The Forgotten Princess: Life and Work of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur

GLA University - B.Com | LLB | B.A.
GLA University | B.Com | LLB | B.A.

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 for the month of March.

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).

Written by Astha Jain, edited and co-authored by Sonali Chugh. Astha is a second-year student from the School of law, Jagran Lake City University in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

Among the fifteen women in the Constituent Assembly, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur has a mighty little chance of being recalled. To be fair, she does have more search results on Google. Perhaps because of her title or her association with Gandhi. Both of these aspects were very much her, none less than the other. But she was certainly more than just it.

Astha Jain lays down a lucid and detailed account of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who was much more than her title and her Gandhian philosophy.

If you look closely at the pictures of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, you might just feel a sense of divinity and an outpouring of confidence peering back at you. If you read enough about her, you will able to see courage and conviction glaring through her eyes.

‘Rajkumari’, a princess, not only by her title but by her work and humility. Amrit Kaur devoted her life to India and its people.

Kaur was amongst the other women members in the Constituent Assembly. She visits us every Women’s Day with the rest of the women as listicles. Her role in the Constituent Assembly reverberates through the Constitution. She was part of the Sub Committee on Fundamental Rights and Minority Rights. She was also a member of the Finance and Staff Committee and Provincial Constitution Committee.

PIMR Indore Admission

Moving beyond her title of a ‘Rajkumari’ to the titles she earned by her work. To list a few:

Kaur was the first woman Cabinet Minister of Independent India. Also, the first woman health minister. The founder of All India Women’s Conference, Delhi wing. She served as the official delegate at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, representing India.  Kaur was elected as the President of the World Health Assembly. She was also the first woman who chaired the Indian Red Cross Society for fourteen years. She served as the President of the Indian Leprosy Association and Tuberculosis Association. Kaur was on the Board of Trustees of All India Spinners Association and Hindustani Talimi. Apart from all that and much more, she was an adept Tennis Player. She even served as the President of the All India Lawn Tennis Association and the Table Tennis Federation of India.

*Authors Gasp*

Early Life

India, in the 1800s, was devoid of a socio-political and economic footing for women. Women’s bodies and existence was fraught with taboos, speech and identities bound within archaic norms and traditions. Towards the end of a patriarchal century, defined by dowry, devadasi, child marriage and infanticide, Amrit Kaur was born in a royal setting in 1889.

The same year as Former Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, only less known and more forgotten.

Kaur was born and raised in an Indian Royal Family of Kapurthala, United Province (present-day, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh) to Raja ‘Sir’ Harnam Singh & Rani Priscilla Kaur Sahiba. Her privilege of being a royal led her to study in the United Kingdom. She did her undergraduate degree from Oxford University, London, and eventually came back to India at the age of 20.

Becoming Gandhian

Amrit Kaur’s father was an ardent nationalist and had assisted in the freedom struggle. At the time, many members of the Congress Party visited him, this is considered as one of the factors that nudged her towards politics and the independence struggle.

In the book, ‘Letters to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’ one can find Amrit Kaur’s source of inspiration and her motive to join politics. The book consists of a bunch of letters written by M.K. Gandhi to Kaur, compiled by Richard Gregg, these letters are telling of their shared struggle.

In the ‘Foreword’ of the book, Kaur called these letters as the source of her ‘infinite solace as well as hope and guidance’. In her letter to Gregg, she had enunciated how she came to know of Gandhi from Gopal Krishna Gokhale as the latter used to visit her father often along with other Congress members. (Gandhi & Kaur, 1961 vi)

“I tried to learn about Gandhiji from Mr Gokhale and when Bapu came to India for good in the winter of 1915-1916. I had the privilege of meeting him at the session in Bombay and Lucknow. Later I met him in Jullundur after the Jallianwala Bagh disaster.”

Despite being tacitly involved in the movement and helping Gandhi in small acts of freedom, she couldn’t leave her family to be actively involved in the freedom struggle. In 1930, only after her father passed away, Amrit Kaur joined Gandhi. She was part of the Dandi march and was even imprisoned for her participation. Thereafter, she moved to Gandhi’s Ashram and for sixteen years served as his secretary.

Archives of her association with Gandhi form a critical part of her and the telling of her history. She has written a detailed account of how she drew inspiration from Bapu. (Gandhi & Kaur, 1961 vii). She wrote,

“What drew me to Bapu was his desire to have women in his non-violent army & his faith in womankind. This was an irresistible appeal to a woman in a land where women were looked upon as only fit for producing children and serving their lords and masters!”

Her bend towards Gandhi and his ideology seems to follow from her search for emancipation and dissociation from the conservative bounds of royalty. It could be her stint for freedom that led her to champion women’s causes for the rest of her life.

Championing Women’s Cause

In 1928, Kaur along with Rameshwari Nehru found the Delhi Women’s League, the Delhi branch of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). The AIWC was first born out of an appeal by Margaret Cousins to form Constituent Conferences to address issues of education, child marriage and so on. She served as the president of AIWC for three years (Jain, 1992 9).

