Durgabai Deshmukh is one of India’s most dynamic freedom fighters, a defender of social welfare and champion of women’s rights.
She married at the age of eight to a wealthy zamindar; she dared to negotiate the terms of her withdrawal from that marriage at age 15 before the couple could consummate it; which was supported by her father and brother. For ending her child marriage, Durgabai set the tone for a life that would take her through the freedom struggle, drafting of the Indian Constitution, and fighting for women’s rights.
She was born on July 15, 1909, in the coastal town of Andhra Pradesh which is Rajahmundry in the family of social worker BVN Rama Rao and his wife Krishnavenamma, Durgabai was raised in Kakinada. Although the family’s limited means was poor, the influence of her father’s spirit of selfless social service was evident.
Deeply influenced by the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, she soon devoted herself completely in the freedom struggle. When Gandhi visited Kakinada to address a gathering in the town hall in 1921, a 12-year-old named Durgabai was so determined to arrange a meeting between Mahatma Gandhi and members of the local Devadasi and Muslim community.
Those hosting the event demanded Rs 5,000 from Durgabai and her team of Devadasi-Muslim women, although she felt “they said this in a lighter vein, thinking that I would not be able to raise such a big amount.” The sum would be presented to him in pursuance of his struggles for freedom. Undeterred, she collected Rs 5000 with assistance from her Devadasi acquaintances, besides booking a venue for the meet despite the threat of arrest.
During Gandhi’s visit, the entire family gave up all forms of Western wear and restricted themselves only to wear hand-spun Khadi. At, that time Durgabai decided to quit school, to protest against the imposition of English. All this happened at the height of the Non-Cooperation Movement.
She also led the Salt Satyagraha movement in Madras after when one freedom fighter named T Prakasam, was arrested by the British. However, she also arrested and spent nearly three years (1930-33) in jail.
During her time in prison would open her eyes when she saw many illiterate women were arrested for the crimes which they did not commit but would force to confess, due to the lack of access to education or a social network. It was the spark that inspired her not only to become a criminal lawyer in the future who would work pro bono but also take up numerous initiatives dedicated to the cause of women empowerment through education.
“I had then decided to take up the study of law so that I could give such women free legal aid and assist them in defending themselves,” she wrote in her autobiography following her incarceration, when she shifted focus from politics to her education. Durgabai studied law, and in 1942, at the height of the Quit India Movement, she was accepted into the Madras Bar.
Around the same time, she also started an adult literacy programme for widowed, deserted or destitute women, helping them obtain their high school degree. As a consequence of such initiatives, she founded the now famous Andhra Mahila Sabha, a voluntary organization for women that works across various fields, including health, disability, rehabilitation, legal aid and old age support among others.
Taking note of her extensive work in social service and her rising career as a criminal lawyer fighting for those wrongly convicted, she was inducted into the Constituent Assembly in 1946.
As a member of the Steering Committee, she actively participated in Constituent Assembly debates, fiercely defending property rights for women under the Hindu Code Bill, independence of the judiciary, selection of Hindustani as the national language and for lowering the age bar for those seeking to hold seats in the subsequent council of states from 35 to 30.
On the subject of property rights for women under the Hindu Code Bill on April 8, 1948, she said, “The main argument in favor of limiting the estate in the case of women is that they are incapable of managing it and also that they are likely to be duped or exploited.
Also, it is said that they are illiterate and they do not understand the principles of management, and hence, there will be a strong inducement to designing male relatives to take away her right.
“My answer to all this is this. The house is aware that the daughter has an absolute estate in Bombay today. Therefore, on that ground, I do not think they are exposed to any risk. The other argument is that we have scores of instances where women have proved better managers than men,” she concluded.
Meanwhile, while presenting the case for an independent judiciary, she said, “The independence of the judiciary is a thing which has to be decided, and this independence to a large extent depends on the way in which these judges are to be appointed.
They should not be made to feel that they owe their appointment either to this person or that person or this party or to that party,” she added. “They have to feel that they are independent.” Her words on the need for an independent judiciary have stood the test of time. Through her tenure in the Constituent Assembly, she reportedly moved 750 amendments alongside other members. Following Independence in 1950, she was inducted into the Planning Commission.
Interestingly, she was also one of the leading advocates for the establishment of family courts in India, an idea that emerged from her travels as a member of official Indian delegations to countries like China, Russia, and Japan.
“I thought that for a country of India’s size, the establishment of family courts as part of its judicial system would be of immense help in many ways. It would not only reduce the workload of the High Courts and the Supreme Court but also provide a good forum for preventing family break-ups and restoring happiness to men, women, and children, making it possible for them to remain united,” she wrote in her autobiography.
The Parliament eventually enacted the Family Courts Act in 1984, setting up the institution three years after she had passed away on May 9, 1981.
The legacy she leaves behind is of an institution builder, who selflessly worked towards the idea of an equal society where social and economic welfare would underpin development policy.