Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was born on 2 February 1889 in Lucknow into Punjab’s Kapurthala Royal family. Her father, Raja Harnam Singh, had converted to Christianity as a young boy and subsequently, kept himself out of the line of successors to the throne. In Lucknow, Kaur, the only daughter among 7 children grew up with her siblings on Christian teachings. After an initial period of home-schooling, she was sent to Sherborne School in Dorsetshire, England to complete her school education. She continued her stay in England, graduating with a remarkable academic and extra-curricular record from the University of Oxford.
Once she completed her education, Kaur returned to India aged 20. By 1919, Kaur had begun to grow closer to Gandhi and his teachings. Though she held a deep will to join his ashram, she was initially denied permission by Gandhi as he felt she was still attached to her material life and that her parents were not too inclined to her joining the Ashram. So, in the initial years after her return, Kaur committed most of her energy to social causes concerning women such as abolishing the practice of purdah, child marriage and the Devadasi tradition. By 1927 she had co-founded the All-India Woman’s Conference, serving as its secretary in 1930 and president in 1933. Finally in 1934 she was able to join Gandhi’s Sewagram Ashram, where she remained his secretary for sixteen years.
Role in India’s Independence Movement:
Kaur developed her inclination to politics during the time she spent with her father, who had close associations with many Congress party veterans such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale. By the 1930s Kaur had ventured into the Indian freedom struggle. She strongly criticized Ramsay MacDonald’s 1932 communal award which presented separate electorates to several minority communities and oppressed castes. At the 1932 All-India Women’s Conference, she moved a resolution to register their opposition to the award for ‘touching the womanhood of India’ and to unitedly push for joint electorates.
For her participation in various Indian freedom movements, Kaur was imprisoned by the British on multiple occasions. During the Salt Satyagraha, she was arrested for her involvement from Bombay. In 1937, she went to jail again – this time on charges of sedition. Kaur returned to jail in 1942 for taking part in the Quit India movement. The brutal lathi charge she went through during the process took a toll on her health. Eventually, she was brought out of jail and put on house arrest in Shimla.
Through most of her life, Kaur remained a staunch Gandhian, espousing Gandhian values such as the wearing of Khadi and leading a simple life within Sewagram Ashram.
Contribution to Constitution Making:
She was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the Central Provinces and Berar province on a Congress ticket. Though Kaur did not speak much during the Constituent Assembly proceedings, she was a member of important sub-committees in the Assembly and was instrumental in shaping many constitutional provisions.
She was a prominent member of the Assembly’s Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee and the Minorities Sub-Committee. Within the sub-committee, she expressed her opposition to the inclusion of freedom to practice religion as this could give constitutional protection to various discriminatory practices such as purdah, sati, devadasi system etc. Her protest was effective as the condition that freedom to practice would not restrict the State from making laws for social reform eventually found its way into the Constitution. Kaur also voted in favour of the State framing a Uniform Civil Code. Though the provision was voted out, it was included in the non-justiciable Directive Principles of the State Policy.
In 1947 she became independent India’s first Health Minister when she joined Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim cabinet and served in that capacity for ten years. She was also the first woman member of the post-independence cabinet. In 1956 she introduced the AIIMS Bill in Parliament, making way for the establishment of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to raise the level of medical education within the country. She was also a strong advocate of the nursing profession, pushing for the setting up of many nursing training centres.
Education and health remained the main focus of her work for the next several years. She was the Deputy Leader of the Indian delegation to UNESCO in 1945 and 1946. In 1950, she became the first female and first Asian president of the World Health Assembly, and also led India’s delegation to the World Health Organization several times between 1948 and 1953. She was also a founder-member and Chairperson of the Indian Red Cross Society and in 1957 was honoured by the League of Red Cross Societies with the Court Bernadotte Gold Medal for her long and dedicated service in the field. She later became the vice-president of the Internation Red Cross Society. She also held the post of President at the Indian Leprosy Association and the Tuberculosis Association.
She firmly believed in the idea of free education for all, particularly working for the cause of women’s education. She was among the Board of Trustees of the Nankana Sahib Education Trust and the Hindustani Talimi Sangh. She was one of the founder members of Delhi’s Lady Irwin College. Her work towards welfare of children led to the founding of the Indian Council of Child Welfare, serving as its first President from 1948 to 1958. In 1956 Princeton University conferred her with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
Kaur passed away on 6 February 1964 at the age of 75 in New Delhi.
Kaur wrote extensively on women and issues concerning them. Some of these are Woman in India (1935), Challenge to Women (1946), To women (1948) etc. She wrote Gandhi and Women as an engagement with Gandhian principles, particularly concerning the question of women.
- Letters to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur by Mahatma Gandhi (Navajivan Publishing House, 1961)
- Eminent Parliamentarians Monograph Series: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1992)
- Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, 75, Dies; India’s First Minister of Health; Gandhi’s Secretary 17 Years, a Princess, Led Campaign to Eradicate Malaria (New York Times, 1964)
- Amrit Kaur: The princess turned Gandhian who fought Nehru on women’s political participation by Adrija Roychowdhury (The Indian Express, 2018)
- Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the princess who was Gandhi’s secretary & India’s first health minister by Deeksha Bhardwaj (The Print, 2019)
- Rajkumari Amrit Kaur: The princess who built AIIMS by Adrija Roychowdhury (The Indian Express, 2020)
- Who was Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, named in TIME’s magazine list of 100 influential women? (The Indian Express, 2020)
- Preserving Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s Legacy (Live History India, 2020)
- Makers of Indian Constitution: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Sansad TV, 2021)
- Rajkumari Amrit Kaur: India’s First Health Minister (Feminism in India, 2021)
- Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Vellalore Annaswamy Sundaram, The Journey of Freedom Movement with All India Radio, Birth of a Nation, Episode #168 (Akashvani AIR, 2022)