In light of International Women’s Day, the ConstitutionofIndia.net team will focus on key interventions by women Constituent Assembly members that shaped our constitutional republic. We will showcase three women Assembly members all through March 2021.   

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We start this series with Begum Aizaz Rasul and her speech regarding India’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. Rasul was elected to the Constituent Assembly from United Provinces as a member of the Muslim League and was the only Muslim woman in the Constituent Assembly.   

On 22 January 1947 the Constituent Assembly declared that India would be an independent Sovereign Republic - which meant that India would no longer be ruled by a monarch – foreign or domestic and the head of the State would be indirectly elected. This declaration implied a complete of severance of ties with United Kingdom. As a consequence, India would not be a part of the Commonwealth nations - a political association of various countries. The British monarch was still the symbolic head of state for these countries.  

Interestingly, Indian political leaders like Jawahar Lal Nehru felt that India should be a part of the Commonwealth nonetheless. At the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference (April 1949) Nehru declared that India would like to be part of the Commonwealth. He managed to convince the conference attendees and the British to allow India to do so in spite of India’s new republican status.  

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However, the matter was not settled yet. India’s declaration to be a part of the Commonwealth had to be ratified by the Constituent Assembly. On 16 May 1949, Nehru moved a motion in the Assembly to obtain ratification.  

Nehru’s proposal was challenged by various members in the Assembly. Shibban Lal Saxena argued that India would be forced to side with Britain on major issues in global politics in turn compromising the independence of India’s foreign policy, while H.V. Kamath was unhappy because the King of England would still be seen as the symbolic head of the group of nations, including India.  

Begum Aizaz Rasul was surprised by the criticism she was hearing. She believed that the Prime Minister had done everything in his power to elevate India’s position in the eyes of the world. In her intervention, she argued that the criticisms were based on suspicion, mistrust and a certain sense of fear towards the British. Rasul emphasized that India was a free country and the conditions were vastly different from that of the past; it was, therefore, important to do away with any fear and it would be impossible to go forward without trusting the British. 

Rasul felt that India and Britain had a lot in common. The democratic system in India, she said, was based exactly on the lines of the British system: ‘Today in India our institutions, our parliamentary life, our local self-Government, our administrative machinery, etc., are more or less based on British lines. Our army and defence organisations have been built up on British lines.’, she claimed. Hence, she believed that remaining in the Commonwealth would be advantageous to India.  

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India did not need financial support from Britain or any other country and could go forward with its own industrial development and improve its own economy. All India required, Rasul claimed, was advice and guidance so that India could develop along the lines that it desired to.  

Britain and the other Commonwealth countries were the largest factors working towards world peace, she proclaimed. Since India had always aligned itself towards the peaceful side, she thought that it was important for India to cooperate and align with the countries that had no desire to fight and only wanted prosperity. Rasul, therefore, saw absolutely no drawbacks with India remaining a part of the Commonwealth of Nations.   

Lastly, she stated that there was no bar for India to leave the Commonwealth if the arrangement turned out to be detrimental to India’s interests. With that, she concluded that it was a matter of prestige and dignity to remain in the Commonwealth and that she ardently supported Nehru’s proposal.  

Rasul wasn’t the only member who favoured Nehru’s proposal. Members like Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and Frank Anthony gave persuasive speeches in favour of Nehru’s proposal, arguing that Commonwealth membership would advance India’s economic interests and provide India with military protection. Nehru reassured that the membership will not affect the independent status of India and that his primary motive was to form friendly relations.  

The Assembly finally agreed to ratify Nehru’s proposal and India embraced both Commonwealth membership and republican status setting a precedent for other decolonizing countries in the same time period.