Engineering Woman Power: A. Lalitha

15 September is celebrated as Engineering Day in India to mark the birth anniversary of M Visvesvaraya, one of India’s greatest engineers who made a vital contribution to the field of engineering and education. Visvesvaraya is best known for designing one of India’s first flood protection systems, construction of dams and reservoirs, and setting up one of the first engineering institutes in the country, the Government Engineering College, now called University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, Bengaluru.

Today there are hundreds of engineering colleges in India and tens of thousands of students, both boys and girls, compete to gain places in the best of these colleges. While the idea of a woman pursuing engineering is not uncommon today, the way had been paved by spunky pioneers who took on numerous challenges in a different time and circumstances. This is a good day to remember one of these women—A. Lalitha.

Lalitha was born on 27 August 1919 in a middle class Telugu family, one of seven siblings. Her father was himself an engineer, and fairly broad-minded, but societal norms and expectations took precedence over personal beliefs. Thus, as was the norm in those days, while Lalitha’s brothers were supported in pursuing higher studies, the girls in the family were educated only till the primary level, and then married off. Lalitha herself was married at the age of 15. But her father ensured that even in her new life she could continue to study till she completed class 10.

Sadly Lalitha’s married life was short-lived. Her husband passed away when she was just 18 years old. Lalitha had recently become a mother to a baby girl. Now she was a young widow with a four-month-old daughter, living in a society where widows were shunned and relegated to a life of isolation and austerity. This is where Lalitha’s fighting spirit led her to quietly start breaking the first of many barriers.

She moved back to her father’s house with a strong resolve to study and get a professional degree so that in future she could become self-reliant. Her father supported her decision, and Lalitha cleared the intermediate exam from Queen Mary’s College in Madras. This was the first step to moving ahead.

At the time there were women who were studying medicine. But Lalitha felt that a career in medicine would not leave her sufficient time and attention for her young daughter, who was her priority. Living in a family of engineers, this was an option that came to her mind. At that time technical education was itself in a nascent stage in India, and the idea of women entering this field was unheard of. No institute was admitting women. Once again, her father Pappu Subbarao helped to open a door for his daughter. He was a professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering (CEG) in Guindy, and he put up a special request to the then Principal of CEG Dr KC Chacko, that his daughter be permitted to take up an engineering course. He also put forward the appeal to the Director of Public Instruction, RM Statham. Luckily, both these officials were forward thinking and were agreeable to opening admission for a woman for the first time in the history of CEG. Lalitha applied for the electrical engineering course.

Thus Lalitha became the only girl in a college with hundreds of boys. But as accounts go, she never felt uncomfortable there. Accommodation in a separate hostel was arranged for her, while her daughter was looked after by her brother’s family; Lalitha visited her every weekend. While Lalitha was comfortable and happy in her classes, she missed having company in the hostel. Once again her father encouraged the authorities to open admissions for more women. In response to the advertisement two more women—Leelamma George and PK Thresia joined in the civil engineering course the following year.

As per the government rule then, engineering students had to put in four years of academic work and one year of practical training before they could graduate. Lalitha completed her practical training with a one-year apprenticeship at the Jamalpur Railway Workshop, a major repair and overhaul facility. 

Lalitha received her Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1943. Although they were technically junior, the three women engineers graduated together. Interestingly, the degree certificate of CEG had to replace the word He with She for their first three women graduates! 

Having already crossed several hurdles, Lalitha was ready to start a new phase of life as a professional. However she continued to give priority to her daughter Shyamala and looked for work opportunities which would not compromise her care. She accepted a job offer as an engineering assistant at the Central Standards Organisations of India, Simla. This was suitable as she was able to live with her brother’s family which offered support and care to her daughter. After two years in this job, she moved to Chennai work with her father helping him with his research which had led to several patents. This was intellectually stimulating, but financial pressures led Lalitha to find other work. She moved to Calcutta to work in the engineering department of Associated Electrical Industries. Once more her second brother and his family provided a home for her daughter. 

Lalitha got the opportunity to put all her education to practice, and gained experience and expertise. She worked on large projects, including the upcoming Bhakra Nangal Dam, which was then to be the biggest dam in India. Her tasks included the designing of transmission lines, substation layouts, and protective gear. Her brilliance and abilities began to gain national and international attention.

In 1953, the London-based Council of Electrical Engineers invited her to be an associate member. Visiting a British factory as an Indian woman dressed in a sari attracted a lot of press attention. She later became a full member. In 1964 she was invited to the First International Conference of Engineers and Scientists in New York. She was the first Indian woman engineer to attend. Lalitha subsequently became involved in several international organisations for women engineers. In 1965 she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London.

