Women in Constituent Assembly: The Forgotten Grit of Begum Aizaz Rasul

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).

These speeches were collated and researched by Divya Dwivedi, Advocate Supreme Court of India. Edited and written by Sonali Chugh and Umang Poddar.

The many women who asserted themselves through their presence in Constituent Assembly debates. Source: visit here

The process of writing the constitution was also the moment to define how the people of new India were going to place themselves within it.

When looking high and low for the women among the Constituent Assembly Debates, you will have to look really closely to find them. The debates and the assembly, both saturated with upper-caste men, in the moment of their making were trying to expand their bounds of inclusivity while also shrinking it.

Till today, not much has changed. Seventy-one years after the promulgation of the constitution, we have only 78 women out of 543 members in the Loksabha. This is also the highest that India has had since independence.

It took seventy-three years since December 9, 1948, from the first time when the constituent assembly met to now, for this number to change from eighteen to seventy-eight.

Let that sink in while we celebrate women’s day.

Begam Aziaz Rasul

Source: NDTV

Begum Aziaz Rasul was the only Muslim ‘elite’ women out of 389 members of the constituent assembly. Begum Rasul was a member of the Muslim League until 1950, she was also the only women among the 28 Muslim League members who were part of the Constituent Assembly.

Apart from being a member of the Constituent Assembly, she was a member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council (1937-52), a Member of the Rajya Sabha until 1956, and Deputy Chairperson of the Council (1937- 39). She served as the Cabinet Minister of the Uttar Pradesh Government from 1969 till 1974. She went on to win a Padma Bhushan for her social work in the year 2000, just a year before her death.

Begum Rasul’s Autobiography: Talks in detail about her love for Hockey and sports

Begum Rasul was known for being against religious orthodoxy and derogatory norms. She had shunned the ‘purdah’ and also those who forced women to hide behind it.

In her book From Purdah to Parliament: A Muslim Woman in Indian Politics, she vocalised this staunchly,

Though she is forgotten for her dissent on separate electorates for minorities in the early 1900s, she revisits us once in a while as one of the fifteen women of the Constituent Assembly, all of whom deserved more attention from historians.

 Autonomy to Ministers from Party Affiliations[1]

Begum Rasul saw beyond her time and demanded a ministry and an executive that was not apprehended by parties. In the constituent assembly debates held in July 1947 on a Thursday, she had offered an amendment to have a ‘single non-transferable vote’ to appoint an executive who will be impartial without malice or pressure from their parties.

“Sir, my purpose in moving this amendment is that the Ministry should be a strong and stable Ministry and that it should not be subject to the whims and fancies of the party or legislature to which it is responsible. Sir, in England and France the Ministry is responsible to the legislature. We see what happens in France every day. The Ministry is weak and the Cabinet has fallen several times. That always happens where there are more than two parties in the legislature, and therefore in India which is so young in democracy, where the sense of responsibility is neither ingrained nor so well developed, we should have a strong and stable Ministry which can initiate long-range policies and be uninfluenced daily by the repercussions in its party. We do not want a repetition of what is happening in France in our country.

Sir, my experience of the last ten years after the introduction of the Government of India Act of 1935 has been that in the provinces where the Ministers are responsible to the legislature and are liable to fall on a vote of no-confidence by their party or the provincial legislature, they cannot put forward any long-range policies. As I said before, often they are influenced daily by party feelings and are therefore necessarily weak. I, therefore, feel that a Ministry that has been elected by the legislature should have a long life in which it can formulate its policies and not be influenced by party factions.

We may have the American system under which the President nominates his executive, but our country may not be ready for that. But the Swiss system under which the Legislature elects the executive for a certain period during which it is irremovable is to my mind the best form of government for the provinces because the Ministers who have once been elected by the legislature cannot be removed by a vote of no confidence in it by the legislature.

I feel therefore that the Swiss system is the best via media that can be accepted by us in this country, keeping in view the political and other conditions that are prevailing here and will continue for a long time to come.”

 On Fundamental Rights, Minority Rights[2]

When Begum Aziaz Rasul silently passed away in August 2001, Obaid Nasir had issued an obituary after her death, laying out achievements that were already common parlance.

But what stood out in that arguably short obituary was her devotion for those who had already become second class citizens before the constitution came into being. Throughout her political struggle, she stood for women, children and minorities. She stood against social norms, often prescribing them as archaic.

Nasir, towards the end of the obituary, briefly mentioned her role as a Chairperson of the Uttar Pradesh Minorities Commission and her resignation from the position on moral grounds in 1989. This fact also reverberates with her role and cause back in the Constituent Assembly Debates. Begum Rasul had proposed to give strength to Fundamental Rights, such that they were not dictated by the legislature.

She argued against reservation because she argued for the absoluteness of the Fundamental Rights. In the debate dated November 8, 1948, Rasul had demanded complete agency to be given to Fundamental Rights and Directive principles. She had said,

“Fundamental Rights should be such that they should not be liable to reservations and to changes by Acts of legislature. It is essential that some at least of the civil liberties of the citizen should be preserved by the Constitution and it should not be easy for the legislature to take them away. Instead of this, we find the provision relating to these Rights full of provisos and exceptions.  This means that what has been given today could easily be changed tomorrow by an Act of the legislature.

