This week as the Indian national flag flew proudly across the land, it was also a time when we were reminded of the fact that the right to fly this flag was won through a long struggle in which millions of people played their part, big or small.
Going back to the midnight session on 14 August 1947 which marked the birth of a free India. As the session was about to conclude, a lady member of the House came up to the podium in the Central Hall. She handed over the tricolour to the Chairman and announced “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India”.
This lady was Hansa Mehta who was not just a representative of the Indian women, but a champion for universal women’s rights, all her life.
Hansa was born on 3 July 1897 in an affluent and cultured family in Gujarat. Her father was a professor of philosophy at Baroda College and later served as the Dewan of the states of Baroda and Bikaner. Her grandfather Nandshankar Mehta was a social reformer and well known author.
As a student in Baroda Hansa was influenced by the progressive thoughts of the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III, and the philosophy of Aurobindo Ghosh. After graduating with honours in philosophy from Baroda, she left for England to pursue further studies in sociology and philosophy. She also travelled to the United States as an exchange student, and was keenly interested in understanding how their educational system worked. While in England she got to know Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur who planted in her the early seeds of nationalism.
The spark was truly ignited when after her return to India, it was once again Sarojini Naidu who introduced Hansa to Mahatma Gandhi. It was 1922, and Gandhi was locked in Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad. Hansa was, as she, recalled “visibly moved” by this meeting. This also proved to be the turning point that launched Hansa into the freedom struggle. She got actively involved in the Non-Cooperation and Swadeshi movements, organising protests, and boycotts of foreign goods, and courting arrest.
Her decision to marry Jivraj Mehta, the then Chief Medical Officer of Baroda, met with opposition from her family and community as the groom was from another community. But she received strong support from the Maharaja of Baroda Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The couple moved to Bombay where Hansa continued her active involvement with the freedom struggle.
On Bapu’s advice, on 1 May 1930, Hansa led the first batch of the Desh Sevika Sangh in a satyagraha which involved picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops. Her organisational skills led to her appointment as President of the Bombay Congress Committee. Hansa was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. She was released along with the other political prisoners under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed on March 5, 1931. In 1932 Hansa and her husband, who was not actively engaged in political life, were once again arrested and detained.
Following her release, she got deeply involved in the political processes which would go on to define the future of Indian polity.
She contested and won the first provincial elections from the Bombay Legislative Council seat in 1937. This was significant because she refused to contest from a reserved seat and was elected as a general category candidate. She remained on the Council till 1949. With her entry into mainstream politics Hansa also began to get closely involved with the All India Women’s Conference, and became its President in 1946. Her progressive vision for women’s empowerment in all fields, starting from education, was reflected in all the work of this organisation.
She became President of the Conference in 1946. In this role she piloted the drafting of the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties—which became a manifesto for women’s equality. Embodying the spirit of progressive politics, the charter sought among other things equality with men in terms of pay, civil rights, access to health and education, distribution of property, and fair marriage laws.
The next significant milestone was Hansa’s election to India’s Constituent Assembly in 1946. She was one of fifteen women in the Assembly. Rubbing shoulders with other founding fathers, with the shared vision for a new India, Hansa infused the deliberations with her own passion, vision and championing of women’s rights and justice. While the world over suffragettes were fighting for women’s equality, Hansa Mehta was ensuring that India’s constitutional document ensured that women were equal partners. Even as she fought for her own countrywomen, Hansa got the opportunity to carry her mission to an international arena.
Around this time Hansa was appointed as an Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She found serving on the Commission as Vice-Chair to the Chair Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of the United States. During the discussion on the document that we know today as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was suggested that the opening words of the first Article should read “All men are born free”. It was the Indian delegate Hansa Mehta who registered strong protest at the wording. Hansa argued that this could later be read to exclude women, and suggested that the word ‘men’ should be changed to ‘persons’ or ‘human beings’. The proposal was seconded by Eleanor Roosevelt. The suggestion was put to vote and was finally enshrined in the document thus: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Thus Hansa put her indelible mark on what is, even today, a milestone document in the history of human rights. Her legacy is not forgotten. In 2015, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon reminded that “The world can thank a daughter of India, Dr Hansa Mehta, for replacing the phrase in the UDHR”.
Hansa Mehta continued her advocacy of women’s education and rights, even as she herself went to attain many “firsts”. She became India’s first woman Vice Chancellor with her appointment at the SNDT University in Bombay. In 1949 she was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the newly established Baroda University, the first woman to head a co-educational university. She was a prolific writer, and researched and published over twenty books, many focussing on women and children. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1959. She passed away in 1995.
‘Feminist’, ‘Activist’, ‘Reformist’—Hansa Mehta was all these well before the labels became fashionable. A woman ahead of her time, who spent her life fighting for many freedoms, for the cause of her fellow women.