Lalitha continued to work with Associated Electrical Associates (later taken over by General Electric Company) until she retired in 1977. She also lived with her sister-in-law in the same house in Calcutta for 35 years.  Throughout her career she championed the idea of women in STEM careers. Her daughter Shyamala followed in her mother’s footsteps by studying science and maths, and making a career in teaching maths. In an interview her daughter summed up the essence of her mother’s work and life: “What I take from her life is her extreme patience towards people and the quality of doing instead of just talking. She believed that people come into your life for a reason and leave when the purpose is over.”

Not long after retirement Lalitha suffered from a brain aneurysm and passed away at the age of 60, in 1979. Today as many girls take up engineering as a career, most would not know about the grit and determination of a woman who helped pave the way. A. Lalitha—a young widow, dedicated single mother, a brilliant student, a path-breaking professional clad in a sari, who did not need to wear power suits to break the glass ceiling. 

–Mamata

The Conviction to Refuse an Honour

The Ramon Magsaysay Award is undoubtedly a high honour and prestige. Instituted in 1957 (with the first awards given in 1958), it is called the Noble Peace Prize of Asia. It ‘celebrates greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia.’ It has till date, been conferred on 300 individuals and organizations  ‘whose selfless service has offered their societies, Asia, and the world successful solutions to some of the most challenging problems of human development.’ The awardees are selected by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation trustees who call for nominations from a pool of international confidential nominators. The nominations go through a rigorous process of evaluation by the trustees.  

Awardees include Vinobha Bhave, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Verghese Kurian, Tribhuvandas Patel, The Peace Corps in Asia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Muhammad Yunus….the list of luminaries is distinguished indeed!

KK Shailaja
KK Shailaja

This year, Kerala’s former health minister KK Shailaja (called Shailaja Teacher) was one of those selected. This was in recognition of her stellar performance as health minister of Kerala, especially the management of Covid-19 in Kerala. She was one of the first people world-wide to recognize the potential seriousness of the virus, and ensured that her state was ready to combat it.

When she got the news of her award, Shailaja informed her party, the CPI(M). They deliberated on this and asked her to refuse it. Being a loyal party worker, she politely wrote to the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation refusing the award, saying that the battle against Covid was a collective effort, and that she was not individually responsible for it, and thus could not accept the award.

Controversy has raged since then. Was it jealousy on the part of some of her senior colleagues that she was getting such a high-profile recognition? It has been perceived for some time now that some of the party leaders in Kerala fear her success and her being highlighted on the international stage, and that is why she was refused a second term as Minister. Was it misogyny? That some people will do anything to bring down a successful women?

Well, maybe a bit of both.

But there is more to it. In fact, deep ideological reasons.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award was instituted in memory of Ramon Magsaysay, former President of the Philippines, and his commitment to integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.And indeed Ramon Magsaysay did live by these ideals. He did a lot for the people of his country, cleaned up the administration and made government responsive. He created the Presidential Complaints and Action Committee, a body which heard grievances of the public and recommended remedial actions.  He established the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Administration (NARRA) which redistributed thousands of acres of lands to the landless. He set up the Agricultural Credit and Cooperative Financing Administration (ACCFA) to make available rural loans to small farmers and share tenants loans at low interest rates.He played a significant role in regional affairs too. Magsaysay’s presidency was considered one of the cleanest and most corruption-free in Philippine history.

So he was a tall leader, no doubt. But the explanation for Shailaja’s refusal of an award names after him goes a little further back in time. In early August 1950, using his own experiences in guerrilla warfare during World War II he was the strategist behind then-President Quirino’s plan to fight the Communist guerrillas. He led this attack when he was named Secretary of National Defence in September 1950. All his life, he opposed communism not only in speeches and forums, but also on the ground through military action.  All through his years in power, he was a close friend, ally and supporter of the United States whose foremost enemy was communism.  All his life, Magsaysay was a vocal spokesman against communists. 

So that is one part of it.

Coming to the award itself. The Ramon Magsaysay award was instituted through an endowment from the Rockefellers Brothers Fund. The Rockefellers were staunchly anti-communist. For instance, as Assistant Secretary of State, Nelson Rockefeller played a big role in the establishment of NATO, its stance against the Soviet Union, and the resolution of NATO members to defeat communism and its spread. The Rockefellers also had a big hand in the shaping of the UN and its stance against communisim.

So the people who instituted the award as well as the man whom it commemorates were dead against communism.

