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HomePageTurnerBook ExcerptsUnafraid to oppose Ambedkar, Congress—Dakshayani Velayudhan was India's 1st Dalit woman MLA

Unafraid to oppose Ambedkar, Congress—Dakshayani Velayudhan was India’s 1st Dalit woman MLA

Achyut Chetan's 'Founding Mothers of the Indian Republic' explores the contributions of women leaders in the making of our Constitution.

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Ambedkar and the All India Scheduled Castes Federation (AISCF) had tried hard to negotiate with the Cabinet Commission and put pressure on the British Government to provide for separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes for the election to the Constituent Assembly. This included making appeals to Winston Churchill to protest against ‘the shameful betrayal by the Cabinet Mission to the cause of the sixty millions of Untouchables’ of India, an appeal to which Churchill had responded with an assurance that he and his Party will do ‘its utmost to protect the future of sixty million Untouchables whose melancholy depression by their co-religionists constituted one of the gravest features in the problem of the Indian sub-continent’. Accounts of these negotiations and the protests appeared in the weekly journal of the AISCF, Jai Bheem, published from Madras, to which Dakshayani was a regular contributor.

It was in the pages of this weekly that some of Dakshayani’s most stringent criticisms of the Indian National Congress and its leadership were published. In its inaugural issue published in January 1946, she had written: It is a foregone conclusion that Congress will burst into pieces when it takes the entire administration of the country. Congress is the least fitted party to rule over India on a democratic basis. The Congress government will be a Government of the Caste Hindus and the Capitalists. The Congress government will never satisfy the aspirations of the masses. The Congress Government cannot give freedom of thought and action to the people. The awakened masses of India will soon realize that they have done a folly in supporting the Congress.

In this article, published only six months before her election to the Constituent Assembly from the Madras Provincial Assembly, she had chastised C. Rajagopalachari as the ‘man who is supposed to be reinstated as the Prime Minister of Madras’, for his refutation of Ambedkar. She wrote that Rajagopalachari, ‘the clever Brahmin opportunist,’ has to be taught at his late age, the A, B, C, D, of the progressive political ideologies’.

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She compared the movement led by Ambedkar with ‘the beginning of the social revolution of the untouchables which will end only in the destruction of the suzeranity of the Caste Hindus’ and called for a mass movement to lead it to its proper end, that is, the acceptance of the untouchables as ‘part and parcel of the Human Society’. ‘If death is essential’, she exhorted untouchables to ‘accept it honourably. Courage should be the watchword of our forward march.’ Courage, indeed, was the theme of her life and when the Cabinet Mission Plan was announced three months later, she found her ideas at variance with those of Ambedkar and the AISCF. The 18 June 1946 issue of Jai Bheem reported her response: In her statement on the Cabinet Mission’s Proposals, she rejoiced that ‘the Separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes have been given a decent burial’ which according to her ‘may not be liked by the communal reactionaries who are nourished and nurtured by the British Government’. She proceeded to prophesy that ‘the Harijans would, in the long run, realise the wisdom of the Cabinet Mission in coming to this judgement’.

Not only had Dakshayani opposed the idea of separate electorates, she had also opposed the AISCF’s call for a Direct Action, a massive civil disobedience movement against the Cabinet Mission’s proposal that could, in the words of the Jai Bheem contributor, ‘paralyze the whole economic structure of the country’. No matter how one evaluates her position vis-à-vis joint or separate electorates – and that touches on a deep debate on the normative and actual aspects of the politics of representation – one can’t help notice her courage in taking these stands in the middle of a mobilization of Dalit anger against the Mission’s plan. Her courage was not taken lightly by leaders of the Dalit movement, and she was denounced as a ‘traitor’, ‘an unworthy creature’, a ‘turncoat,’ and a woman who had fallen into ‘the depths of moral turpitude’.

‘Any direct action launched by the Scheduled Castes’, the article threatened, ‘will be aimed in the first instance to deal with undesirable creatures like her amongst them’. Her disagreement with Ambedkar and the Dalit movement’s resolution was presented as the worst possible act a Dalit woman could have committed: But while the rest of her like are bending their heads in shame for their inability to join hands with Dr. Ambedkar in championing the just cause of the Scheduled Castes, Mrs. Velayudhan, to the utter disgrace of womanhood in India, has the audacity to attack Dr. Ambedkar and his followers. While the Scheduled Castes can pardon all such helpless renegades, they can never pardon an unworthy creature like Mrs. Velayudhan.