It is necessary that some sort of agency should be provided to see that the Fundamental  Rights and the Directive Principles are being observed in all Provinces in the letter and in the spirit.  Otherwise, it may be that the absence of such an agency may give rise to the formation of communal organisations with the object of watching the interests of their respective communities.”

In a series of cogent arguments, Begum Rasul explained why she was against the reservation of seats in the house. She advocated for innate goodwill within the majority, she advocated for the duty of the majority to not discriminate against the minorities. One could call her hopeful or delusional for not being able to foresee what was to come.

Ironically enough, Begam Rasul was more confident about this ‘goodwill’ than the majority present in the house itself.

“The question of the reservation of seats for the minorities has engaged the attention of this  House. It is true that last year on the recommendations of the Minorities Sub-Committee, this House accepted the principle of the reservation of seats for certain communities. At that time also I was opposed to this reservation of seats, and today again I repeat that in the new set-up with joint electorates it is absolutely meaningless to have the reservation of seats for any minority. We have to depend upon the good-will of the majority community. Therefore speaking for the Muslims I say that to ask for reservation of seats seems to my mind quite pointless, but I do agree with Dr.  Ambedkar that it is for the majority to realise its duty not to discriminate against any minority.

If that principle that the majority should not discriminate against any minority is accepted, I can assure you that we will not ask for any reservation of seats as far as the Muslims are concerned. We feel  that our interests are absolutely identical with those of the majority, and expect that the majority  would deal justly and fairly with all minorities.”

 Against Making the Acquisition of Property by State Non-Justiciable[3]

On September 12, 1949, Begum Rasul was finally allowed to speak in the house, after much delay and with little time left to speak, she addressed this delay with a benign jibe.

She took to the podium to oppose clause (4)[4] and clause (6)[5] of Article 24 concerning the acquisition of property and compensation.

Article 24 was proposed by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru yet she had no qualms in addressing her contentions with it.

Begum Rasul rose and relentlessly spoke about the wrongs and addressed the bottled up uncertainties among the populace.

“With due respect to the Honourable Prime Minister, I am constrained to say that the amendment proposed by him does not lay down principles based on fairness and justice. There are two principles laid down in this article: One is acquisition of property, Clause (1), and the second is the manner and mode of the payment of compensation, Clause (2). Now, Sir, under the following  Article 25 (1) it is clearly laid down that every person will have the right to approach the Supreme  Court. This of course is not only in regard to acquisition of property but for every purpose. But ordinarily also any person has a right to file a suit attacking an Act authorising the acquisition of property if the compensation is not proper in his opinion.

Therefore, Sir, my contention is that when a right has been given to every person living in this Union to approach the Supreme Court, to have recourse to justice, why should this right be taken away under Clauses (4) and (6) from only those people who are being deprived of their property in the three provinces of the U.P., Bihar and  Madras, who are being subjected to legislation which will deprive most of them of their only source of livelihood. I contend that in the Constitution of a country such exceptions cannot be made and  therefore I feel that if Clauses (4) and (6) of this article are allowed to remain, it will be a great blot  upon this Constitution. The Constitution of a country is not made merely for a few years, or to suit  this programme or exigencies of a political party – it is made for generations and for all peoples and  to keep a provision such as is provided in Clauses (4) and (6) will not do credit to the Constitution makers and will remain an ugly blot. Therefore, I earnestly hope that wiser counsels will prevail and that such an absurd provision will not be included.”

When Begam Rasul spoke against the clauses she claimed to have spoken for the thousands who could be affected.

When she spoke in the constitution hall, she excused herself for the ‘feeble’ voice that was resonant enough to claim itself in the Constituent Assembly Debates Archive. They were resonant enough to live and be repeated even after more than seventy-one years. One may not agree with Begum Rasul on several of her contentions, but by the fact of being present in archives and debates, she is still vocal and unforgettable.

Endnotes

[1] 5 Consideration of Clause 12 of the Report on the Principles of a Model Provincial Constitution regarding the appointment of Ministers in Provinces, C.A.D., Vol. IV, L.S.S., 17 July 1947, pp. 631-632

[2] Debate on Motion regarding Draft Constitution, C.A.D., Vol. VII, L.S.S., 8 November 1948, pp. 305-307

[3] Consideration of Article 24 of the Draft Constitution, C.A.D., Vol. IX, L.S.S., 12 September 1949, pp. 1293-1302

[4] (4)  If any Bill pending before the Legislature of a State at the commencement of this Constitution has, after it has been passed by such Legislature, received the assent of the President, the law so assented to shall not be called in question in any court on the ground that it contravenes the provisions of clause (2) of this article. Article 24 of the Draft Constitution, C.A.D., Vol. IX, L.S.S., 10 September 1949.

[5] Any law of a State enacted, not more than one year before the commencement of this Constitution, may within three months from such commencement be submitted by the Governor of the State to the President for his certification; and thereupon, if the President by public notification so certifies, it shall not be called in question in any court on the ground that it contravenes the provisions of clause (2) of this article or sub-section (2) of section 299 of the Government of India Act, 1935.”‘ Article 24 of the Draft Constitution, C.A.D., Vol. IX, L.S.S., 10 September 1949.

 

 

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