Did you know that a woman from Gujarat was responsible for forcing the United Nations to make the opening lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gender-neutral? In 1947-48, an educationist, freedom fighter and women’s rights advocate named Hansa Mehta got the text of Article 1 changed from 'All men are born free and equal…’ to ‘All human beings are born free and equal…’
It was a big win, but by no means her first such one. Hansa wore many hats in her lifetime – in addition to those already mentioned, she was an activist, a writer and a Parliamentarian. She was on the UN committee responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On August 14, 1947, she was among those who stood beside Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad and waited for the clock to strike 12, marking the moment when India would finally be free from British rule. When it did, the President took the pledge of freedom and Hansa, on behalf of the women of India, presented the national flag to him and said: “We have donned the saffron colour, we have fought, suffered and sacrificed in the cause of our country’s freedom. We have today attained our goal. In presenting this symbol of our freedom, we once more offer our services to the nation.”
Hansa was one of the 15 women in India’s first Constituent Assembly, which had 389 members in all. Together, they helped draft the Constitution of India, which continues to guide and govern our nation. But her most towering role was that of educator, fighting for equality and opportunity for all women, at a time when most were confined to the four walls of their homes.
Hansa was born on July 3, 1897, into an educated, affluent family based in Surat, in Gujarat. Her father, Manubhai Mehta, was a professor of philosophy at Baroda College and later served as the Dewan of the States of Baroda and then Bikaner. Her paternal grandfather, Nandshankar Mehta, was a social reformer and author of the first Gujarati novel, Karan Ghelo.
As a girl, Hansa was encouraged to pursue academics. After college, she sailed to England to study journalism at the London School of Economics. As an exchange student, she also travelled to the US, on a self-appointed mission. She wanted to coordinate with American colleges interested in offering full scholarships to Indian women. She also wanted to study their educational and social institutions and systems, and to get suggestions or advice concerning the founding of a women’s college in India along the lines of America’s colleges for women.
Back in England, she met and grew close to Indian freedom fighters Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who kindled a spark of nationalism within her. Naidu also introduced Hansa to Mahatma Gandhi. In 1922, when Gandhi was arrested for sedition and locked up in the Sabarmati prison in Ahmedabad, Naidu and a group of women from Bombay (where Hansa had started working after her return from London) went to meet him. This was the first time Hansa saw Gandhi at close quarters and she was ‘visibly moved’, as she later wrote in her book Indian Woman.
Meanwhile, because of her work to promote education for girls, Hansa was appointed to the board of the Bombay Municipality Schools Committee.
In 1928, she married Jivraj Mehta, an illustrious doctor. He had served as chief medical officer of Baroda State and at the time of their wedding, was dean of Bombay’s prestigious King Edward Memorial Hospital. Their courtship initially caused an upheaval within the family and community. Hansa was a Nagar Brahmin and Jivraj a Vaishya Mehta, a caste lower than hers. It was Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the progressive Maharaja of Baroda and an ally of Jivraj, who helped convince the bride’s father to give the couple his blessing.
The freedom struggle was gaining great momentum in India by this time. The Civil Disobedience Movement was at its height, and the Mehtas played an active role. In line with Gandhi’s advice, on May 1, 1930, Hansa led the first batch of the Desh Sevika Sangh (a women’s group set up to fight against the British) in a satyagraha campaign that picketed foreign cloth and liquor shops in the Bhuleshwar area of Bombay. She soon took on more responsibilities, organised many more protests and was appointed President of the Bombay Congress Committee and fondly referred to by its members as the ‘Dictator of Bombay’. She had become a force to reckon with in the city. This resulted in her first arrest. She was sentenced to three months in prison, and was only released as a result of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed on March 5, 1931.
In 1932, she was made vice-president of the Harijan Sewak Sangh, which was trying to make peace between Gandhi and B R Ambedkar on the rights of Harijans to be treated equally, allowed into temples, schools and other public establishments.
