A. Chetan: Founding Mothers of the Indian Republic

Founding Mothers of the Indian Republic. Gender Politics of the Framing of the Constitution

Chetan, Achyut
South Asia in the Social Sciences
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€ 112,90
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Rosalind Parr, Glasgow Caledonian University

In recent years, historical explorations of the Indian Constitution (1950) have enlivened a longstanding field of enquiry. Alongside developments in intellectual history, work by Javed Majeed, Arvind Elangovan, Ornit Shani[1] and others has offered renewed scrutiny of the processes by which the Constitution came into being and opened up new ways of thinking about genealogy and authorship. In foregrounding the small cohort of women who contributed to the Constitution’s drafting as members of the Constituent Assembly, Achyut Chetan’s deeply researched book lends further insight to this historiography. Drawing on extensive archival material, including personal papers, official documents, organisational records and memoirs, the book offers a close-up view of the methods and aspirations of some extraordinary women. As historians have observed, these women’s achievements in creating the postcolonial society they desired were somewhat compromised, both by conservative opposition and by the blind spots and prejudices of the women themselves. Nevertheless, Chetan’s books reminds us of the distinct, sometimes oppositional role played by women activists in debates that helped forge the constitutional contours of the emerging nation.

Although women numbered just 11 out of the Constitution’s 284 signatories, Chetan argues that they deserve our attention both as historical figures and as feminist inspiration. What emerges quite powerfully from Founding Mothers of the Indian Constitution is a sense of the clear-eyed focus with which these women approached their task. The story begins well before the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly and Chapter 2 details the purposeful way India’s leading women’s organisation, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), went about getting its members elected. This valuable account of the AIWC at a crucial time of transition is alert to the internal debates and contestations within the organisation. Yet perhaps the most revealing passages of the chapter relate to Dakshyahani Velayudhan, a lesser-known non-AIWC Dalit woman and a sometime critic of the Indian National Congress who also clashed with the Dalit leader BR Ambedkar.

The history of and make-up of the AIWC is further explored in Chapter 3, demonstrating that, by the time the Constituent Assembly met in 1946, its women members were experienced operators with well-defined agendas. In the decades leading up to independence, the AIWC had campaigned on a range of social reform issues such as child marriage, education, labour conditions and inheritance laws, all of which remained on the agenda during the debates of the Constituent Assembly. Furthermore, Chetan argues, women activists had by now honed a constitutional language for tackling these concerns. The apogee of this was the AIWC’s Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties (1946), a document that would have international as well as national significance, as Manu Bhagavan and others have demonstrated.[2] By exploring the history of this document in detail, Chetan familiarises the reader with the AIWC perspective and establishes the impressive credentials of its leaders.

The ways these ideas and experiences translated into the work of the Constituent Assembly are examined in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. Chapter 4 is a reflection on the strategies women used to navigate an institution in which they were dramatically outnumbered and often undermined. It includes a tantalizing claim that Durgabai Deshmukh, a lawyer form Madras, used her membership of the Assembly’s Steering Committee to help fellow women strategise, although the reader is left to wonder in which situations this occurred and to what effect.

Chapter 5 takes up the issue of fundamental rights and explores how women utilized this concept to intervene in debates about civil liberties. Again, we see how women members worked the committee process in ways that support the author’s wider methodological claim that women’s interventions cannot be sufficiently gleaned from the (now digitally available) Constituent Assembly debates alone. A second theme that is explored in this chapter is secularism, which occasions a brief reflection on the positionality of the sole Muslim woman member of the Assembly, Aizaz Rasul. Although Rasul, like other women, opposed communal representation, the author detects a specific minority positionality “between community and secularity” that placed responsibility for fully integrating Muslims on the Hindu majority.

The theme of secularism extends into Chapter 6, which explores women’s engagements with the vexed issue of Hindu law reform. For the “founding mothers”, the persistence of outdated “customs” relating to marriage and the family – so-called personal laws – was the central factor undermining equality for women. Here Chetan usefully highlights how women’s efforts to reform such traditions within Hinduism, viewed by them as a first step towards a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) for all religious communities, faced strong opposition from religious conservatives. These tensions were replicated in debates about Partition’s abducted women in which most women opposed the coercive “recovery” of women against their will in the name of the patriarchal nation.

For Chetan, the Republic’s “founding mothers” were visionary feminists who inscribed gender equality at the heart of the postcolonial state. Yet because the term “feminist” was rejected by women at the time, it demands greater reflection than it is afforded in the text. As Hansa Mehta put it in 1946, “[w]e have no narrow feminist ideas […]. We are not thinking of women as women, but women as human beings […]”.[3] Of course, meanings change over time and the promotion by the “founding mothers” of equality for women may well conform to broad understandings of what constitutes feminism today. But it is important to understand the “founding mothers” as products of their time. Mehta’s words alert us to the distinctly anti-colonial focus of the Constituent Assembly’s women members (feminism was a viewed by them as a western concept). The historical (nation-building) context of the Constituent Assembly also helps explain why, for the “founding mothers”, uniformity so resoundingly trumped minority protection, a position feminists today have largely abandoned in favour of a more flexible notion of gender justice.

Founding Mothers is presented as an act of recovery that disrupts what the author describes as the erasure of modern India’s “missing mothers” (p. 1). While it is true that male figures dominate India’s constitutional history, scholars of the Indian women’s movement might question how far this cast of characters has, in fact, been forgotten. Women such as Hansa Mehta, Amrit Kaur and Renuka Ray are well known thanks to accounts by Mayaitree Chaudhuri, Geraldine Forbes, Mrinalini Sinha and others.[4] Meanwhile, students of gender and Partition will be well acquainted with the presence of women in the Constituent Assembly through the discussion of the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act (1949) in Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin’s work.[5]

But if Chetan perhaps exaggerates the extent of the “erasure” of women members of the Constituent Assembly, Founding Mothers undoubtedly augments our understanding of their careers. As well as examining their contributions to constitution-making, the book does the field a great service in consolidating biographical information and, in particular, in shining a spotlight on lesser-known figures, such as Velayudhan, Rasul and Purnima Bannerjee, and on differences of opinion within the women’s movement.

[1] Javed Majeed, “A Nation on the Move”: The Indian Constitution, Life Writing, and Cosmopolitanism, in: Life Writing 13 (2016) 2, pp. 237–53; Arvind Elangovan, Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935–50, New Delhi 2019; Ornit Shani, How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise, Cambridge 2017.
[2] Manu Bhagavan, India and the Quest for One World: The Peacemakers, Houndsmills, Basingstoke 2013.
[3] No Author, India’s Future Status: Mrs Hansa Mehta’s View, in: The Times of India, 21.05.1946, p. 5.
[4] Maitrayee Chaudhuri, Feminism in India, London 2005; Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India, Cambridge 1996; Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India. The Global Restructuring of an Empire, Durham, N.C.; London 2006.
[5] Ritu Menon / Kamla Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, New Delhi 1998.

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