To me, it makes sense why Ms. Shailaja, a life-long member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), with a deep committment to the communist ideology, refused the award. I am now a bigger fan than ever!

KK Sahilaja has a host of awards and recongitions from across the world, and awards probably do not matter to her.

But I hope that she will be able to play a bigger part in the management of public affairs not only in her state but the country too. We would be the poorer if she cannot!

–Meena

From Tagore to Ken Robinson: Creative Education

Continuing musings on education this week. This time with some thoughts from Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most influential contemporary thinkers on education, and discovering uncanny similarities in his vision with that of Rabindranath Tagore.

British-born teacher, author and speaker Ken Robinson spoke out against what he describes essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity, and ‘batching’ people. As he said: We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it is impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

He viewed large school systems as being rigid and unresponsive, squeezing the creative juices out of children by overemphasizing standardized testing and subjects like mathematics and science over the arts and humanities.

Ken Robinson advocated strongly for schools not only to broaden their curriculums but also to support teachers as creative professionals; and to personalize learning by breaking large classrooms — artificial environments that invite boredom, he said — into small groups.

Over a hundred years after Tagore, he shared Tagore’s vision of a good teacher: Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development.

Ken Robinson made it his life’s mission to highlight the importance of systems and environments that nurtured creativity. In his book Creative Schools he describes how he views creativity.

 Imagination is the root of creativity. It is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses.

Creativity is putting your imagination to work. It is applied imagination. Innovation is putting new ideas into practice. There are various myths about creativity. One is that only special people are creative, another is that creativity is only about the arts, a third is that creativity cannot be taught, and a fourth is that it’s all to do with uninhibited “self-expression.”

None of these is true. Creativity draws from many powers that we all have by virtue of being human. Creativity is possible in all areas of human life, in science, the arts, mathematics, technology, cuisine, teaching, politics, business, you name it. And like many human capacities, our creative powers can be cultivated and refined. Doing that involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas.

Creativity is about fresh thinking. It doesn’t have to be new to the whole of humanity— though that’s always a bonus— but certainly to the person whose work it is. Creativity also involves making critical judgments about whether what you’re working on is any good, be it a theorem, a design, or a poem. Creative work often passes through typical phases. Sometimes what you end up with is not what you had in mind when you started. It’s a dynamic process that often involves making new connections, crossing disciplines, and using metaphors and analogies. Being creative is not just about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free. It may involve all of that, but it also involves refining, testing, and focusing what you’re doing. It’s about original thinking on the part of the individual, and it’s also about judging critically whether the work in process is taking the right shape and is worthwhile, at least for the person producing it.

Creativity is not the opposite of discipline and control. On the contrary, creativity in any field may involve deep factual knowledge and high levels of practical skill. Cultivating creativity is one of the most interesting challenges for any teacher. It involves understanding the real dynamics of creative work.

The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself. When students are motivated to learn, they naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done. Their mastery of them grows as their creative ambitions expand. You’ll find evidence of this process in great teaching in every discipline from football to chemistry.

We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is to create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.

Tagore dreamed the same dream and urged for the same process when he wrote: Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs.

This week as we all remembered the teachers who have, in some way or the other, contributed to making us who we are, words of such visionaries help us to better articulate what it means to be a real teacher.