In the provincial elections held in British India in the winter of 1936-37, Hansa stood for Bombay Legislative Council and won. She was appointed Parliamentary Secretary of the Education and Health Departments. Under her, the department became a proactive force of change. It set up vocational, commercial and technical schools. The department also felt that the time had come to transfer control of secondary school education from the university to the state. This resulted in the creation of the Secondary School Certificate Examination Board, a structure that stands even today.
Things had started moving very quickly for Hansa as she moved from committee to committee, guiding, directing and organising. In 1946, she served as president of the All India Women’s Conference ( founded in 1927 in order to promote women and children's education and social welfare). In her presidential address at the 18th AIWC session in Hyderabad, she proposed and drafted the Indian Woman’s Charter of Rights and Duties. She demanded that women be treated as equals, given equal civil rights, and an equal right to education. The charter also called for equal pay, equal distribution of property, and equal application of marriage laws.
In 1947, Hansa was appointed as Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and was also appointed to the Constituent Assembly from Bombay, where she was a member of the Legislative Council.
This was a springboard for her to advocate for thorough reforms in the Constitution. Hansa, as part of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights along with B R Ambedkar, Minoo Masani and Amrit Kaur, debated in favour of a Uniform Civil Code. She saw the Code as part of the state's responsibility to establish a single Indian identity over multiple religious ones and saw it as necessary to build up ‘one nation’. But the motion to pass this was overturned. Hansa, along with others, recorded her dissent stating that “one of the factors that has kept India back from advancing to nationhood has been the existence of personal law based on religion which keeps the nation divided into watertight compartments in many aspects of life”.
After Independence, as Parliament debated the Hindu Code Bill (aimed to codify and reform Hindu personal law) in 1948, Hansa argued that the daughter and her son should get equal shares in the property of the father. She also argued for the addition of a woman’s right to divorce. She writes in her book, Indian Woman, that she wanted women in India to be regarded by the state as individuals, not having their rights dependent on husband or family.
In 1949, she became vice-chancellor of the newly established Baroda University, the first time in India that a woman headed a university not confined to women. She was determined to forge a new path and established three new faculties – Home Science, Social Work and Fine Arts. The university sent teachers abroad to study methods of examination and provided a pavilion to the students’ union. This was unlike any University activity of those times.
Hansa’s views on education were exemplary, and far ahead of the times. For instance, the University Education Commission (UEC) of 1948-49 believed that although men and women were equally competent in academic work, their education need not be identical. It wrote in its report, “In every country, no matter how far the liberation of women has gone, husbands and wives commonly play different parts. In general, the man provides the income and the woman maintains the home. For a woman to give the home design, beauty, order... is a high art. It will not be acquired by chance, and for many women its acquisition will be impossible, except through education.” This opinion was challenged by the National Council for Women’s Education, presided over by Hansa Mehta in 1962. It clarified that there was no such factor as the ‘female aptitude’ that could determine the division between a masculine and a feminine syllabus.
Despite her extremely busy schedule, Hansa also found time to write. She wrote 15 books on subjects ranging from religion to women’s rights. These books included titles such as Ram Katha (1993) in Gujarati, and The Woman Under The Hindu Law Of Marriage & Succession (1944) and The Indian Woman (1981) in English. She also translated popular works from English literature into Gujarati, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Jonathan Swift’s classic satire Gulliver’s Travels, which she titled Golibar Ni Musafari (1931).
In 1959, for her distinguished service, Hansa Mehta was awarded the Padma Bhushan. The following year, her husband Jivraj Mehta became the first chief minister of Gujarat. In 1964, he became India’s High Commissioner in London and Jawaharlal Nehru specifically asked that Hansa accompany him. During their three years in England, Hansa strove to improve conditions for Indian immigrants. She became a member of the Racial Relations Committee.
Hansa continued to serve her country until her death on April 4, 1995. Her legacy speaks of a woman born into privilege, deeply aware of the rare opportunities she received, and determined to leave the world a more accessible place for those born into less fortunate circumstances.