Amrit Kaur worked ferociously for women’s education and against archaic social norms that bound women in the private and public sphere. For her, a women’s religion couldn’t be that of ‘ritual and dogma’ but one that appealed to justice. She urged for women’s participation in the independence struggle and inspired them to take charge of their agency and being.

“Women must be made aware of what a pitiful condition our country is in and what part they have to play in making her free. They must be made aware of their latent strength. It is my firm conviction that unless and until we develop within ourselves the belief that moral stamina is able to withstand all the onslaughts of physical might, we shall not be able to divest ourselves of the inferiority complex which millions of years of man’s domination has bred in us nor we will be able to help in bringing in a world where might shall no longer be right.”

In a piece by Renuka Ray titled ‘India’s first Women Cabinet Minster’, she wrote a detailed account of Amrit Kaur’s political life. Ray’s writing enunciates Kaur’s role after independence in the Constituent Assembly. Highlighting the latter’s active engagement in uplifting the status of women all through her life. (Ray, 1992 45)

“During those days, the fourteen women who were members of the Constituent Assembly met very often together and it was under her guidance that we were able to put up a united and concrete stand in regard to Women’s rights.” 

Rajkumari was vehemently against what she called were ‘ugly customs’. At the time, she especially paraded against purdah and child marriage. Despite working for women and child rights almost all through her life, it might be astounding that she was averse to the idea of reservation for women. Her argument against reservation in the Constituent Assembly did not come from the view of equating strength but from social equality and suffrage.

Kaur like many other women members of the Constituent Assembly including Sarojini Naidu had opposed securing women reservation in the Lok Sabha. She said,

In the matter of representation it was felt that if practical equality were secured for women in the domain of franchise, they would be able to find their way into the legislative and administrative institutions of the country through the open door of an ordinary election, and no special expedients such as reservation of seats, nomination, co-option or separate electorates would then be necessary.”

Although she and other women in the Constituent Assembly were confident that equality in the social and political domain would translate into more women in the assembly. The same did not pan out quite like how it was imagined. In 1952, during the first election, only forty-three women contested and merely fourteen made it to the Lok Sabha.

It’s only disheartening that his pattern of underrepresentation continues to foster in both the houses of the Indian parliament even today.

On Uniform Civil Code

Amrit Kaur believed that introducing the Uniform Civil Code could save women from the ills of personal laws. Her ideas about religion were emancipatory and the same reflected in her endeavour for interreligious marriage.

In her book, Ray has also laid out how disappointed women members of the Constituent Assembly and Dr B.R. Ambedkar were when the Uniform Civil Code did not make it to Fundamental Rights. Kaur and others were not quite thrilled when UCC was placed under the Directive Principles of State Policy.

Ray has also mentioned that it was the paucity of time and Nehru’s anxiety to complete the Constitution in record time which led to UCC’s inclusion under Directive Principles instead of Fundamental Rights. In her piece, Ray continues,

“Apart from the Uniform Civil Code for citizens, even such matters of utmost gravity and importance as the provisions for free and compulsory education for children and equal justice and free legal aid and other important subjects were relegated to the Directive Principles of State Policy. Had we waited for another 6 or 8 months, the position might have been very different.” (Ray, 1992 45)

India’s First Health Minister 

‘Rajkumari’ Amrit Kaur became the first women in Independent India to be a part of the Central Cabinet as the Health Minister, Government of India. For a decade up until 1957, she held the Health portfolio. During her time as Health Minister, she rolled out several welfare schemes for Child Welfare and Nurses Training Centres (Jain, 1992 6). Furthermore, she also worked towards controlling the spread of diseases like malaria. leprosy and other venereal diseases. (ibid)

Combating Malaria 

After independence, India was struck with malaria, affecting seventy-five million Indians and killing eight lakh people. Kaur was instrumental in mitigating and monitoring the implementation of an aggressive anti-malaria public campaign.

Her efforts are believed to have prevented over 4 lakh deaths, helping India to enter the ‘Eradication Era’ between the 1950s to the 1960s. In the ten years, cases dropped sharply, plummeting as low as 64,000. In her reply to the points raised by members on the Demands for Grants, during the General Budget session of 1953-54, Kaur had submitted her concerns regarding the rapidity with which malaria was spreading. She had spoken about feeling extremely helpless since at the time there was no definite cure for malaria.

 

“It is difficult for me to express in words the immensity of my heartache. It is perpetual and no medicine can cure it. I, who have to move and live and have my being amongst those who are sick and suffering, find that I cannot do all that I should like to do for them”

Her concern in the Budget Session speech was centred around systemic, social and economic issues that were bound to the depleting state of health. These required a solution from all ends and a pragmatic one, and she had put this forth clearly by asking for ample budget allocation to prioritize health and impending morbidity. In her speech, she had said

“We can remove malaria from this country. We ought to remove it. I am now pleading with the hon. Finance Minister, that if any money comes his way, it might be given to me for a countrywide plan for the eradication of malaria. I would like to say that I sympathise entirely with the States when they tell me: ‘we have so many programmes on hand, we would like to avoid malaria and so one and we want money’. I believe, one member said that DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) is not going to eliminate malaria. But I have the evidence of my hon. friend Mr Vartak who comes from Bombay State, wherewith a really good programme, malaria has been brought wonderfully under control.”

