• The Indian Suffragettes

    Sumita Mukherjee

    September 1, 2018

    Image Courtesy: Oxford University Press

    The 1935 Government of India Bill was the government’s major intervention in the Indian constitution, hoping to stave off self-government for the immediate future while placating the demands of Indian nationalists. It would give even more representative powers to Indian people and was seen as the last intervention that would be made by the government on franchise matters. Although there had been evident sympathy for demands to increase the female electorate, as in 1919, the government was reluctant to take on further responsi-bility on this matter. However, as one MP put it, there were many who still felt that it was their imperial responsibility to intervene: ‘Before England relinquishes her responsibility for the franchise in India, I hope action will be taken to improve the political position of Indian women.’ They went on to remark (as quoted in the Hindu): ‘Until the women of India are as free as their sisters in the West, all the people of India will suffer from a heavy handicap.’1

    As Rama Rau observed, Rathbone continued to be active on the Indian woman suffrage question in 1934, often obscuring the continuing official women’s organizations’ demands for full adult suffrage2. In April 1934 Rathbone and other members of her committee met the secretary of state. They expressed no objec-tion to require application to prove literacy qualification. However, a month later, Rathbone wrote to Samuel Hoare, having consulted with Subbarayan and Sushama Sen, suggesting that joint electorates might be introduced to fulfil women’s reserved seats as joint elector-ates already elected women in municipal elections. During readings of the Government of India Bill, Rathbone put forward a proposal that if the election ratio was less than 1:4.5 at the next election then the regulations might be amended again before the following Indian election. This was seen as likely to create more unrest among women in India, who were already opposed to differential qualifications, and Rathbone withdrew the amendment3.


    The conception of citizenship was important to female national-ists as well. Kaur wrote a piece for the Modern Review, published in November 1934, in which she spoke of the female demand for their ‘inherent right to citizenship’. She described this as gaining equal political rights to men but explained that citizenship was also some-thing larger than mere political freedom or privileges; civic rights also inferred duties to the nation4. Thus, the right to vote was intimately related to the nationalist mission of social reform and progress, and women were conceived to have an important part to play in this new nation though their roles were portrayed as separate and different to men. Therefore, while in their fight for political equality women faced no obstacles from male nationalist leaders, other issues about women’s position in society were not addressed by male politicians. These issues included challenging inheritance rights or gendered employment, which were not seen as related to nationalist ideology.

    The different educational qualifications required for voting eli-gibility, on a province by province basis, created discontent among Indian suffragettes, and it was an issue raised at the 1935 AIWC. Margery Corbett Ashby and Maude Royden attended the conference in Karachi and told Indian women that the JPC reforms had fallen far short of the ‘deserved expectations of Indian women’, promising to continue to campaign on this issue5. In the meantime, women’s organizations started gearing up for the first general elections to take place after the 1935 Government of India Act—over 1936 and 1937.

    As women newly qualified to vote now had to apply to be enrolled, unlike property owners, it was imperative that eligible women do so. Margaret Cousins addressed various women’s groups in south India urging women to enrol. Reddi also prepared a memorandum on this issue and members of the AIWC distributed leaflets and went from house to house explaining to women the necessity of taking advantage of the vote.6 Upon her return to India, Shahnawaz had become more closely involved with the Muslim League and urged Muslim women to register and also ensure that Muslim women were returned to seats in the new legislatures.7

    During the 1936–7 elections, roughly 5 million women voted, and they voted overwhelmingly for Congress. There had been 72 female candidates contesting unreserved seats and only 8 were elected. Nine women took up seats in uncontested seats, and 40 women filled in reserved seats.8 


    In 1942 many Indian suffragettes were engaged with the Quit India movement—a more radical civil disobedience movement demanding that the British leave India immediately, in the wake of discontent over Indian involvement in the Second World War. Violence was met with repression. Naidu was imprisoned again, alongside many other Indian women (in total some 100,000 Indian men and women had been arrested by 1943, although colonial officials were reluctant to put women into jail).9 The Muslim League officially opposed the Quit India movement and over the 1940s the relationship between Congress and Muslim League members began to break down further, including that between women’s activists such as Shahnawaz and other members of the AIWC.10 The Second World War was a period of great uncertainty in Indian domestic politics, and so demands for full adult franchise were put on hold as the future was unknown, with the exact nature and political constitution of an independent India (and Pakistan) still under negotiation.