–Mamata

Celebrating the Gurus: Teachers’ Day

Rabindranath Tagore was the one who gave Gandhiji the title of Mahatma. Gandhi in turn called him ‘Gurudev’ in reverence to his wisdom and his learning, and saw him as a teacher to humanity.
Gurudev and Radhakrishnan at Shantiniketan where Oxford Univ held a special convocation in 1940 to honour Tagore
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore gave India a different vision of education, of teachers and the teaching process. It is appropriate to remind ourselves of his views on these subjects on the occasion of Teachers’ Day, Sept 5. Trying to paraphrase him would be useless.  So better, I thought, to share a few quotes:
About teachers:
‘A teacher can never truly teach unless he too continues to teach himself. One lamp can never light another unless it continues to burn its own flames. Similarly, the teacher who has come to the end of his subject, and has no living traffic with his knowledge but merely repeats his lessons to his students, can only burden their minds, he cannot inspire them.’
‘Good teachers activate children’s minds instead of helping them to assimilate and collect information, and inspire children through their own self-development. They encourage them to work on the teacher’s own original projects and thereby travel together on their journey to more understanding.’
Gurudev always looked for gurus for his schools and educational institutions, rather than teachers. According to him, gurus are ‘active in the efforts to achieve the fullness of humanity”. They ‘will give their whole selves to their students instead of merely sharing the material as prescribed by the curriculum’.
His message to teachers:
‘Do not be preoccupied with method. Leave your instincts to guide you to life. Children differ from one another. One must learn to know them, to navigate among them as one navigates among reefs. To explore the geography of their minds, a mysterious instinct, sympathetic to life, is the best of all guides.’
He wanted teachers and school administrators to recognize the importance of letting children discover the joy of learning and what nature has to teach them. Nothing sums this up better than an excerpt from a lecture he gave in London in 1933, where he recounts one of his encounters with a more ‘traditional’ educator:
‘I well remember the surprise and annoyance of an experienced headmaster, reputed to be a successful disciplinarian, when he saw one of the boys of my school climbing a tree and choosing a fork of the branches for settling down to his studies. I had to say to him in explanation that ‘childhood is the only period of life when a civilized man can exercise his choice between the branches of a tree and his drawing-room chair, and should I deprive this boy of that privilege because I, as a grown-up man, am barred from it?’ What is surprising is to notice the same headmaster’s approbation of the boys’ studying botany. He believes in an impersonal knowledge of the tree because that is science, but not in a personal experience of it. This growth of experience leads to forming instinct, which is the result of nature’s own method of instruction. The boys of my school have acquired instinctive knowledge of the physiognomy of the tree. By the least touch they know where they can find a foothold upon an apparently inhospitable trunk; they know how far they can take liberty with the branches, how to distribute their bodies’ weight so as to make themselves least burdensome to branchlets. My boys are able to make the best possible use of the tree in the matter of gathering fruits, taking rest and hiding from undesirable pursuers. I myself was brought up in a cultured home in a town, and as far as my personal behaviour goes, I have been obliged to act all through my life as if I were born in a world where there are no trees. Therefore I consider it as a part of education for my boys to let them fully realize that they are in a scheme of existence where trees are a substantial fact, not merely as generating chlorophyll and taking carbon from the air, but as living trees.Ideal Teachers: Gurus vs. Schoolmasters.’
On Teachers’ Day, as we commemorate Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, another of India’s great educators, let us think about what education means in this changing world, and how the role of teachers must evolve.
–Meena

Mahatma Gandhi and Madam Montessori

India is currently in the process of introducing the New Educational Policy (NEP 2020). Exercises are ongoing to develop the curricula and frameworks for education at all levels, starting from Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).  As per the Policy document: The overall aim of ECCE will be to attain optimal outcomes in the domains of physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotional-ethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy.

This vision for laying the strongest foundation for lifelong learning has its seeds in the thoughts and writing of many educationists and thinkers. It has a deep resonance with Gandhiji’s thoughts on education. In 1937, at a conference in Wardha, Maharashtra, Mahatma Gandhi seeded an important idea to revamp the educational system through Nai Talim or Basic Education.

Gandhiji’s vision was that this new paradigm of education should prepare the young learners to become morally sound, individually independents, socially constructive, economically productive and responsible future citizens. The foundation for this was to be laid in early childhood. Gandhiji believed that education should develop all the capacities of the child so that he becomes a complete human being. “By education I mean all-round drawing out of the best in child’s and man’s body, mind and spirit. Literacy is neither the beginning nor the end of education. This is only a means through which man or woman can be educated. 

In Gandhiji’s educational thoughts the integrated development of the personality of child is more important than mere literacy or knowledge of different subjects. Thus his vision was of life-centred as well as child-centred education. Besides learning of three R’s–Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in school, he insisted on development of the three H’s–Hand, Heart and Head.

While these thoughts took formal shape in the form of Nai Taleem in 1937, they had long been brewing in his mind. Over the years he was also assimilating the writing and educational philosophies of other thinkers and practitioners of alternate and innovative systems of teaching and learning. One of these was Madam Montessori.

The two had already met in spirit before they met in person. Gandhiji was in London to attend the Round Table Conference in October 1931. Maria Montessori was at the time holding one of the International Training Courses for teachers. Common friends brought them together. At their first meeting which was around 9 October 1931, the interaction was recorded thus:

Gandhi greeting her said: “We are members of the same family”.

“I bring you the greetings of children” said Madam Montessori.

Gandhiji said: “If you have children I have children too. Friends in India ask me to imitate you. I say to them, no, I should not imitate you but should assimilate you and the fundamental truth underlying your method.”

Madam Montessori: “As I am asking my children to assimilate the heart of Gandhi. I know that feeling for me over there in your part of the world is deeper than here.”

