India’s first female cabinet minister, the first Asian and the first woman to head the governing body of the World Health Organisation and the founder of AIIMS, India’s premier medical institution. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, was an exceptional woman who achieved all of this because of the sacrifices she chose to make.
Born on 2nd February, 1889 at the Kapurthala palace in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Amrit Kaur’s father was Raja Harnam Singh, the younger brother of the King of Kapurthala. He had converted to Christianity and the family lived in Awadh, now known as Uttar Pradesh where they owned vast estates.
Amrit Kaur was educated in Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset, England after which she studied at Oxford. Life would have gone along expected lines for this princess, but these were extraordinary times. The turning point for Amrit Kaur was in 1915, when she met her father’s close friend, Gopal Krishna Gokhale. It was he who had a great influence on Amrit Kaur. She would later confess
‘The flames of my passionate desire to free India from foreign domination were fanned by him’.
Few years later, in 1919, the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar. The brutal repression that followed in Punjab and UP, shook the country.
Given the rigidity of society and the royal background that Amrit Kaur came from, it wasn't easy for her to throw in her lot with the freedom fighters she was so inspired by. It was only in 1930, when her parents had passed on and she was 40 that she plunged into an active role. Always interested in working for the upliftment and welfare of women and children, she had already founded the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1926. A first of its kind, pan India body that worked for women’s rights, Amrit Kaur led the campaign against child marriage through this, forcing the Government to raise the marriageable age of girls to 14 and later to 18.
Amrit Kaur led the campaign against child marriage, forcing the Government to raise the marriageable age of girls
In 1930, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur plunged deeper into the freedom movement. She joined Mahatma Gandhi and hundreds of his followers on the Dandi March, protesting against the Salt tax, imposed by the British. Later, she also served as one of Mahatma Gandhi’s private secretaries. Simultaneously, she constantly worked for the welfare and rights of women by taking up one agenda after the other. She was on the boards of various organisations and championed the cause of women’s education, abolition of child marriage, the purdah system and health issues regarding women.
Amrit Kaur was extremely active during the 1942 Quit India movement. She organised a number of dharnas and demonstrations in various parts of India and was brutally injured in lathi charges several times. She was arrested and sent to Ambala prison for a month and put in solitary confinement.
Amrit Kaur became the first female cabinet minister in independent India
In 1945, in the founding session of the UNSECO conference, Amrit Kaur served as the official delegate from India. The following year, she was one of the few female members of the constituent assembly where they demanded the formulation of an ‘Indian Women’s Charter for Rights’. They were able to push through several reforms despite opposition from male members.
After India gained independence, Amrit Kaur became the first female cabinet minister in India, holding the portfolio of Ministry of Health. As India’s first Health Minister, she would tirelessly campaign for public health and especially women’s health. In 1950, she was elected the President of the World Health Assembly – the forum through which the World Health Organization (WHO) is governed. She was the first woman and the first Asian to hold that post.
In 1957, she was the main driving force behind the establishment of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and secured funds from around the world for its establishment. She was also its first President, a position she held till her death in 1964. She donated her ancestral property in Shimla, a large mansion known as ‘Manorville’ to AIIMS as a holiday and rest home for its nurses. She passed away on 6th February 1964, at the age of 75.
Amrit Kaur was an extraordinary woman who broke out of the comforts of her home, joining the league of torch bearers who fought for freedom and a better life for all Indians.
Cover Image: The first cabinet of independent India circa 31 January 1950. (L to R sitting) Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, Dr. John Mathai, Shri Jagjivan Ram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Dr. S.P. Mukerjee/ Wikimedia Commons