    Indian suffragettes in the Women’s Coronation Procession, London, on June 17, 1911 [Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

    However, female engagement in politics continued to be an important area for intervention. In 1946 women demanded to be involved in the constituent assembly, which was set up to look into drafting a new constitution that would come into effect after independence. The AIWC prepared a women’s rights charter for the assembly, in which they demanded equality for women in the franchise and public life and demanded that marriage should not prejudice the inherent rights of women.11 The All-India Congress Committee responded by instructing the provinces to elect a required number of women to the assembly, and the AIWC put forward suggestions. Pandit, Naidu, Mehta, and Kaur were among the women elected. In practice this meant that only women who were both members of Congress and the AIWC were elected to the constituent assembly, and the elite nature of women’s representation was solidified.12


    Hansa Mehta was president of the AIWC in 1946 and she continued to maintain international contacts and stress that the wifehood qualification for female franchise had to be removed as soon as possible and replaced with adult franchise.

    General elections in India took place at the end of 1945 and the beginning of 1946. Congress won a majority of the seats, although the Muslim League won all Muslim seats. Despite a still limited ‘democracy’, the electorate had expanded to 40 million voters (male and female) by 1946, which was the second largest electorate in the non-communist world.13 After independence, it was generally accepted among the Indian political elite that women in India would be enfranchised. The 1931 Karachi resolutions where Gandhi had insisted upon full adult suffrage were to become embodied in the 1949 constitution.14 There were also attempts to appoint women  in leading political roles. However, out of the 299 seats on the con-stituent assembly to which members were elected in 1946, only 15 were held by women.15 As ever, there were some high-profile female appointments. Immediately after independence, for example, Kaur was appointed minister of health in the first new government of India. The new constitution was adopted from 26 November 1949 and enforced formally on Republic Day, 26 January 1950, when Indian people were no longer British subjects but citizens of the Republic of India. The first elections to the new Lok Sabha took place over 1951–2; roughly 173 million Indian men and women voted, but out of 489 seats only 22 went to women.16

    * * *

    In 1932 the Indian National Congress invited members of the India League (in London) to visit India to investigate charges of police bru-tality against imprisoned Indian nationalists. The delegation of two British women (the former Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson and Monica Whatley), a British man (Leonard W. Matters, also a former Labour MP), and an Indian man (Krishna Menon) found reliable information that women had been sexually threatened, abused, beaten, and raped in prisons. British officials, before the delegation had produced its report, dismissed the group as being dominated by ‘suffragettes’.17 Not only was ‘suffragette’ an insult, but the report also showed that Indian women had many concerns other than equal suffrage. The partition of India and Pakistan in August 1947 was not only to take thousands and thousands of lives, but women involved were subject to horrific brutality, sexual violence, and mental torture. The suffrage fight needs to be put within this context.


    Although Indian suffragettes were concerned about their franchise and citizenship rights within an imperial state and became increas-ingly aware that their political emancipation could only be achieved through national independence, they also knew they would have to build pressure and support through the various international net-works they had built up over the decades. The colonial relationship still existed and thus Indian women were still compelled to visit Britain to lobby parliament and politicians in their favour; they con-tinued to rely on British women’s organizations and individuals for their support in influencing opinion. Yet, in their fight for indepen-dence, many suffrage campaigners chafed under the paternalistic and maternalistic direction from non-Indian women. Having previously embraced imperial, colonial, international, and Asian identities, by the late 1930s they were working out what it meant to be an Indian woman and an Indian citizen that demanded most attention.

