Unlike the American constitutional founding – spearheaded by men, the Indian Constituent Assembly, that drafted the Indian Constitution, comprised women. 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?

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 with a pan Indian presence and would play a key role in combating social issues like child marriage and the devadasi system. Interestingly, it also advanced a constitutional vision for India and 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 (all-women) member delegation that met the Commission and argued that women be given the franchise. The commission rejected the demands. But the WIA did not give up and made the demand for equal voting rights as 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.

This in itself was a significant achievement for the WIA. The buy-in from the major political parties on the question of voting (and other rights) for women would have far-reaching consequences, as these parties, mainly the Congress, would later incorporate these women’s rights into their formal constitutional demands directed at the British.

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, and leveraged the organizational machinery it had built and, in cooperation with other women’s organizations, demanded equal voting rights for women. Forty-five branches of the WIA and other women’s organizations passed resolutions and sent them to the Committee.

The Southborough Committee, in its report, said that while it appreciated the overall aims of the petitions for equal voting rights for women, it 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 British hypocrisy. Despite another setback, the WIA persisted with its demand for equal voting rights. In the next part of this post, we will look at the constitutional efforts of the WIA in the 1920s and 1930s.