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 Umang Poddar.
In 1942, when the Quit India movement had started, members of the Indian National Congress were distributing pamphlets asking the Indian troops to resign from their jobs. Lots of people, including hordes of women, were arrested in these agitations. Among them, was one firebrand leader, Ammu Swaminathan.
Ammu Swaminathan, since her childhood, was not one of those to be bogged down by societal norms. After she was married at the age of 13, she trained herself in English as well as other foreign languages. She decided to learn the ways and mores of the society but used it to get her point and ideas across. These were a pre-condition to her marrying her husband, something which he readily agreed to.
Throughout her life, she stood for the idea of gender equality and also spoke against caste discrimination. In fact, her marriage was registered in England, for she stood against certain practices of their communities when it came to inheritance and responsibilities of the man towards women in the family.
Yet, like the common thread in the series, very little is written about her. Most of the information on the web talks about the same instances.
Her voice in the Constituent Assembly
Ammu Swaminathan was a member of the Constituent Assembly from the Madras Constituency. Amongst all the women who spoke in the Assembly, her speech was the shortest (around 1000 words). Yet, the ideas she spoke of are the ones stood for and also worked towards in her life.
On the length of the Constitution
One of her key contentions was that the Constitution should be so small that it could be carried in a pocket (a suggestion which might make students of Constitutional Law rather happy).
I always imagined a constitution and still believe, to be a small volume which one could carry in ones purse or pocket and not a huge big volume. There was no necessity to go into so many details as has been done here. All the details, I think, should have been left to the Government and the legislatures.
On making the Constitution work
She acknowledged the magnitude of the task undertaken, and the impact it would have on society. However, something which she warned about was that what is written on paper would have value only when people want to pay heed to it. This has become particularly important in today’s context, when the ideas of the Constitution are being flouted, and certain basic principles like ‘secularism’ are openly being touted as unworkable.
I think if we are to deserve this Constitution we have to make up our minds to work it, into something alive and something that will be of benefit to every citizen of this country. I know that the Constitution gives us in the Fundamental Rights, equal status, adult franchise […] but […] we have to see that these ideas and ideals which are on paper in the Constitution are implemented by the people of this country.
Let us hope that in the years to come this Constitution will be considered as something worthy of our country.
Her speech emphasized two aspects of the Constitution- the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy.
The fundamental rights of the people of India are guaranteed in such matters as freedom of speech, association and worship. The last is a very vital question to the people of this country.
Equality and Women’s Rights
She was instrumental in setting up the Women’s India Association, which advocated for women’s rights. It grew into one of the largest women’s rights organizations. She also played an important role in signing up housewives for Indian National Congress, and was heavily inspired by the ideas of Mahatama Gandhi.
There’s a story about when she was jailed she heard someone refer to one of the sanitary workers as “shudrachi”. Hearing this, she angrily walked up to the person, and said: “I’m a shudrachi too. Tell me.”
However, while talking about these aspects, one must also remember the intersectionality of the challenges faced by women. In our previous article, we discussed the multitude of problems faced by Dakshayani Velayudhan. In Ammu Swaminathan’s case, she was a Tamil Brahmin, who belonged to an affluent family that “indulged her all the way”. She was also fond of heavy saris and throwing elaborate parties. Still, this doesn’t take away from the work she did.
Her speech ended with focusing on women’s rights. A tribute fitting for what she did through her life-
Equal rights is a great thing and it is only fitting that it has been included in the Constitution. People outside have been saying that India did not give equal rights to her women. Now we can say that when the Indian people themselves framed their Constitution they have given rights to women equal with every other citizen of the country.
Another thing that strikes while talking about Ammu Swaminathan is the focus on her family. It is probably a testament to how we generally view women’s lives through their husbands or children.
However, a silver lining is that her daughters were stalwarts in their own fields, probably evidence of the impact their mother would have had on their upbringing and outlook.