Custodians Of Compassion And Country

HABITUALLY omitted from history books, women are often the torchbearers of resistance against injustice. Though just 14 of the 102 Indian independence activists listed on Wikipedia are women, India was one of the first nations in modern times to boast a female leader, Indira Gandhi, in 1966.

And while history honours Dr B R Ambedkar as the “Father of the Constitution”, it often fails to recognise the contribution of the 15 women who were part of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) comprising 389 members. According to career politician Subhashini Ali, “none of them was a proxy for anyone. Not one was a part of the Constituent Assembly because she was somebody’s daughter, wife, or widow.”

These women were from disparate backgrounds, castes, classes, and religions who collaborated to define the foundation of modern-day India: 

  • Ammu Swaminathan, who fought to ensure women were given equal rights in the Constitution, was from an upper-caste Hindu family in Kerala
  • Annie Masarene was a Latin Catholic with a double Master’s degree who helped ensure her home state of Travancore was integrated into the independent nation of India
  • Begum Aizaz Rasul, born into a princely family in Punjab, was the only Muslim woman in the CA
  • Dakshayani Velayudhan, from Cochin, the first and only Dalit woman in the CA, was a Pulaya from the oppressed Scheduled Castes who fought the engrained discrimination codes and making untouchability illegal
  • Durgabai Deshmukh, born in Andhra Pradesh, was active in political movements from the young age of 12
  • Hansa Jivraj Mehta was the daughter of the Diwan of Baroda and was educated abroad 
  • Kamla Chaudhary, from Lucknow, came from an affluent family, but still struggled to continue her education
  • Leela Roy was a college-educated daughter of a magistrate from Assam 
  • Malati Choudhury was from a distinguished family from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) who attended university in West Bengal before moving to Odisha
  • Purnima Banerjee was at the forefront of the freedom movement in Uttar Pradesh
  • Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the granddaughter of the Maharaja of Kapurthala, was educated in England before acting as Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years
  • Renuka Ray was brought up in London, daughter of an ICS officer and a social worker
  • Sarojini Naidu, from Hyderabad and educated in England, was the first Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and appointed as a state governor
  • Sucheta Kriplani was from Ambala, Haryana and was India’s first woman Chief Minister
  • Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, from Allahabad, was Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister

Today, across the country, women are leading protests to save the Indian Constitution. They are fighting for fairness, justice, and against oppression, not only their own. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act, a new law that came into effect on 10 January and provides citizenship to refugees from certain minority communities, has brought out protesters in force across the country for its exclusion of Muslim refugees – and many of them are being led by women. Women are at the forefront of the ongoing 24/7 sit-in protests at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi which has inspired multiple sit-ins from Pune to Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. 

Sara Ahmed, a protest organiser in Uttar Pradesh, said, “We, mostly the women, are sitting here as Indians. There are people from all age groups and religions here …We will sit here for 24 hours and continue our protest in the coming days. It will not stop.” Not dissuaded by senior police officials trying to tell them it’s “pointless to sit in the cold [because] people in the city already protested”, protesters say, if they can do it, “so can I”. 

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what caste you are, where you were educated, or who your family is – you CAN make a difference. Stand up for what you believe in today – be it about the Citizenship Act, climate change, women’s rights, or gender-based violence, stand up and be counted. 

-by Micah Branaman-Sharma

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