Women in Constituent Assembly: The Many Hats of Hansa Mehta

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 the fifteen women who were part of the Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD).

By Umang Poddar.

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Hansa Mehta

In 1947, a congregation had gathered in the city of New York. There were two female delegates, standing out in a room full of men. One of them suggested that the document in consideration start with “all men are born free”. The other vehemently opposed the emphasis on men. They believed that this could later be read to exclude women, and should be changed to “persons” or “human beings”. This suggestion was put to vote and finally enshrined in the document we know today as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of UDHR reads as: “All human beings are born free“. The lady leading the change was Hansa Mehta, an Indian freedom fighter and delegate on the Commission. The other, was Eleanor Roosevelt, the acting Chair of the Commission.

The above story is one of the most common ones you come across while talking about Hansa Mehta. It has become like folklore. This act of hers is appreciated by many, even to this date.

However, Hansa Mehta was much more than this one change. While she’s amongst the more famous women in the Constituent Assembly, the information on her is starkly sparse.

Hansa Mehta with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Commission on Human Rights. Source: United Nations Photo.

The Many Firsts

In our previous article in the series, we have spoken of how many women who were part of the Constituent Assembly had many firsts to their name. The same is the story with Hansa Mehta.

She was one of the first Gujarati women to get a college degree in India. She became the first women vice-chancellor in India, and had a two-term tenure at SNDT University, Bombay. She was also the first vice-chancellor of M.S University of Baroda. As her profile by Priya Ravichandran, Hansa was already “an educationist, writer, feminist and reformist” before her election to the Constituent Assembly from Bombay.

She wrote prolifically, and authored 15 books in her lifetime. Although Hansa was a part of three committees, her speech during the Constituent Assembly was brief. She was a member of the provincial constitutional committee, the advisory committee, and the Fundamental Rights sub-committee. Her speech had around 1800 words. Yet she touched upon important issues.

Commission on the Status of Women. Source: UN Women Gallery

Women Rights and Reservation

Hansa spoke on debates on women’s justice in India. One of the things which stand out in her speech is her discussion on how there exist different levels of struggle amongst women as well. She explicitly acknowledges that while there are some who are given credit in society, those are a handful. As she puts it, “one swallow does not make a summer

It will warm the heart of many a woman to know that free India will mean not only equality of status but equality of opportunity. It is true that a few women in the past and even today enjoy high status and have received the highest honour that any man can receive, like our friend,Mrs. Sarojini Naidu. But these women are few and far between. […]

These women do not give us a real picture of the position of Indian women in this country.

According to her, the way to deal with this issue wasn’t through reservation, but by giving women the freedom from shackles of the purdah, confines of home.

The women’s organisation to which I have the honour to belong has never asked for reserved seats, for quotas, or for separate electorates. What we have asked for is social justice, economic justice, and political justice.

There are thousands of women today who are denied the ordinary human rights. They are put behind the purdah, secluded within the four walls of their homes, unable to move freely. In degrading women, man has degraded himself. In raising her, man will not only raise himself but raise the whole nation.

We were anxious to consider the abolition of purdah.

This was in line with her own principles, having stood for a legislative council election after the Government of India Act, not from a reserved seat but a general one.

On the question of reservation, she was only agreeable to providing reservations for the Scheduled Castes. She had also been the vice-president of the Harijan Sewak Sangh in 1932, mediating the talks between Gandhi and Ambekar.

The Constitution guarantees equal protection of law, equality of status, equality of opportunity, the Constitution guarantees religious rights. What more can the minorities ask for? If they want privileges, that is not in the spirit of democracy. They cannot ask for privileges. The only exception, however, I would like to make is in the case of the Scheduled Castes. They have suffered and suffered long at the hands of the Hindu society and any exception in their case would be making amends to what they have suffered.

Her views on women’s rights were developed through years of her work on these issues. She had served as a president of the All India Women’s Conference and she also drafted the Charter of Rights and Duties for Indian Women at one of the AIWC’s sessions.

She had a progressive outlook which was radical to some for that time. As per her, men and women ought to be given the same education. Even on things such as succession, she wrote around 1950 that women should also get a share of the property, something which was realized only in 2005.

To the Men’s Rights Activists

Hansa also had a jibe for one member who said that the Constitution didn’t mandate protection from women in the Constitution. In a reply exhibiting quick thinking on her feet, she said “The world would have thought very little of the men if they had asked for protection against women in this Constitution.

Presenting The National Flag

She presented the flag on behalf of the women in the Assembly. She had participated in the freedom struggle and was even jailed for leading movements.

I have a list here of nearly a hundred prominent women of all communities who have expressed a desire to associate themselves with this ceremonial.

It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India.

You can hear her speech, delivered on the eve of Independence. Prasar Bharti has archived speeches from the Debates.

Women played a major role in the Ad-hoc committee on the National Flag. In a conference in Belgium, seeing the lack of an Indian flag, the women cut strips from their sarees to make the tricolour flag.

On Making The Constitution Work

A common thread across these speeches is also the precociousness in making the Constitution work. Echoing other speeches, she said that the:

The goodness or badness of a Constitution depends on how it is going to work. […]

It is for the future electors to elect the right kind of persons, who will work the Constitution in the interests of the people. The responsibility, therefore, lies with the people.

On Prohibition

Hansa’s take on Prohibition was also nuanced. Instead of advocating a blanket ban or complete freedom, she was of the opinion that the State shouldn’t manufacture or sell liquor and even police it. It is interesting to see the debate on prohibition taken away from just a moral imperative and has legitimate concerns about economy and implementation. Clarifying Gandhi’s stance on Prohibition, she said.

But, what Gandhiji desired was that the State should not manufacture liquor, nor should the State sell it and that public bars should also be closed so that there may be no temptation for those who are susceptible to drinking. But, I do not think that Gandhiji ever desired that we should raise an army of police […]

We are prepared to forego the tainted income; but is there any reason why lakhs and lakhs of good money should be spent on excise police? It will only add one more source of corruption, and we have enough of corruption in this country. Another thing, it will perpetuate the sales tax and people who are already burdened with taxes are groaning under the sales tax.

The Uniform Civil Code

The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) was in Hansa’s view a necessity to bring about the gender and religious equality she sought. She, along with other members such as Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, staunchly argued for a UCC.

The other item to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is the Common Civil Code. To my mind this is much more important than even the national language.

However, the UCC was finally a Directive Principle in the Constitution. It was left incomplete, much like these women in the Constituent Assembly in our collective memory.

You can read the other articles in the series here.

If you wish to write for us or have a story to share, write to us at umang.poddar@lawctopus.com

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