The Women’s Indian Association and Indian Constitutional Thought

08 March 2023

The Indian Constituent Assembly, that drafted the Indian Constitution, included 15 women members. Until recently, public memory had discarded the contribution or even the presence of these women. But what about the period before the formal constitution-making process?

The Indian Constitution was not merely the product of the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly. It was also deeply influenced by the constitutional imagination that existed before 1946. We do know that women played a key role in the independence movement – Satyagraha, civil disobedience, etc. But did they also articulate a constitutional vision for India?

Clockwise from left: Muthulakshmi Reddy, Margaret Cousins, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Annie Besant
Clockwise from left: Muthulakshmi Reddy, Margaret Cousins, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Annie Besant

In this post, we take a look at the vision put forward by one strand of the women’s movement. In 1917, prominent social and political activists that included Margaret Cousins, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Annie Besant, Muthulakshmi Reddy and others, set up the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) at Adyar, Madras. WIA would quickly grow into one of the largest women’s organisations in India and would play a key role in combating social issues like child marriage and the devadasi system. Interestingly, it also took an active part in constitutional negotiations with the British.

In the same year that WIA was set up, the Montague-Chelmsford Commission was touring India, in preparation for drawing up a set of constitutional reforms. The WIA was part of a 14-member, all-women delegation that met the Commission and argued that women be given the franchise. The demand was rejected, but the WIA did not give up and made the demand for equal voting rights a focus of its work going forward.

Throughout 1917, the WIA intensely lobbied and established relations with the major political groups in India on the question of women’s voting rights. This soon bore fruit. The Indian National Congress, at its annual sessions, began to regularly pass resolutions to remove disqualifications for women voting, and so did its many committees. The Muslim League did the same.

Then came the Southborough Commission in 1918, that visited India to review the question of franchise among other things. This time, the WIA went all out, leveraging the organisational machinery it had built, and in cooperation with other women’s organisations, passed resolutions demanding equal voting rights for women, and sent them to the Committee.

The Southborough Committee, while appreciating the overall aims of the petitions, felt that the social conditions of India were premature to extend the vote to women and dismissed WIA’s demands.

Margaret Cousins, the General Secretary of WIA responded to the Commission’s decision in a letter to the editor of The Hindu:

On behalf of the members of the 46 Branches of the Women’s Indian Association, all of which have signed requisitions in favour of women suffrage, I protest vigorously against the decision of the Southborough Committee that the franchisee shall not be extended to women because, forsooth, “the social conditions of India make it premature”. Is this handful of men better able to judge of these conditions than were the thousands of Indian delegates to the Bombay and Delhi Congresses? These latter were the fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons of the women concerned and knowing at first hand their social conditions, with full understanding of what the necessary steps to women’s voting would be…Are the considered opinions of these representative bodies of Indian men and women to be flouted by these few Committee members, some of the Englishmen already known to be opposed to the grant of the vote even to their own Englishwomen and who are thus dated as behind the times?

This was a powerfully articulated critique of British policy on the franchise for women and laid bare their hypocrisy. Despite this setback, the WIA persisted with its demand for equal voting rights for women, adopting different strategies.

Women Who Attended the 1st Asian Women's Conference
Women Who Attended the 1st Asian Women’s Conference

By the early 1920s, Indian leaders began to take the view that only a constitution framed by Indians would be acceptable. Annie Besant, the WIA President, told British authorities that India would never accept a constitution framed in Westminster.

She took the lead in setting up a ‘national convention’ consisting of 255 members, mostly Indian legislators. The convention’s brief was to prepare a Constitution for India. Two of Besant’s WIA colleagues also took part. The Convention drafted the Commonwealth of India Bill 1925 – a document that aimed to operate as a constitution for India.

The Bill was comprehensive and represented the constitutional visions of Annie Besant and other Indian leaders. It contained a Bill of rights that included rights to freedom of expression, non-discrimination and more. Importantly, it contained a fundamental right that aimed at sex discrimination:

7. (g) There shall be no disqualification or disability based on sex.

Besant planned to get the Bill passed by British Parliament through senior Labour Party leader George Lansbury. But the Labour Party lost the elections, and Besant’s plan did not work out. The Bill, however, would play an immensely influential role in Indian constitutional thought. As Niraja Jayal reminds us, provisions of the Bill were verbatim repeated in the Nehru Report 1928 and together, these influenced the final Constitution of India 1950.

A few years after the Bill was drafted, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a churn in the constitutional and political negotiations between Indians and the British. The British, who had until now remained cold to Indian demands, began to take steps in framing a new constitutional framework for India – what would later become the Government of India Act 1935.

The WIA took part in these negotiations actively – it sent representatives to the round table conferences and the Lothian Committee on Franchise. It was during this time, that the WIA began to make demands that were explicitly linked to the constitutional future of India. These were often made in its in-house publication Stri Dharma – which the WIA began publishing since 1918. Stri Dharma aimed to become the voice of the Indian women’s movement.

Cover of Stri Dharma
Cover of Stri Dharma
Image Credits: IdeasofIndia

In 1931 it published an article titled ‘Women’s Place in the Future Constitution of India’ in which it mentioned some goals and principles of a future constitution:

  1. That woman should be free to contest seats in the general constituencies subject to the same qualifications to apply as men.
  2. In addition to any seats thus secured by women, a certain number or proportion of seats—say five percent as suggested by the Nair Committee— should be reserved for women in each provincial council, at least for a trial period of three general elections.
  3. Reservation should be filled by any suitable way that may be determined by the next Round Table Conference.
  4. That full adult franchise is secured for both men and women.
  5. That any woman—married or unmarried—possessing any one of the general qualifications for the franchise would have the vote.
  6. That for admission into the public services no woman shall be under any disability because of her sex.
  7. Again, we believe India will gain in power for good if it develops a woman’s side to its activities.

For the time, these were quite remarkable and bold articulations of constitutional arrangements that were intended to protect and promote the rights of Indian women.

So evidently, groups like the WIA articulated a female vision of India’s constitution long before the formal constitution-making process began in 1946. As we acknowledge the contributions of the women members of the Constituent Assembly, we must also pay attention to the women who were thinking constitutionally, much before the Constituent Assembly was a glimmer on the horizon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More blog posts

B.N. Rau’s ‘Outlines of a New Constitution’

26 February 2023By

Sir Benegal Narsing Rau played a key role in the making of our Constitution, as Constitutional Adviser. In this blog, we draw attention to a document authored by him in 1946, which aimed at resolving the political deadlock over India's constitutional future, by presenting a solution acceptable to both the Congress and the Muslim League.

3 mins

Bhagat Singh Hanged, Karachi Resolution Passed

23 March 2023By

On 23 March 1931 the British hanged Bhagat Singh for his involvement in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Just a week later, the the Indian National Congress passed the iconic Karachi Resolution 1931. Were these two historic events connected?

3 mins