution, will be secular having no State religion as such, it cannot set up denomination institutions as State schools… I do not say that denominational religious education should not be allowed. But education given by the State should have the teaching of moral and spiritual values…”

And this is Velayudhan opposing separate electoral reservations for untouchables on August 28, 1947:

“Even if the Harijans are given this percentage of votes, and this kind of electorate system, the Harijans are not in a position to withstand the attractions that they will have to face at the time of the elections. So many parties can set up candidates and then can purchase the Harijans and put up any candidate they desire…”

Opposing women’s reservation

It is evident from these excerpts that the female members of the constituent assembly in no way limited their inputs to matters of gender. Yet nowhere is their participation more counter-intuitive than in the matter of electoral reservations for women.

Over the last decade or so there has been a move in the Indian parliament to pass reform that would reserve a certain percentage of seats in central and state legislatures for women. Such a reservation already exists in local government bodies, and there has been a plan to extend this to the real bodies of federal and state powers as well.

Women are undoubtedly better off than they were in 1947. Yet we are still far away from achieving the dreams that our founding mothers set us.

by Sidin Vadukut,

However the opposition to this has been considerable and the bill currently resides in a sort of legislative purgatory where many Indian reforms throng.

But six decades ago most of the women on the constituent assembly vehemently spoke against such a reservation for women. They desired nothing more or less than complete political equality with men.

This despite the fact that they had inherited an imperially imposed electoral system with women’s reservations. A system that had enabled many of them to find places on the constituent assembly in the first place.

Yet women members such as Renuka Ray felt that reservations would merely help to shackle down women instead of empowering them. On July 18, 1947, Ray spoke thus against reservations for women:

“In the legislatures of India, we have some women, but there are few women who have come from general constituencies… When there is reservation of seats for women, the question of their consideration for general seats, however competent they may be, does not usually arise. We feel that women will get more chances in the future to come forward and work in the free India, if the consideration of ability alone.”

Why then, six decades later, is India once again thinking of reserving seats for women? The answer to that question also helps answer a much broader question: has today’s India lived up to aspirations and hopes of the founding mothers who helped write its constitution?

India’s constitution was an ambitious document written by ambitious men and women. Men and women who were fully aware of the weight of history on their shoulders and the awesome responsibility this new freedom entailed.

In their exuberance they set goals for this nation that it has since achieved with mixed success. By any metric India is a richer, healthier, better informed nation today with much greater self-respect than it had six decades ago.

Yet, as the recent reports of rape, violence and gender-based discrimination tell us, India continues to be a country with problems to solve when it comes to women’s issues.

Women are undoubtedly better off than they were in 1947. Yet we are still far away from achieving the dreams that our founding mothers set us.

On December 19, 1946, constituent assembly member Hansa Mehta said:

“What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice. We have asked for that equality which can alone be the basis of mutual respect and understanding and without which real cooperation is not possible between man and woman. Women form one half of the population of this country and, therefore, men cannot go very far with out the cooperation of women. This ancient land cannot attain its rightful place, its honoured place in this world without the co-operaton of women.”

It is a call to arms that is just as relevant to India today as it was all those years ago.