Gandhiji: “Yes, you have the largest number of adherents in India outside Europe.”

On 28 October 1931 Gandhi gave a speech at the Montessori Training College in London wherein he traced his own Montessori journey.

Madam you have overwhelmed me with your words. [Madam Montessori had welcomed Gandhiji as “a soul rather than a man”.]

It was in 1915 when I reached India, that I first became acquainted with your activities. It was in a place called Amreli that I found there was a little school being conducted after the Montessori system. Your name had preceded that first acquaintance. I found no difficulty in finding out at once that this school was not carrying out the spirit of your teaching; the letter was there. But while there was an honest—more or less honest—effort being made, I saw too that there was a great deal of tinsel about it.

I came in touch, then with more such schools, and the more I came in touch, the more I began to understand that the foundation was good and splendid, if the children could be taught through the laws of nature—nature consistent with human dignity, not nature that governs the beast.

…I see the same thing here, and it was a matter of inexpressible joy to me that from childhood the children were brought to understand the virtue of silence. It and how in ,response to a whisper from their teacher, the children came forward one after another, in pin-drop silence. It gave me great joy to see all the beautiful rhythmic movements and as I was watching those movements of the children, my whole heart went out to the millions of the children of the semi-starved villages of India, and I asked myself as my heart went out even to those children, “Is it possible for me to give them these lessons and the training that are being given under your system, to those children?

It was this first meeting that inspired Mahatma Gandhi to visit Montessori schools in Rome on his way back. He declared there, his interest in promoting them in India. The two continued to be in touch. Just after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when Maria Montessori came to India, Gandhiji was one of the first to send her message of welcome. They met and corresponded during the nearly 10 years that Montessori lived and worked in India. After Italy’s entry into the World War, restrictions were imposed on Montessori as she was being considered as an enemy-alien. Gandhiji expressed sympathy, and regret even, though he was under restrictions himself.

In March 1940 when Madam Montessori was in Ahmedabad she inaugurated the Bal Mandir (kindergarten) in the Sabarmati Ashram campus. Thus the long friendship between two visionaries took concrete form.

As we mark Maria Montessori’s birth anniversary on 31 August, it is a good time to revisit the close links between her and the Mahatma. In these turbulent times, we urgently need to remember their strong belief that to have real peace, we must begin with the children.  

If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. MK Gandhi

Averting war is the work of politicians; establishing peace is the work of education. Maria Montessori

–Mamata

Fighter for Many Freedoms: Hansa Mehta

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.

Hansa Mehta and Eleanor Roosevelt Source:www.un.org

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.

–Mamata

The Jawaja Project

One of the criticisms against academic institutions is that they are far removed from every day realities and seldom contribute in solving real-life challenges.

The Jawaja project undertaken by IIM Ahmedabad in partnership with the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad is an early exception.

It was in 1975 that Ravi Mathai, IIM-A’s legendary first fulltime director, set out on a journey to see how corporate management principles could be used to solve the major problem facing India-poverty. Ravi had stepped down as Director and could now devote time to such a project.

The decision was taken to work in Jawaja, a drought-prone district of Rajasthan, consisting of about 200 villages and 80,000 population. There seemed very little scope for development there, given the arid landscape and lack of water and other physical resources. But Prof Ravi Matthai had a different perspective, because he saw people as the biggest resource.

As they understood the area better, they found that the area had a 300-year tradition of leather-craft. The communities there were also skilled at weaving. And so they decided to build on these skills to develop sustainable livelihoods for the communities there. Prof. Mathai roped in NID to join hands with IIM-A, to work on livelihoods and empowerment of the communities in Jawaja. He and Ashoke Chatterjee, his counterpart in NID, started the journey which involved many faculty from both institutes.

The idea was to connect artisans with contemporary disciplines of management and design, and knowledge institutions which had this knowhow. There were some important basic principles underpinning the effort. The first and foremost was that the relationship was one of mutual respect and learning—after all, even as the communities learnt new skills, the faculty of the institutions were learning how their knowledge could be put to use in solving social problems. Another important aspect was to see how much of the value chain could be controlled by the artisans and communities themselves, so that their incomes could be enhanced. The idea was to innovate and design new products which would have new markets, so that the traditional value chains could be broken and the craftspeople could play a greater role in more areas. The focus was also on working in groups, to give greater resilience and strength to the efforts.

Jawaja bag
A prized Jawaja bag

The process was by design a gradual one, moving from basic products which did not need very high quality—e.g, leather school bags and woven floor mats, to higher value ones like office supplies, more trendy bags, and high-end furnishings.

