Women in Constituent Assembly: Reasserting the Agency of Dakshayani Velayudhan

If you look at the history of Constituent Assembly Debates with a magnifier, you will find fifteen women loudly and silently registering themselves at the moment and the making of the Indian Constitution. Their voice and their names in the Constituent Assembly Debates, mark their journey from suffering to suffrage.

Lawctopus and Academike bring to you a Women’s Day Special series.

We are revisiting passages and excerpts from the Constituent Assembly Debates voiced by seven of the fifteen women who were part of the Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD).

By Sonali Chugh. 

The Caste and Gender Reality of the First Dalit Women in Constituent Assembly: Dakshayani Velayudhan.

The manifestation of gender discrimination, though vivid and necessary, tend to entomb intersections of caste and religion. In moments of recognising the making of a woman and her gendered reality, it is essential to talk of those women who stood despite graded inequalities.

One such Dalit woman, who claimed many firsts in her name is Dakshayani Velayudhan.

In 1945, Dakshayani was nominated as a member of the Cochin Legislative Council. The very next year she became a member of the Constituent Assembly. Even after her time at the Constituent Assembly, she worked for women and children’s right and set up Mahila Jagriti Parishad for slum dwellers in Delhi.

On an advanced google search, you can find some articles by Meera Velayudhan, daughter of Dakshayani and feminist academician. But most of Dakshayani Velayudhan’s life is lost behind algorithms or was never attempted to be found.

There’s an evident lack of interest in her political and social life and the same goes for the rest of the women who formed a part of the Constituent Assembly.

To talk about Dakshayani Velayudhan then is to recognise her achievements. To reproduce her speech is to recognise her caste and gender. Despite and because of which her voice becomes even more critical today.

These achievements are more important especially because of the graded inequalities that have existed and incarcerated Dalit women much more than the upper-caste women.

Dakshayani Velayudhan with her brother K.K. Madhavan. Source: here

It’s only ironic that as we talk about Dakshayani, the first Dalit woman who was part of the Constituent Assembly, we are completing almost six months to the Hathras gangrape[i] and the impunity that played out after the incident.

Even after all these years of struggle by various Dalit women activists, the gangrape case and its investigation reasserted the truth of post-colonial subordination and caste violence.

Although by reproducing Dakshayani Velayadun’s speech one can’t single-handedly counter the history of systemic and social violence inflicted upon Dalit or tribal women. But it’s also true that by the means of her speech, Velyadhan continues to live beyond her historical existence. Therefore, by platforming her voice, we might be able to retain some sense of hope within ourselves and reassert her historical and political agency.

Dalit women and their bodies were always already incarcerated by the upper-caste male gaze, ousting them from the realm of ‘pure’; an attribute that only upper-caste women could possess. The same reflects in data on violence inflicted upon women, more specifically Dalit women, reducing their bodies to a ‘site of violence’.

Dakshayani, like every other Dalit woman, had to face the caste system and its abuses. The only difference was that at the time, segregation was even more gruesome and explicit.

Despite being pushed beneath the ground, she made it several feet above it. She claimed many firsts in her name, she was the first Dalit woman graduate, a student of B.Sc. chemistry from Maharajas College. Apart from being the first and the only Dalit woman, she was also the youngest in the Constituent Assembly.

Source: From ‘Linking radical traditions and the Contemporary Dalit women’s MOVEMENT: An Intergenerational Lens.’ by Meera Velayudhan.

Born in 1912, along the coast of Cochin, Dakshayani Velayudhan defied Brahmanical patriarchy and the upper-caste imagination of a Dalit woman by the mere act of wearing clothes on her upper body. Even the time of her birth was marked by a wave of revolution and resistance led by the Pulaya caste against untouchability and caste violence.

These moments of resistance led by the Dalit community and within her own family could also be responsible for how she formed herself in the world. Her maternal uncle and elder brothers led the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha on a raft against casteism. In writing her experiences and interactions with the social and her caste, she wrote,

“The meeting was held with country boats tied together in the sea in Bolghatty — the sea did not have a caste. In Kochi, the untouchables were not allowed to hold a meeting ‘on my land’ by the Maharaja. The raft was made by joining together a large number of catamarans with the help and support of the fisherfolk.”[ii]

This went on to become the famous Meeting on the Backwaters in Kerala, Dakshayani had written in detail about the same. She even decided to name her biography after the movement; ‘The Sea has No Caste’.

A Dalit Woman in the Constituent Assembly

From not being able to attend a science experiment in college because of her caste to being a part of the Constituent Assembly, Dakshayani Velayudhan offered a unique resistance.

In her first speech in the Constituent Assembly, she started by paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi, expressing her hope for the ‘Harijans’ of the new India. Though it is important to note that despite being a staunch follower of Gandhi and using the term ‘Harijan’, she believed that the terminology alone couldn’t eradicate untouchability.

According to her,

“The Independent Socialist Indian Republic can give freedom and equality of status to the Harijans.”

But as she saw it, this equality needed an economic upliftment for the Harijans who were being exploited by the ‘so-called communists’. Thus, according to her, economic upliftment and moral safeguards would have resulted in the ‘social’ upliftment of the ‘Harijan community’. The same was possible only in the Independent Socialist Indian Republic.

Claiming Harijan’s Right to Representation

January 27, 1947[iii], she spoke against the seven members who were going to represent the Hindus in the Muslim provinces. In her speech, she had challenged the move and condemned it, claiming inclusivity for Harijans who were very much a part of the Hindus.

“Sir, I find that no Harijan’s name is included among the Hindus. We, Harijans, consider ourselves one with the Hindu community and we have every right to represent the Hindus in the Muslim Provinces. We have every right to represent the Hindus in Bengal or the Hindus in Sindh or Punjab. Somebody remarked now that there are already 7 members of the Harijans on the list. That does not mean that the Harijans have no right to represent the Hindus in the Muslim majority provinces.

