Literally one of the first superstars in Indian public health policy
I was delighted to discover that India’s first Health Minister was a woman — protagonist of my present blog, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (RAK). You may have heard of RAK in her role as the founder of AIIMS, one of the country’s finest higher education institutions, and definitely the best medical research institute in India till today. Not only did she get the Lok Sabha to agree to set up the institution, she also used her fundraising superpowers over a decade during her time as Health Minister to put together the resources to set up the institution.
RAK was Health Minister from 1947 to 1957. She lead the Indian delegation at the World Health Organization and was President of the WHO assembly in 1950. But even before all of that, she was one of the founding members of what seems to have been the most important organization for women’s rights in India — the All India Women’s Conference in 1927. She was a friend to Gandhi and worked as his Secretary till she set off to join and represent half of the population in independent India’s first Cabinet in 1947.
RAK was one of the fifteen female members of the Indian Constituent Assembly (3.8% of the body), read about the rest here. She and a fellow member of the assembly, Hansa Mehta, were the two lone female members in support of a uniform civil code in India. That’s not all, RAK has advocated vehemently against the purdah system, the devadasi system, and child marriage.
Interestingly, RAK was not Nehru’s top choice for the lone female member out of the fifteen individuals who comprised India’s first Cabinet (if you are curious, there were two Dalit members). Nehru was allegedly not in favor of RAK because, “she was sometimes indiscreet and intemperate in her criticism of Congressmen.” (‘Jawaharlal Nehru — A Biography’, Sankar Ghose) On the other hand, Gandhi was shooting for RAK’s candidacy. He wrote to her in 1936 requesting her to become India’s first health minister. The story runs that RAK then asked Gandhi why he was sending her way (remember that she had worked as Gandhi’s secretary for almost two decades). But clearly, Gandhi’s instincts were right in this hiring decision.
The one story about RAK I’ve read in every article commemorating her is that when she introduced the bill to establish AIIMS in the Lok Sabha (Indian lower house of parliament), she did not have a formal speech prepared and spoke in moving extempore. She said to the floor, “It has been one of my cherished dreams that for post graduate study and for the maintenance of high standards of medical education in our country, we should have an institute of this nature which would enable our young men and women to have their post graduate education in their own country”.
RAK had criticized Nehru publicly in 1936, when the latter included names of many many socialists in composing the Congress working committee, but not a single woman (aside: she would be so upset about manels today, my favorite was a manel poster a friend shared with me recently on maternal mortality!!!). RAK was a strong advocate for political agency and participation of women. Interestingly, she did not believe in political reservations for women, like a few of her feminist colleagues. Her thinking was that if universal adult franchise is guaranteed, and the field is truly level, stop gap measures such as quotas or separate electorate would not be required.
I do not casually call her the star of Indian public health just because of her gathering the money and political will to set up AIIMS (no small feat), she also set up the Indian Council of Child Welfare, and the Tuberculosis Association. Her NYT obituary notably remembers her for her stubborn large-scale campaign against malaria. The obituary says, “at the height of the campaign, in 1955, it was estimated that 400,000 Indians who otherwise would have died had been saved by mitigation of malaria in their districts”. In 1956, Princeton awarded her a honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.
Now, an important critique that no one has brought up yet directly of this blog series, but one I’m acutely aware of is the privilege of women who have appeared on this blog. Most have been born in upper caste households, some royal such as RAK, some daughters of erstwhile Prime Ministers of the British era, and mostly well connected (barring a few). The striking thing is all the women I have written about have been Savarna women. I was feeling bad about this but I’m not surprised. Given the share of women who made it in economics and policy was so limited in the decades I’m writing about, it’s hardly a surprise that the first-movers were the ones who had relative privilege… That said, I invite suggestions of glaring omissions of non-Savarna women (I know of Savitribai Phule but that’s about it..), was there a female Ambedkar-esque figure in nascent India? I don’t know yet, but I’ll certainly continue my search far and wide the annals of the internet.