The Pursuit of Health: All-India Institute of Medical Science Bill, 1956

Among all that has been forgotten of her, Kaur is also forgotten for her role in piloting the All-India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) Bill in Lok Sabha on February 18, 1956. The idea of setting up the Institute was born out of the Bhore Commission’s Report,1946. But at the time, it had to be shelved due to the paucity of funds.

In the Parliament, when enunciating about her dream to have higher education in the medical field, she spoke for accessibility and availability of health services for all. She had said,

 “I want this to be something wonderful, of which India can be proud, and I want India to be proud of it.”  

After being shelved for four years, her dream finally came true in all its glory. The Bill got its nod and the institute continues to outlive her exactly where she mapped it to be: ‘in Delhi just beyond the Safdarjung aerodrome’. Her purpose to have AIIMS was also motivated by the fact that many doctors will be able to get their due and won’t have to work for a minimal fee. She hoped that the institute would bring about a revolutionary change and therefore it was essential that it enjoyed a ‘large measure of autonomy’[1]. She demanded ‘full freedom’ for the institute and for those who would run it.

“The future of the Institute will lie ultimately in the hands of the Director, the Professors and other members of the teaching staff and students, and I believe it will be their devotion to duty, their desire to promote their work and the spirit of altruism that will actuate them to subordinate personal considerations, as I believe the noble profession of medicine should do, to the fulfilment of the objectives to be achieved that will eventually create and maintain the atmosphere which is necessary for an institute like this.” 

Probably not many people outside the Institute are aware of the fact that through her influence, she secured donations for equipment worth millions of dollars from across the globe.

Kaur had envisioned what many couldn’t. After the jolt of mass deaths by malaria, she looked at the biggest gap concerning the Indian health infrastructure. She demanded autonomy and freedom without compromising on any resources whatsoever. She demanded inclusivity and an institute that would cater to ‘all’ and ‘all of India’ and meant every word of its making.

“I want it to play-a guide to all our teaching institutions. 1t has got to be an all-India seat of leaming giving the lead and ever so much in the truest sense of the term of ‘all-India’.”[2]

In 1961, the Massachusetts General Hospital on its 150th celebration placed AIIMS on the list of most distinguished hospitals of America, Canada and Europe. Kaur was awarded a medallion and a ‘Book of Citation’ for her efforts.

To Sum Up…

She defied the social norms and stereotypes while being in office and after. It will be hard to mention everything Rajkumari Amrit Kaur did in her great but muted life. Anima Bose when writing about Kaur wrote about her courage and conviction. Professor Bose said,

“Her serenity and gallantry in the face of critical situations and challenging problems, shouldering responsibilities she herself chose to take on, and more often than not, those that were thrust on her, made her a legendary figure in her time and day.” (Bose, 1992 54)

To speak of Kaur and her work is not only to remember her but to remind ourselves of our collective amnesia. To recall our collective and selective amnesia would mean to recognise that while we remember the doing and undoing of many great men, we are oblivious to the efforts and accomplishments of the women.

To be Kaur, despite her privilege and besides it, must have taken her some grit.

Amrit Kaur was too glorious to live for the sake of our remembrance, then to recall her and her work is to inspire those who aspire to be courageous in little acts of being.

In 1946, in London, she spoke at the UNESCO conference as the Deputy Leader of the Indian Delegation. It will be fitting to end this short piece on her mammoth contribution to the Constitution with her own words. Words that hold more meaning today than ever. (Jain 1992, 14)

She said,

No structure of society can be stable one that has not the roots deep in moral and spiritual values of life; our children must be educated to appreciate which is of a permanent worth … Geographical barriers may have been conquered but oceans of hate and misunderstanding still divide us. If education is to play the part, it should play in the refashioning of the world it must itself be refashioned.

There can be no true freedom and consequently no genuine culture in a world which is half bond and half free, half fed and half starved, were exploitation and social injustices flourish side by side with pious expressions of good intentions and high-sounding policies”.

Reference

Jain, C. (1992). Rajkumari Amrit Kaur -A Profile. In EMINENT PARLIAMENTARIANS MONOGRAPH SERIES: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Vol. 15). New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat.

Bose, A. (1992). A Profile In Courage. In EMINENT PARLIAMENTARIANS MONOGRAPH SERIES: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (pp. 54-63). New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat.

Gandhi, M. K., & Kaur, A. (1961). Letters to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. Ahmedabad: Navajivan.

Endnotes

[1] Lok Sabha Debates, Institute of Medical Sciences Bill, 1956, 262, Session Number XII, February 18, 2013, available at lsd_01_12_18-02-1956.pdf (eparlib.nic.in)

[2] Lok Sabha Debates, Institute of Medical Sciences Bill, 1956, 262, Session Number XII, May 3, 1956.

 

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