    Indian women were not the only politically marginalized group in India. As Lakshmi Menon put it, their political representation was on a par with Scheduled Castes though women constituted a much larger percentage of the population.18 Though Indian suffragettes envisaged a utopia of adult franchise, these negotiations and the com-munal lines that had already been drawn into Indian politics com-pelled them to think along factional lines too. Despite the pressure that British politicians including Eleanor Rathbone put on Indian women, the majority were keen to press for utopian ideals rather than embark on creating new constitutions that disadvantaged women, and other groups, from the outset. Ultimately though, we cannot commend these Indian suffragettes for listening to or developing a truly national movement or campaign for female votes in India, even when they professed to be campaigning for all Indian women. The franchise campaign remained dominated by elite, urban women, with very little discussion of the intersectional political constraints on women from the lower castes or classes in urban or rural areas. However, the rhetorical push for universal franchise in the 1930s was valuable. Independence brought in full adult franchise easily for India, enfranchising in a sweep millions of women who have since taken an active role in one of the largest ‘democracies’ in the world.

    1. ‘From the Editor’s Table’, Indian Ladies Magazine (September–October 1934): 189.

    2. AIWC Papers, Roll 6, File 59, Rama Rau to Kaur, 9 February 1934.

    3. L/PJ/9/141, Laithwaite to Sir F. Stewart, 21 April 1934; Rathbone to Samuel Hoare, 15 May 1934; Rathbone to Sir Archibald Carter, 20 May 1935; Telegram, 22 May 1935.

    4. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, ‘The Responsibility of Women as Citizens in the India of Today’, Modern Review (November 1934): 524.

    5. K. Alamelumangathayaramma, ‘Women’s Franchise’, Indian Ladies Magazine (March–April 1935): 40–1.

    6. NMML, Muthulakshmi Reddi Papers, Bound Speeches and Writings & TWL, PC/06/047, AIWC 11th Session, Ahmedabad, December 23 to 27, 1936.

    7. Sahodari, ‘News about women in India’, Indian Ladies Magazine (March–April 1936): 68; ‘Current Comments’, Indian Ladies Magazine (July– August 1936): 149; ‘Current Comments’, Indian Ladies Magazine (November– December 1936): 236.

    8. Note these figures are according to Kamaladevi in Chattopadhyaya, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, 112. See also J. K. Chopra, Women in the Indian Parliament (A Critical Study of their Role) (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1993), 18–19.

    9. See Kamala Visweswaran, ‘Small Speeches, Subaltern Gender: Nation-alist Ideology and Its Historiography’, in Subaltern Studies IX: Writings on South Asian History and Society, ed. Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakrabarty (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), 83–125.

    10. Shahnawaz was arrested in 1946 for her Muslim League activities in the Punjab; see Azra Asghar Ali and Shahnaz Tariq, ‘Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and the Socio-Cultural Uplift of Muslim Women in British India’, Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan 45, 2 (2008): 128.

    11. Mithan Lam, Women in India: A General Survey of their Condition Status and Advancement (New Delhi: AIWC, 1973), Appendix.

    12. Vijay Agnew, Elite Women in Indian Politics (New Delhi: Vikas Publish-ing House, 1979), 129–31.

    13. James Chiriyankandath, ‘“Democracy” under the Raj: Elections and Separate Representations in British India’, in Democracy in India, ed. Niraja Gopal Jayal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), 78.

    14. Chattopadhyaya, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, 108–9.

    15. See Priya Ravinchandran, ‘Women Architects of the Indian Republic’ blog, https://15fortherepublic.wordpress.com/, accessed 7 August 2017.

    16. http://www.elections.in/parliamentary-constituencies/1951-election-results.html, accessed 7 August 2017; Sushama Sen was one of the MPs elected in 1952.

    17. Government of India, Home Department, Political, file no 40/XII, 1932, quoted in Forbes, Women in Modern India, 153.

    18. Lakshmi N. Menon in Twentieth Century quoted in ‘Women’s Franchise and the New Constitution’, Modern Review 66, 1 (January 1936): 101.


    Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks was published this year by Oxford University Press. This extract has been republished here with permission from the publishers.

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