Representation at the midnight hour when “India awoke to life and freedom”
Nehru’s famous tryst with destiny speech marks the beginning of the India we know and live in today. There was a jubilant crowd of men and women in front of the Red Fort that night. There were two female voices at the midnight session where independence was declared and celebrated. That night, Sucheta Kripalani, who later served as India’s first female Chief Minister governing the province of Uttar Pradesh, sang the national song, Vande Mataram. The second woman was the protagonist of the last blog of this series, Hansa Jivraj Mehta.
On 15th August, 1947, Hansa Mehta stood beside the first Prime Minister and President of independent India waiting for the midnight hour. After the President took the pledge of freedom, Hansa Mehta offered the national flag to him on behalf of the women of India, and addressed the house, “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India”. Hansa also pledged the service of Indian women to the newborn secular republic.
That there was a strong female voice at the very beginning was important for me to know. It serves as a precedent for the subsequent generations of Indian women invested in serving the secular republic of India.
Hansa Mehta was one of the 15 female members who were part of the Constituent Assembly (N = 389). She was born in 1897 to a wealthy Brahmin family in Surat, Gujarat. Her father had served as the Dewan of Baroda and Bikaner. Given her privileged upbringing, Hansa was able to study journalism at the London School of Economics. While at LSE, she travelled to the US to understand the educational and social institutions there, and gather inputs on how to establish a women’s college in India emulating those that existed in the US. Later, she became the first woman to lead a university not confined to women (University of Baroda). Hansa Mehta was an active influence in shaping education policy in India — many of her ideas were well ahead of her time.
In her personal life, Hansa defied social mores and with the Maharaja of Baroda’s help managed to convince her father to let her proceed with an inter-caste marriage with Jivraj Mehta, a doctor with a relatively apolitical life. Jivraj Mehta, did however get arrested once on account of Hansa’s active role (under Gandhiji’s advice) in leading the first batch of Desh Sevikas (female freedom fighters) in protest and picketing in Bombay in the 1930s.
In 1937, when the Congress formed a Ministry in Bombay presidency, Hansa was asked to serve as Parliamentary Secretary of the Health and Education departments. In this role, she started working actively on education reform. She emphasized on inclusion of vocational subjects in the high school curriculum. Under her leadership, the Secondary School Certificate Examination Board was created so that universities could not turn away students with vocational training. She pushed for admitting a greater share of women (50% was her ask) in Teacher Training colleges as a lack of female teachers was a bottleneck for girls’ education.
Hansa also served as the President of the All India Women’s Conference in 1946. She mobilized and drafted the Indian Woman’s Charter of Rights and Duties that asked for gender equality in terms of civil rights, education attainment, wages, property rights, and equality under marriage laws. She was instrumental in mobilizing the Sarada Act that abolished child marriage, and abolition of the Devadasi system.
Hansa was a fierce supporter of the controversial Hindu Code Bill. During the parliamentary debates on Hindu personal law reform in 1948, Hansa asserted that inheritance laws should not discriminate by gender, and lobbied for legitimacy of a woman’s right to divorce. Her broader vision was that women should be treated by the government as individuals, as opposed to letting their husbands, fathers, and sons determine their rights.
In 1947, Hansa also served as the Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and Vice-Chair to Eleanor Roosevelt. Her service at the UNHCR was non-trivial. She is credited for the change of the opening lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from “All men and born free and equal..” to “All human beings are born free and equal…”
In addition to being an educator, a freedom fighter, a parliamentarian, and a world leader, Hansa was a prolific writer. Her grandfather had written the first every Gujarati novel. She translated Hamlet and Gulliver’s Travels to Gujarati. She has written 15 books including The Woman Under The Hindu Law Of Marriage & Succession (1944) and The Indian Woman (1981).
It has been three decades since this fearless woman’s life of service to the republic ended. Yesterday, the only female incumbent head of government in the country held on to her position after months of a vitriolic election. This was not the first time she was publicly heckled and humiliated. She has been called horrific names (that I cannot bring myself to repeat) by her opponents in the past. She has been attacked partly because both government and society continue to be confused by the existence of a woman not dependent on a man.
Our country had such a promising start as evidenced by the lives of the women I have profiled in these series. I don’t think it’s too late to get back on track.