She was already an activist when she was 12 and went on to found institutions that still serve India to this day. Durgabai Deshmukh (1909-1981), a freedom fighter, lawyer, politician and social activist, was a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to the betterment of her country.
She also served on the Constituent Assembly, worked with the United Nations, and became such good friends with Nehru that he was one of the witnesses at her wedding. Sadly, as with so many women in history, she remains largely unknown. Here is her story.
Durgabai first made her mark in 1921. She’d heard that Mahatma Gandhi was set to visit the city of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, to address a political town hall gathering. So Durgabai approached the organisers and asked if he could spare some time to address a gathering of devadasis and burqa-clad Muslim women. She wanted him to talk to them about social reform.
To humour her, the organisers told her that if she could collect 5,000 rupees to be presented to Gandhi, she could have him for 10 minutes. In less than a week, however, she had raised this formidable sum. Taken aback, the organisers said Gandhi didn’t have even a minute to spare. Durgabai stood her ground and was finally able to convince them to honour their promise. The programme was held at her school compound and Gandhi spoke to an audience of only women, for over half an hour. Durgabai stood beside him and translated his speech into Telugu for those who didn’t understand Hindi.
Gandhi was so impressed with her that he asked her to accompany him as interpreter for the rest of his tour in the Andhra region. This was the peak of India’s Non-Cooperation Movement against the British and her actions could have led to arrest and jail time. That didn’t deter Durgabai. In fact, it set the tone for what would be the first of many campaigns with the Congress and the freedom movement.
A few days after that initial campaign ended, Durgabai, infused with national spirit, returned home and quit school to protest the colonial imposition of English-medium education. She started the Balika Hindi Paathshala to promote Hindi education for girls. Thus, a girl who should have been going to school herself was already running a school.
By 1923, when the Indian National Congress had its conference in Kakinada, Durgabai was a trusted volunteer and was placed in charge of the khadi exhibition running alongside. Her responsibility was to ensure that visitors without tickets didn't enter. When Jawaharlal Nehru tried to enter, she asked him to buy a ticket first. When the organisers of the exhibition chided her for this, she replied that she was only following instructions. Nehru praised the girl for her courage and compliance. This sense of justice that came naturally to Durgabai defined all her contributions to society.
Durgabai was born on July 15, 1909, the elder of two children in a middle-class family in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. Despite the family’s limited means, her father was involved in social service and this had a great influence on the children. Durgabai later wrote of her father, in her autobiography, Chintaman And I (1980): “Plague and cholera were prevalent in those days. He was not afraid of helping those suffering from these dreaded diseases...Few would volunteer to carry the bodies of those who had died of plague or cholera, and ambulances were unknown. My father, along with three of his friends, used to be the pall-bearer. Though the streets of Kakinada were deserted, my father would take my mother and the two children — I had a younger brother, Narayana Rao — to the church, the mosque, or the burning ghat to show us how the bodies were disposed of, perhaps with a view to making us courageous enough to face the inevitable event of death.”
In keeping with the customs of the time, Durgabai was married at the age of eight to the son of a zamindar. Typically, child brides remained with their parents until they came of age, and then went to their in-laws’ home. By the time Durga came of age, however, she was already challenging norms and thinking about reform. At 15, she walked out of her child marriage, having discussed with her husband how wrong this practice was. It helped that her family supported her in this decision.
Since her teens, then, Durgabai had combined her sense of justice with a determination to fight for the rights of women. In 1930, she was instrumental in organising women satyagrahis for Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha during the Civil Disobedience Movement. This led to the British arresting her and she spent nearly three years in jail.
Talking to other women in prison, however, would give her life new shape and meaning. She was surprised to find that many of her fellow prisoners didn’t know why they were there. Further conversations with them led to three key realisations for Durgabai – that women were largely ignorant of their legal rights, that they did not have the resources to free themselves, and that the authorities were taking advantage of this.
As soon as Durgabai was released from prison, she decided, she would study law. She wanted to be able to offer free legal aid to those wrongfully imprisoned, and help them defend themselves. She had to go to college first, so she applied to Andhra University and made the cut. But the vice-chancellor was reluctant to grant Durgabai admission because the university had no women's hostel. So Durgabai thought outside the box and found a dramatic solution.
She writes in her autobiography, “I put in a newspaper advertisement requesting women who would like to join Andhra University for higher education but were unable to do so in the absence of a women's hostel, to get in touch with me for organising a hostel. The response was good. About ten of us got together, located suitable premises, and arranged to start a hostel.”
Durgabai got a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s degree in Political Science, and obtained a Law degree from Madras University. By 1942, she was a renowned criminal lawyer. Meanwhile, she had also founded the Andhra Mahila Sabha in 1937, to generate funds and set up educational and vocational training facilities for women. This Sabha would serve as the foundation for many other welfare projects as, over decades, Durgabai set up a network of schools and hospitals. The organisation is still operational, in fact, and is considered a pioneering institute in women’s welfare and education in South India.
Durgabai was appointed to the Constituent Assembly in 1946 and was one of 15 women on the 389-member body. As the founding fathers framed the Constitution of India, she debated on many issues, from property rights for women under the Hindu Code Bill to the importance of the independence of the judiciary. In total, Durgabai, in her autobiography, recalled having moved approximately 750 amendments, on her own as well as in collaboration with other Assembly members.
After Independence, in 1950, Durgabai was appointed member of the Planning Commission, the only woman on its panel of chairmen. In this role, she mustered support for a national policy on social welfare. She also emphasised on the need for separate Family Courts, having studied a model on a visit to China in 1953. She discussed the idea with Justices M C Chagla and P B Gajendragadkar of the Bombay High Court and also with Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 1953, she married Chintaman Deshmukh, who had just finished a six-year stint as the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. When they married, he was serving as India’s Finance Minister. The two had known each other for a few years through their work. The wedding was a simple registration ceremony with one of the witnesses being Nehru. The next day was business as usual for Durgabai and her husband – she set off to do famine relief work in Pune and he headed out to work on the Budget.
Durgabai was also the first chairperson of the National Council on Women's Education, established by the Government of India in 1958. Under her, the committee made many recommendations like the provision of free primary education to girls, reservation of seats in various services and programmes for adult education.
In 1963, Durgabai was appointed member of the Indian delegation to the World Food Congress in Washington DC, and in 1965 she was invited as a UNESCO expert to prepare a draft Asian Model for educational purposes. UNESCO awarded her for her work in the field of literacy, and in 1975, the Government of India honoured her by conferring upon her the Padma Vibhushan.
Durgabai passed away on May 9, 1981, in Narasannapeta, Andhra Pradesh, leaving behind a legacy of institutions that continue to provide education and health services to thousands every year. Andhra University – where she defiantly set up that first women’s hostel – even named one of its departments after her. Fittingly, it is the Durgabai Deshmukh Centre for Women's Studies.