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#Showmethewomen — makers of modern India

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

“May we see them, May we be them”

The past year has been nothing short of disheartening, with many many households sliding back into poverty, governments-citizen trust and relations in a depressing mess, and loss of life. Amidst all this, I returned to Delhi with my partner after wrapping up my graduate degree in public policy to throw myself into the economics and policy world of Delhi. As a young woman just beginning her policy journey, I am curious about who came before me.

Most Indians would know the names of the makers of modern India off the bat — Nehru, Patel, BR Ambedkar, Shastri, Gandhi, and so on. Those enthusiastic about history, and engaged in policy would also tell you about PC Mahalobnis, VP Krishna Menon, Vinoba Bhabe, KN Raj, and the list goes on. When we think of the transformative opening up of the Indian economy in 1991 — Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia are the first names that come to mind. Ok, but where were the women? Yes yes, I know there was Indira Gandhi, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and Sarojini Naidu, but who were the others who actively participated in policy dialogue and shaped economic thought in our country?

I have often lazily google-d Indian female economists to take stock of who came before me, and this mint article was the closest approximation of closure for me.

Hungry to know everything that has happened in detail (post 1947 that is) before I arrived as a policy professional — I started with “India After Gandhi” by Ramchandra Guha. I started keeping a note of every boss-lady (for lack of a better word that captures my sentiment here) that appeared in his book. A girlfriend gave me Isher Judge Ahluwalia’s biography, I am extremely embarrassed to admit I did not know of her till I read her incredible memoir. I also saw Jayati Ghosh’s review of Devaki Jain’s memoir on twitter, and decided I had to read it immediately. I also had no idea about Devaki Jain’s stature in Indian feminist economics before I read the book. In her memoir, she mentions several stellar women in economics and policy — her colleagues and contemporaries from the early years of India. I kept adding to my list.

This blog series is a dedication to these inspiring human beings. My textbooks and curriculum never mentioned them since, go figure, the male gaze. Amartya Sen is an intellectual rock-star but so were his female contemporaries in India who engaged and challenged him in dialogue. These women existed, they were as feisty and motivated as us, and I’m putting this blog series together in case others (men and women) have not had the chance to know their greatness.

Also, the hashtag #showmethewomen isn’t original. A senior of mine when I was an undergrad at Cornell ran a campaign with this hashtag to highlight Cornell female alumna in STEM — since the walls were full of portraits of men, and conspicuously so. I figured it made sense to do the same for the modern economic and policy history of India.

Note that the following blogs in these series are quick introductions to some incredible women in the history of Indian economics and policy that I have come across. Each blog is a bite-sized review of what I found amazing about them, with links to their biographies (etc.) if they exist. This isn’t a careful historical archiving undertaking — if only I had the time, resources, and skill to do that.

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