By Dr. Ram Nandan P. Sinha
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the few in his generation who had recognized a central role of women folk in the Indian society. He believed that the role of women in political, economic and social emancipation of the country (i.e. India) was of overwhelming importance. But for this to happen he advised women to shed their inferiority complex. He said, “There is no occasion for women to consider themselves subordinate or inferior to men. Languages proclaim that woman is half of man and, by parity of reasoning, man is half of woman. They are not two separate entities, but halves of one. The English language goes further and calls woman the better half of man.”1 But Gandhi knew that ground reality was just the opposite. So, he advocated for equal right for women in political, economic and social spheres. Here we are concerned with only political equality of women in India though Mahatma Gandhi’s approach was holistic, never considering political completely separated from social or economic.
While considering Gandhi’s views on women’s reservation in legislatures, one has to take into consideration both the external in internal forces which shaped his approach to the problem. As for the external forces, we may go to 1906-7 when he was writing in The Indian Opinion (the English weekly edited by him in South Africa) about the British women’s movement for gaining voting rights. The British government was not willing to grant voting rights to women. So one day a group of British women came to the House of Commons, belabored the members there, indulged in breaking furnitures etc. for which they were sent to jail and fined five starlings each. Gandhi was very much impressed by the courage and determination of British women (though not by their violent action) in face of police atrocities. In these events he saw ample possibilities of similar awakening among Indian women. He then exorted the Indian community in Transvaal, as well as in India, to think over these happenings and try to emulate the British women in this respect.
Gandhi’s advocacy for women’s reservation in legislatures came out quite openly and vigorously in September 1931 when he was attending the Second Round Table Conference in London as the sole Congress representative. He spoke in the Conference, “I would boycott that Legislature which will not have a proper share of women members.” He added further that if they (minorities, including women) were left out (in elections), he would “have a clause in the Constitution which would enable the elected Legislature to elect those who should have been elected, or unjustly left out by the electorate.” (Ibid) The delegate at the Conference clamoured for separate electorate for Muslims. Sikhs, Parsees, Christians and untouchables. Gandhi was surprised that “never was Indian nation there”. Turning to Sarojini Naidu (the nominated delegate), he said, “Thank God, the women there did not push forward a claim either for separate electorate or for reservation of specific number of seats in Legislature.”
To a question, whether it was not necessary on the basis of equality that more women were taken into various bodies, he replied, in Harjan (1946), “I am not enamoured of equality or any other proposition in such matters. Merit should be the only test. Seeing, however, that it has become the custom to decry women, the contrary custom should be to prefer women even if the preference should result in man being entirely displaced by women. It would be dangerous thing to insist on membership (in Legislature) on the ground of sex-woman, and for that matter any group should disclaim patronage. They should seek justice, never fovour. Therefore, the proper thing is, for women, as indeed for men, to advocate the spread of general education through their provincial languages as will fit them for numerous duties of citizenship.”2
This clearly shows that Gndhiji was clearly against women’s reservation in Legislatures. According to him Legislatures were not going to empower them. For that they have to seek other avenues. At the All India Women’s Conference on Dec.23, 1936, he had said, “When women whom we call abala become sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful.” Such empowering, he was convinced, may not be bestowed upon them by Legislature or assistance offered by men. Rather, some more fortunate women who think of themselves as week must gather strength to stand up on their own. He said, “Woman must cease to consider herself the object of man’s lust. The remedy is more in her hands than man’s.”3 He had the hope that women will be the unquestioned leader and having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex.4 Women’s entry into national politics through non-violent methods brought miraculous results. On the one hand women became aware of their inner strength, and on the other, the process brought human and moral elements into politics.
In fighting for their rights, he wanted, the women of India not to emulate the West but to apply methods suitable to the Indian environment. It is force Sita and Draupadi, Savitry and Damayanti and not of amazons and prudes, that women today can derive strength and guidance for heroic conduct, the inner control, which while bringing the ideal into current practice will conserve the best and reject the base.5
However, Gandhiji concluded that at some point there was inherent bifurcation in the form and biological function of men and women. There were vital differences between the two. He wrote, “The duty of motherhood which the vast majority of women will always undertake, requires quality which men need not possess … The art of bringing up the infant of the race is her special role and prerogative. Without her care the race must become extinct. … In my opinion, it is degrading both for man and woman that woman should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth and shoulder the rifle for the protection of the hearth. It is reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end.”
In the Constructive Workers Conference in Madras (now Chennai) on June 27, 1946 he called upon women to enter the Legislature with the idea of serving the people and not politicking on party basis.
On April 1947, Gandhiji was confident that “India can proclaim that she can defend herself and make progress not through atom bomb but through non-violence alone.” And that “women alone can take lead in this, for God had endowed them with great power. If women resolve to bring glory to the nation within a few months they can totally change the face of the country because of the spiritual background of the Indian women.”6
I wish to conclude with a line from a letter of Gandhiji to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur from Wardha dated 21 Oct. 1936: “Now I am in search of woman who would realize her mission. Are you that woman? Will you be one?” This question is for all women even today. If only they realize their own inherent power, they will achieve their objective without any reservation. That is what Gandhiji emphasized. Many institutions and organizations representing women rights are today seen in India’s urban areas. They have effectively expressed their concerns. They seem to have moved far ahead of Gandhi’s vision of fearless women but contrary to his vision they are heading towards Westernization which he did not like.
To sum up, Gandhiji did not favour sex-based reservation for women in Legislatures, rather he wanted them to realize their innet power through education and take their due place in society without any mercy of any body whatsoever. However, he wished them to keep in mind their major and indispensable role in society in shaping the infant in her family for the wellbeing and strength of the nation.