The challenges were of course many. Apart from the need to design new products which would use the old skills, technologies and equipment, another major concern was quality control.

With regard to production of new designs, a train-the trainer model was envisaged, which did not work quite as planned. With regard to quality control, the idea was that it would initially be done by external experts, and would then be taken over by the crafts groups themselves. This again went slower than foreseen. Funds and resources for developing new products and for procurement of raw material were always a constraint.

But the enduring success of the bold experiment is seen even today at several levels.

The first was the creation of self-reliant institution of crafts people– the Artisans’ Alliance of Jawaja and its associations. These started to manage all links of the value chain in Jawaja, from raw material procurement, finances, bank dealings, design and technology know how, and marketing processes. These are still active today and continue to innovate, produce and market these products which are highly valued.

The second is the impact of the project on the larger development scene. It was the learning from running this grassroots education and empowerment project that the idea of setting up a specialized institution for education in rural management came up, and the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Anand, was born. This was given shape by Prof Ravi Mathai and two other professors who had been with IIM-A—Dr.Kamala Chowdhary and Dr.Michael Halse.

The Jawaja experiment widespread legacy is that it influenced development sector thinking on how to approach community-based livelihood interventions in a spirit of mutual respect and learning.

It is an initiative which needs to be much more widely known, understood and discussed.

–Meena

‘Gandhi Budi’ Matangini Hazra

It is in this week, 80 years ago, that Gandhi’s call for Quit India reverberated through the length and breadth of the country, and struck a chord in the heart of old and young. People everywhere gave up their all to heed Gandhi’s call of “Do or Die” as they joined protests against the British government, boycott of foreign goods, and demonstrations in support of swadeshi goods. Last week we remembered a young girl Kanaklata Barua from Assam, who gave her life for the tricolour.

The movement was not confined to the young. People from every walk of life, and of every age threw themselves into the nationalist cause with fervour, undaunted by the challenges, and the risk to their own life. One of these was a poor, uneducated woman from Bengal who lived, and died, for a dream of a free India. This is the story of Matangini Hazra.

The first statue of a woman revolutionary put up in Kolkata in independent India was that of Matangini Hazra.

Matangini was born in 1870, a girl child in a very poor family in Hogla village near Tamluk in Midnapore district in what was then the Bengal Presidency. Her family could not afford to send the child to school, and she remained unlettered all her life. The family circumstances also led to her being married off early to a sixty-year old widower. The child bride became a widow herself by the time she was eighteen. Thereafter, Matangini returned to her parent’s village but chose to live separately. Over the next few years she spent most of her time helping people in her community.

The turn of the century also brought a turn in the life of the young widow. The nationalist movement was gaining momentum; the idea of engaging in a cause that transcended her own village and community attracted the interest and attention of Matangini. She began to participate in local events of protest. Even as she continued her work with local community, she was following the growing movement for independence across the country.

Years passed, as Matangini grew older, but still full of spirit and passion for the cause. On 19 December 1929, the Indian National Congress passed the historic ‘Purna Swaraj’ (total independence) resolution at its Lahore session. A public declaration was made on 26 January 1930 – a day which the Congress Party urged Indians to celebrate as ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘Total Independence’ Day.

The Purna Swaraj declaration was followed by the announcement of the Civil Disobedience movement which was led by Mahatma Gandhi. Protesting against the taxation on salt production, Mahatma Gandhi led his followers on a 26-day Dandi March which lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930.

On 26 January 1932, the menfolk of Matangini’s village took out a procession to create awareness about the non-cooperation movement, and the political situation in the country. As they passed by her hut, Matangini felt herself being irresistibly drawn into the heart of the action. She joined the procession and marched with the young men, chanting slogans against the British. She was 62 years old, small, and frail in health, but strong in resolve; and she vowed to proactively fight the struggle for independence.

There was no looking back. She joined the nationwide Salt Satygraha. She walked long distances to attend various Congress meetings, and threw herself into all the protest activities. She was arrested for the first time when she took part in salt manufacturing at Alinan, her late husband’s village. After her arrest she was made to walk many miles before she was jailed. She was then released because she was a woman, and her advanced age.

She later participated in the movement for the abolition of the chowkidari tax, a tax collected from villagers to fund a small police force in their areas. This was not only unfair, but the police troops were also used as spies against the villagers by the British Government

During a march towards the court building, to protest against the Governor’s harsh decision to punish all agitators, Matangini was arrested again and made to serve a six-month prison term at Baharampur jail.