The attack on Dakshayani was couched in terms of shame and disgrace, evoking notions of honour that were to be upheld by women in battle, in this case of communities, led by men. More than her disagreement with the official position of the Federation, it was her audacity to disagree that was the subject of these attacks. Also implied in the opposition was the fear that she may not speak in the best interests of the community, defined, of course, by the official leadership. These verbal attacks were carried out a month before the nominations to the Constituent Assembly were made, on the pages of a mouthpiece of the AISCF edited by Rao Bahadur N. Sivaraj, a former President and one of the founders of the Federation. A leading light of the Dalit movement, he was also her rival in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, pointing to the complexity of her situation. A trained lawyer and a former professor of law, Rao Bahadur Sivaraj had nearly 20 years’ experience of legislative politics and was, at the time of the campaigns for the Constituent Assembly, the Mayor of Madras. In comparison, Dakshayani lacked his class privilege and had significantly fewer political resources. She had lost the election to Sivaraj on the first declaration of the results on account of some miscalculation of ‘the transfer of surplus votes’ which when remedied had found her a seat in the Constituent Assembly.

Being female and a Malayali in Madras multiplied her difficulties. Members of the Federation Depressed Classes League of Madras protested against her selection as ‘a Harijan candidate, thus depriving the Madras Harijans of one seat’. Arulappan, a male Harijan activist began a fast unto death demanding that she be replaced by a Harijan from Madras. The President of the Federation Depressed Classes League made representations against Dakshayani’s election to the Constituent Assembly before the Madras Premier, T. Prakasam and the Congress party, urging that they reconsider this choice. The fast was reported to Jawaharlal Nehru and he was requested to redress the grievance of the Madras Harijans.

The fiercest opposition to Dakshayani’s election to the Constituent Assembly, however, came from members of the Madras Congress. Her fearless criticism of the Congress leadership was used to discredit her in the eyes of the Congress high command. Malicious attacks on her were framed in the same misogynist framework that had informed the AISCF’s campaign against her. The high command of the Congress had recommended nine representatives to be elected by the Madras Legislative Assembly to the Constituent Assembly. Three of these were women, including G. Durgabai, who played important roles in several committees of the Constituent Assembly, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, whose nomination was later withdrawn because of the Socialist Party’s refusal to join the constitution-making body, and Dakshayani herself as a Scheduled Caste woman from Cochin state. Her earlier criticisms of the Congress and of C. Rajagopalachari in particular were immediately brought to the notice of the latter who tried to prevent her selection by asking T. Prakasam, the Madras premier, to withdraw her name.

Since she was a nominee of the high command of the Congress, desperate letters were written to Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, urging them to dispatch urgent telegrams to prevent her selection. Her support to Ambedkar was cited and it was argued that electing her would be ‘a sin before God and a lasting shame to the Congress’.

Within a space of less than one month of the vitriolic attack on her by the Dalit leadership, Patel was urged not to select her to the Constituent Assembly for that would give ‘Dr. Ambedkar the strongest weapon of his life to attack the Congress’. Patel was told: The most shameful thing which is a matter of disgrace for any Political Party in any country is the selection of a Harijan woman from the Cochin state who till the day of the Cabinet Mission’s Statement was showering abuses both in the Press and the platform in the most filthy language unworthy of any person anywhere of culture and civilization on Mahatmaji, on Yourself, on other great leaders and on the Congress. I emphasize ‘woman’ to highlight the suspicion that communities could have on the abilities of women, who could either bring grace or disgrace to deliberative platforms but would not be valued for the ideas and values that they might place on the table.

The aligned contours of these prejudices are revealed further on reading the following remarks from the same letter addressed to Patel: The Congress leaders are known to have decided to get the best suited persons for the Constituent Assembly and for this purpose even reactionaries of the Imperialist production have been selected by the Working Committee. But was this principle to be confined only to the non-Harijans in the Madras Presidency? In this Presidency where Congress Leadership has degenerated to the last, the seven Harijans selected by the Congress Legislative Party includes two persons who do not know English and do not know the A.B.C. of Politics. Are these the people who are going make the future Constitution of India? Thus, one can see an implicit notion of the suitability of some people – male, English speaking, upper class, conversant in politics – for the task of In Search of the Missing Mothers writing the future Constitution. The letter, evidently written by a male opponent of Dakshayani, draws parallels between the Harijan and non-Harijan representatives to the Constituent Assembly and sees the latter as the norm.

