Just before Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his famous ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech on the eve of Independence, on 14th August 1947, the Constituent Assembly was electrified by a rendition of Vande Mataram. The song, whose title had been the patriotic cry during India’s freedom struggle, was rendered on this solemn occasion by a stateswoman who had been at the forefront of the independence movement. Her name was Sucheta Kriplani.
Playing a significant role at various points in the nationalist movement, Sucheta founded the women’s wing of the Congress and remained a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Post-independence, she was elected to Parliament and was also appointed Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, becoming the first woman chief minister in the country.
But she was not born with a steely will and exemplary leadership qualities. Rather, she was a shy child, self-conscious about her appearance and intellect, as she points out in her book, An Unfinished Autobiography. It was the age she grew up in and the situations she faced that shaped her personality.
Sucheta recounts how, as a 10-year-old, she and her siblings had heard their father and his friends talk about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It left them so outraged that they vented their anger on some of the Anglo-Indian children they played with, by calling them names.
Later, while a student of Kinnaird College in Lahore, her Bible class teacher had said some disparaging things about Hinduism. Furious, Sucheta and her sister went home and asked their father to help them out. He coached them on some religious teachings and, the next day, the girls confronted their teacher with quotes from the Bhagvad Gita. The teacher never referred to Hinduism in class ever again!
Sucheta was born on 25th June 1908 in Ambala, Haryana, into a progressive Brahmo family. Her father worked as a medical officer, a job that required many transfers. As a result, she attended a number of schools, her final degree being a Master’s in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi.
This was a time when the country’s atmosphere was charged with nationalist sentiments and the freedom struggle was gaining momentum. A young Sucheta was keen on joining the movement but her father died suddenly in 1929, and the responsibility of supporting her family fell to her. Sucheta received a couple of offers to teach – one from the Lahore College with a good pay scale, and another from Banaras Hindu University with a low pay scale. She chose the latter, not only because it was a national university, but also because it played a central role in anti-colonial demonstrations.
Interestingly, it was at the university that Sucheta met her future husband, the well-known political leader J B Kriplani (Acharya Kriplani), who often visited the campus to recruit volunteers for the freedom movement. Later, they worked closely on earthquake relief in Bihar in 1934, and decided to tie the knot two years later.
But Kriplani was 20 years her senior and the announcement did not find favour with either family. Gandhi too wasn’t pleased as he felt that family responsibilities might divert his right hand, Acharya Kriplani’s attention from national work.
During this time, Kriplani was General Secretary of the Indian National Congress and his activities fuelled Sucheta’s interest in politics. She participated in the satyagraha marches and soon assumed a leadership role.
By 1941, there were two underground centres directing political activities, both led by women – a revolutionary one by Aruna Asaf Ali and a non-violent one led by Sucheta. She was arrested and kept in Lucknow jail till July 1945, when after a settlement with the British, all political prisoners were released.
Sucheta’s contribution to the freedom struggle was so significant that in 1946 she was appointed member of the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with drafting the document that shaped the Indian republic. The body comprised 299 members, of which only 15 were women, including Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Sucheta Kriplani. In 1947, Sucheta accompanied Mahatma Gandhi to Noakhali (then in Eastern Bengal), where Hindu-Muslim riots as a result of Partition were wreaking havoc.
But Sucheta’s crowning moment came on 14th August 1947, not because freedom was finally here but because she played an important role in delivering it to the people. On that fateful day, Sucheta opened the Independence Session of Parliament by singing Vande Mataram and concluded it by reciting Saare Jahan Se Achha and the National Anthem.
Post-Independence, Acharya Kriplani broke away from the Congress due to differences with Nehru and formed the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party (KMPP). Sucheta joined him and continued her political career, serving as an MP from New Delhi constituency on a KMPP ticket in 1952. But she soon left the party due to ideological differences and returned to the Congress. In 1957, she won the same seat, but this time on a Congress ticket. Despite their strong ideological differences, the Kriplanis stayed together through thick and thin.
As an Indian delegate, Sucheta visited many countries and started writing on international policies – from press regulations in the USSR to East Germany’s desire for peace, to Kemal Ataturk’s labour laws. She also served as Minister of Labour, Community Development and Industry in the Uttar Pradesh government, before she was appointed Chief Minister from 1963 to 1967. In 1970, she retired from politics and passed away four years later at the age of 66.
Sucheta Kriplani’s story is that of a woman who chartered her own course, from teaching history to making history.
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