In 1933, the then Governor of Bengal Sir John Anderson came to Tamluk to address a gathering. There was tight security everywhere but Matangini managed to reach the dais and stage a black-flag demonstration. She was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment. While she was incarcerated, she came in contact with other political prisoners and used this opportunity to learn more about the movement and Gandhi. She was strongly drawn to Gandhi’s ideas and committed to following these in practise. After being released she became an active member of the local unit of the Indian National Congress. She took to regular spinning of khadi on her own charkha, even as her eyesight was failing and her health was deteriorating.

In an incident during the same period, the story goes, that one summer afternoon Matangini was part of a freedom march in the district capital. The marchers reached the residence of the Governor who was standing on his balcony and observing the demonstration while his soldiers cordoned off the immediate area. Matangini, who was leading the protesters managed to break the cordon, and holding aloft the freedom flag rushed ahead shouting Go Back. She was beaten up by British police for this daring act, and was severely injured.

Even as her age increased year by year, so did her rebellious acts. So closely did she associate with Gandhi and his movement that she began to be locally called Gandhi Budi or ‘old lady Gandhi’.

Her feisty spirit and commitment to the cause culminated with the tidal wave of Quit India that was sweeping India. On 29 September 1942, Gandhi Budi led a procession of about 6,000 protesters, mainly women, heading for the Tamluk police station. The plan was to take over the police station from British authorities, and establish home rule in the small town.

Just as the team reached the outskirts of the town, the British police arrived and ordered the marchers to disband, or else be penalised for violating Article 144 (Unlawful Assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. There was chaos. The police tried to stop the march by threatening to shoot at the advancing crowd. Matangini appealed to the police force to refrain from shooting at the protestors. But the police were in no mood to listen. Even after they started to fire, Matangini continued to advance alone, holding aloft the tricolour. The police bullets hit her three times. Injured on the forehead and both hands, Matangini continued to struggle onwards, uttering Vande Mataram and not letting the tricolour fall. She continued marching till she collapsed and died.

Matangini Hazra was 72 years old. She lived a life of dedication to service, and died a hero’s death in the service of the cause of freedom.

–Mamata

I

Fabrics for Freedom: Khadi and Beyond

We are all aware of how central khadi was to our struggle for independence. It was not only about defying the British and refusing to buy their imported cloth, but a potent symbol that it was not mere freedom from colonial rule that was critical, but also economic independence—a means of livelihood for millions of people of the country. In the words of Divya Joshi: ‘Gandhiji presented khadi as a symbol of nationalism, equality and self-reliance. It was his belief that reconstruction of the society and effective Satyagraha against the foreign rule can be possible only through khadi….The spinning wheel was at one time the symbol of India’s poverty and backwardness. Gandhiji turned it into a symbol of self-reliance and non-violence.’

Khadi

But India is not the only country where spinning and weaving of textiles were a core part of a movement for independence. Another large British colony also used this as a weapon. This was the USA!

Britain saw its colonies including the American territories, as suppliers of raw material, insisted that they export all cotton to it, and buy all finished cloth from it. And of course it imposed huge taxes on all these products including fabric.

In defiance, the people in the American colonies started spinning their own cloth, and the spinning wheel because as important a symbol of patriotism in Americanin the 1760s and 1770s as the charkha was to the become in the 20th century in India.

Women were at the forefront of the spinning movement in the American War of Independence, and created their own homespun cloth to disrupt the British monopoly.  Fabric made this way was called “homespun.” Wearing homespun was a symbol of patriotism.  

In certain areas like New England, women showed their protest by going to ‘spinning bees’ where they would set up spinning wheels and keep each other company while they spun yarn. And these were not isolated events—for instance, in a single area, from Harpswell, Maine to Huntington, Long Island, over 60 spinning meetings were held over 32 months starting in March 1768.

The Daughters of Liberty, a group of political dissidents who got together to fight for liberty, were at the forefront of these spinning bees. They organized boycotts of British goods, especially tea, and they manufactured replacement products, especially cloth.

As in India, spinning was at the centre of a lot of publicity and was a rallying point for the freedom fighters. Newspapers reported elaborately on the smallest cloth-making development to amplify the message. Spinning schools were set up and awards were offered for the person who wove the most cloth. Old and young learnt to spin—it is reported that a 70-year-old woman in Newport, R.I., learnt to spin for the first time during the movement. Competitions were held—‘in 1769, two Connecticut women held an all-day spinning contest in which the winner spun seven skeins and two knots of fine linen yarn, just a little more than her competitor’.