This was destabilized by the presence of Dakshayani Velayudhan, both as a woman and as a Dalit in her selection, and her interventions during the framing of the Constitution. Records show that despite her differences on policies like reservation and separate electorates, Dakshayani took a keen interest in representing the cause of the Dalits in the Constituent Assembly, the Constituent Assembly (Legislative), and other legislative bodies. She frequently raised questions about the education of the Dalit community, scholarship schemes for Scheduled Caste students including those meant to sponsor education in foreign countries, the protection of Dalits against upper caste violence, and most significantly, drawing attention to the Dalit woman’s labour and safety.

Her interventions were not limited to the caste question and the question of the interest of a community but extended to a call for a socialism that would lead to ‘an economic revolution in the fascist social structure existing in India’. Alert to the dangers of communalism, she characterized the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as ‘a strong fascist organization which has got support in influential quarters both inside and outside the Government’, and warned the members of the Constituent Assembly of the ‘spirit of violence’ that the ‘RSS movement’ had unleashed and was ‘spreading into the vitals of our national life’. She repeatedly critiqued the new state for being excessively dependent on capitalists who, she argued, were ‘the greatest enemies of the country’. ‘To hope to raise the standard of life of the people with the help of the industrialists and the capitalists’, she had asserted while commenting on the third Annual Budget of independent India, ‘will be like entrusting the lamb to the wolf ’.

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The suitable women: selecting members for the constituent assembly

The AIWC had taken the initiative to find the names of women who could most effectively represent the diversity and opinion of women in the Constituent Assembly. A month before the elections, it sent individual letters to the premiers of the provincial legislative assemblies, and presumably also to the Congress Working Committee, suggesting the names of suitable women candidates. Several provincial assemblies responded, mostly in agreement. The Premier of Bombay, B. G. Kher, replied saying he ‘completely agree[d] that there should be women on the Constituent Assembly’ and that ‘the matter will be fully considered’. The Government of the United Provinces, after having received a reinforcing instruction from the Congress Working Committee, replied that two of the names suggested by the AIWC had also been recommended by the party high command, and their ‘selection seems to be certain’. The Premier of Orissa, to whom no such letter was sent, took umbrage that the ‘you have excluded Orissa from your list of provinces from which you have recommended women representatives for election to the Constituent Assembly’.

These recommendations were prepared at the intersection of the ideological and political currents discussed above, after consultation. The challenge was to find, as Amrit Kaur had put it, suitable women who could deal with ‘such intricate problems as constitution-making’ and at the same time correspond to the definitional social categories which were stipulated by procedures set by the Cabinet Mission Plan. There was no easy consensus between the various parties and the British Government about the method by which the Constituent Assembly should be formed and carry out its work. In a statement issued on 16 May 1946, the Cabinet Mission and the Viceroy admitted that despite the labours of the British Government and the Indian parties and their hopes that the ‘Indian people’ themselves would agree upon the method of framing the new constitution, it had not been possible. The Constituent Assembly had emerged as a vulnerable compromise, offered ‘at this supreme moment in Indian history statesmanship’, to arrive at ‘independence in the shortest time and with the least danger of internal disturbance and conflict’.

The Mission’s Plan was approved by the Congress after much deliberation and the Muslim League’s refusal to join the Assembly. In fact when women were proposing names to the provincial legislatures, Jinnah was still ‘strongly’ urging upon the Viceroy ‘that the elections to the Constituent Assembly should be postponed’. It was in a state of anxiety and uncertainty that Amrit Kaur and her colleagues initiated their plans to join the Assembly, ‘if it comes off,’ as she wrote to Hansa Mehta while proposing her list of probable candidates. Knowing the tussle surrounding its formation, she thought that there is no point in ‘agitating for it so that we might appear to be putting an extra spoke in the wheel’ but went on to suggest that the Congress President should be urged to elect women to the Constituent Assembly if the party has to be ‘true to its ideal of representing every class’.

This excerpt from ‘Founding Mothers of the Indian Republic: Gender Politics of the Framing of the Constitution’ by Achyut Chetan has been published with permission from Cambridge University Press.

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