So, I simply wanted to bring to the notice of this House that they should not go with the impression that the Harijans here have come only to represent the Harijans of India. We claim that we belong to the Hindu fold. It is the duty of the Hindus to see that the promises that they made should be put into practice by including a Harijan in the list, to represent the Hindus in the Muslim majority provinces. But nobody should be under the impression that I came to speak in this manner here in order that my name may go into the list. I have no desire of that sort because I do not want to represent those provinces, but there are Harijans, who have come from the Muslim majority Provinces, who have every right to represent the Hindus in their Provinces. So, I hope that this House will take into consideration that my opinion is not against the fundamental principle that we are expected to follow.”

I wish to bring to the notice of this House that there is provision for seven members to represent the Hindus in the Muslim provinces. I find that no Harijan’s name is included among the Hindus.  We, Harijans, consider ourselves one with the Hindu community and we have every right to represent the Hindus in the Muslim Provinces. We have every right to represent the Hindus in  Bengal or the Hindus in Sindh or Punjab. Somebody remarked now that there are already 7  members of the Harijans in the list. That does not mean that the Harijans have no right to represent  the Hindus in the Muslim majority provinces.”

On Decentralisation and the Lack of it.

On November 8, 1948,[iv] when the vice-president decided to let the minority speakers of the house lead the discussion, Dakshayani was one of them. In her speech, she contended that the ‘new’ draft constitution was a ‘replica’ of the Government of India Act, 1935. She posed a scathing criticism against the centralisation of power that aped the colonial rule.

The trouble arose from one point, viz., just as the British administrators who wanted to keep India centrally and provincially as a single unit, we in our bewilderment and anxiety tried to bring India centrally and provincially as a strong unit and this centralisation of power has led to all the troubles.

There are two ways of making India a strong unit. One is by the method of centralisation of power and the other is by decentralisation, but centralisation is possible only through a parliamentary system which now goes under the safe words ‘democratic methods’, but in this draft we can’t find anything that is democratic and decentralisation is totally absent. It is a great tragedy that in making the constitution of a great country with thirty crores of people, with a great culture behind it and the great principles and teachings of the greatest man of the world on the surface, we were only able to produce a constitution that is totally foreign to us.

She had specifically spoken against Dr. Ambedkar’s arguments and the continuation of the 1935 Act into the draft of the Constitution, especially concerning the selection of the governor.

“The Committee feels that if the Governor and the Chief Minister who is responsible to the Legislature are elected by the people then there will be friction between the two. But the remedy they have suggested is worse than the disease. There is a panel and the President is to select from the four one person as a Governor. If the Centre happens to have a Congress President and if a province is having a Socialist majority, suppose the Socialist party recommends three from their party and one from the Congress, certainly the President at the Centre will select the Congressman to be the Governor. Certainly, this will lead to friction. We find that this direct recruitment to Governorship is taken from the Government of India Act and it shows that we have not left out even a comma from it.”

A Stance Against Separate Electorate for Harijans

On August 28, 1947[v], while divided India was still healing from open scars and newly formed borders after the Partition, the discussion regarding political safeguards for minorities saw the inclusion of ‘scheduled caste’ and ‘scheduled tribe’ and exclusion of religious minorities.

Dr Ambedkar was in favour of having separate electorates as he saw it as a solution to ‘slavery’. On the other hand, Dakshayani had argued from the nationalist stand of the Congress that was against having a ‘separate electorate’ for ‘scheduled castes’. Her stand resembled Gandhi’s understanding of a separate electorate but was very far from Ambedkar’s idea of necessitating political safeguards for Scheduled Castes.

“As long as the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans or by whatever name they may be called,  are economic slaves of other people, there is no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage. (cheers). Personally speaking, I am not in favour of any kind of reservation in any place whatsoever. (hear, hear).

Unfortunately, we had to accept all these things because British Imperialism has left some marks on us and we are always feeling afraid of one another. So, we cannot do away with separate electorates. This joint electorate and reservation of seats also is kind of separate electorates. But we have to put up with that evil because we think that it is a necessary evil.

I wanted to oppose this amendment because it will be standing in our way and because when the system is put into actual working it will be standing in the way of Harijans, getting a correct ideology. It is the lack of correct ideology among Harijans that has led them to bring this sort of amendment here. If they think that they can better their lot by standing apart from the other communities, they are in the wrong. They can do better by joining with the majority community and not depending on the votes of their own community. I must assure the Mover of the amendment that the Harijans are not going to gain anything if you get this sort of electorate system. So I oppose this amendment and I hope that nobody in this House will support the amendment.”

Endnotes

[i] A 19-year-old Dalit woman was raped and murdered in Uttar Pradesh in September last year. Hathras gangrape Case: CBI files status report before the high court. (2021, February 22). https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/hathras-gangrape-case-cbi-files-status-report-before-high-court-101613969599972.html

[ii] Velayudhan, M. (2018). Linking radical traditions and the Contemporary Dalit women’s MOVEMENT: An Intergenerational Lens. Feminist Review, 119(1), 106-125. doi:10.1057/s41305-018-0125-8

[iii]See Dakshayani Velayudhan, Constituent Assembly Debates, vol II, January 24, 1947, available at Constitution of India

[iv] See Dakshayani Velayudhan ‘MOTION re. DRAFT CONSTITUTION’, Constituent Assembly Debates, vol VII, November 8, 1948, available at Constitution of India

[v] See Dakshayani Velayudhan discussion on ‘Report of Minority Rights’, Constituent Assembly Debates, vol V, August 28, 1947, available at Constitution of India

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