The boycott of imported fabric and other goods from tea to molasses, worked, and it is estimated by some sources that the value of imported goods from Great Britain to the US fell by half in 1769 over the previous year, from 420,000 to 208,000 pounds.

So ‘swadeshi’ proved a potent war cry against imperial colonizers halfway across the world!

As it did in India almost 150 years later–rallying self-confidence, morale, giving a sense of identify.

Happy Independence Day!

Buying one pair of Khadi clothes a year can contribute to livelihoods for our millions of weavers. And they need it more than ever now, as the spinning of the national flag, which was their monopoly, has been taken away.

–Meena

‘Birbala’ Kanaklata: Teenage Martyr for the Tricolour

Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.

These words spoken by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 launched the Quit India movement. Although Gandhi and many other leaders were arrested within hours of his speech, with the expectation that without their leadership the resistance movement would be rudderless, the effect was the opposite. Thousands of Indians, young and old, heeded this call and plunged into the movement, each contributing in their own way.

This mantra shared by Gandhiji at the Gowalia Tank Maidan Park in Bombay echoed across the country. Its reverberations reached the eastern corner of India, to Assam, and lit a spark in the heart and mind of a young girl named Kanaklata.

Kanaklata Barua was born on 22 December 1924 in Barangabari village of Gohpur, now in the Sonitpur district in Assam. Her mother died when Kanaklata was only five years old, and the young child developed a sense of responsibility much beyond her tender age. Her father remarried but he also died when she was thirteen. With added household responsibilities, and caring for her siblings, Kanaklata had to drop out of school and could not continue her studies after third standard.

Even as she was growing up in her village in Assam, the sparks of the nationwide freedom movement were spreading across the length and breadth of the country. The non-cooperation movement was gaining strength. The movement reached a climax with Gandhi’s call for “Do or Die”, and the wave of the Quit India Movement surged to new heights.

In Assam too there were widespread protests against British rule, and young and old joined in. Initially the protests were peaceful, but the British arrested all the Congress leaders of the state, and stepped up their brutal repression of the people. This only strengthened the opposition, and engendered underground conspiracies to fight the British. Among these was the setting up of a suicide squad which engaged in subversive activities like derailing and burning trains, attacking army outposts and snapping communication channels.

Seventeen-year-old Kanaklata was inspired and fired by the cause, and eager to contribute. Her dream was to join the Azad Hind Fauj, but as she was still a minor, she was not permitted to do so. Undeterred, she volunteered to join Mrityu Bahini–a suicide squad. For this too she was technically underage, but her determination and passion for the freedom movement was considered suitable for granting her membership. Subsequently she became the leader of the women’s cadre of the Mrityu Bahini.

The then president of the local Congress committee, Kushal Konwar was an ardent believer of non-violence proposed by Gandhi. He was falsely accused by the British for derailing a train which killed many British soldiers, and he was hanged. After the martyrdom of Kushal Konwar, the revolutionary camp of Gohpur division, under the leadership of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, decided to mark their protest by removing the British flag and unfurling the National Flag at the local police station.

On 20 September 1942, Kanaklata led the procession of members of the Mrityu Bahini, walking proudly with the national flag in her hand, and with cries of Vande Mataram. The officer-in-charge of the police station was anticipating this. He warned the procession not to proceed further. He threatened that the police were duty-bound to start firing if the protesters advanced. Kanaklata responded by saying that he could do his duty while she carried on with her duty.

The procession carried on towards the police station; Kanaklata was leading, with the tricolour held aloft in her hands. As they neared, the police fired. Kanaklata fell to the bullet, with the flag still firmly held up. Before the flag could touch the ground it was taken by Mukunda Kakoti, another member from the group. He too was felled by a police bullet. Two young lives, snuffed out even before they attained adulthood. Kanaklata was not yet eighteen years old, and did not live to see the independent India of her dreams.

Their martyrdom did not go in vain. Even as their comrades were breathing their last, the others in the group did not let the tricolour down. They picked it up and with cries of Vande Mataram, the flag was eventually unfurled at the police station. One of the millions of small but significant gestures that added nail after nail to the coffin of the end of British rule in India.

While Kanaklata’s tale is not well known, it has at least been told. This month as we remember the many struggles and sacrifices that contributed to the unique non-violent movement that led India to become Independent, let us also pay tribute to the many unsung heroes and heroines who gave their all, even their life, for this cause.  

And as we swell with pride to see the Indian tricolour fly freely and fearlessly, let us not forget the brave young woman “Birbala” Kanaklata Barua who gave her life for it.

–Mamata