Today, 26th November, is Constitution Day. On this day in 1949, the Constituent Assembly formally adopted the Constitution of India after nearly three years of deliberation.
The Indian Constituent Assembly was unique in that it was one of the earliest to include women. We have earlier written about women’s role in constitutional history prior to 1947. However, scant attention has been paid to the influence of the 15 women members on the proceedings of the Assembly. In this blog post, we will examine some interventions made by women members to demonstrate how they shaped the Constitution.
Hansa Jivraj Mehta served on the United Nations sub-committee on women prior to becoming a member of the Assembly. Although she made a number of speeches to secure women’s rights perhaps her most important intervention came from outside the Assembly: as members of the Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights, Mehta along with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur campaigned to include the Uniform Civil Code and the right to inter-religious marriage within the fundamental rights. While their efforts for the latter were unsuccessful, they scored a partial victory when the Uniform Civil Code was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy.
Dakshayani Velayudhan was the sole Dalit women and youngest member in the Assembly. She actively participated in the debates to advocate for the protection and empowerment of the Scheduled Castes. In May 1947, before the Draft Constitution had been written, she gave a speech encouraging the Assembly to constitutionally prohibit forced labour. While discussing the subject – which would eventually become Article 23 – she contended that it was necessary to protect people from economic exploitation:
“When this sort of economic exploitation is eliminated from this land, the underdogs also will rise up and will be in a position to assert their rights and keep up their self-respect and dignity and they too will have a right to enjoy like the people belonging to the upper class.”
Purnima Banerjee was an active member of the Congress Socialist Party who often advocated for stronger socio-economic and civil liberty protections in the Constitution. Banerjee endorsed the inclusion of the Directive Principles of State Policy, stating that they strengthened the social transformative potential of the Constitution. During the debates on preventive detention (Article 22), she argued that it was necessary to impose a time limit on the period of detention. Although her specific proposal of a 15-day time limit was not accepted, it was supported by several members who were equally concerned about the potential for misuse.
Some have argued that the Assembly was legitimate because it was, among other things, reasonably representative as it was one of the few constituent assemblies to include women. The discourse surrounding the women members of the Assembly has focused on the historic nature of their presence – and not so much on their contributions to the Assembly. However, it is clear that women not only were present in, but also actively participated in the debates in the Assembly and influenced some of the key provisions of the Constitution.