Popularly known as ‘Iron Lady’, Durgabai Deshmukh was an energetic and enlivened spirit. A firebrand freedom fighter, a dedicated social worker and an adept lawyer, she had the potential of turning on her magic at the wink of an eye whenever she felt that people and the country needed her.
Durgabai Deshmukh was born on 15 July 1909, in a middle-class family in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. Durgabai was married at the age of 8 to her cousin, Subba Rao. Her family supported her in her decision to leave him to pursue her education.
In 1953, she got married to Chintaman Deshmukh, the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and Finance Minister in India’s Central Cabinet during 1950-1956. C. D. Deshmukh had a daughter from a previous marriage, but the couple remained otherwise childless.
Being a human being par excellence, she supported the widow of her first husband, Timmaiamma, after his death. Timmaiamma lived with Durgabai and Chintaman Deshmukh and Durgabai also arranged vocational training for her.
In spite of her active participation in the national struggle, Durgabai found time to complete her higher education. She finished her B.A and her M.A in Political Science in the 1930s from Andhra University. She went on to obtain her Law degree from Madras University in 1942 and started practising as an advocate in the Madras High Court.
A firebrand freedom fighter
The struggle for independence against British rule became her training ground. From a young age, she became resolute and determined. This tough self-disciplined Satyagrahi was ready to sacrifice anything to make her country free from the clutches of colonial rule.
Durgabai Deshmukh got involved in Indian politics and fearlessly took part in the Non-Cooperation movement of 1922. It was amazing that a young girl of twelve years practised Satyagraha at Kakinada. Being a nationalist to the core since her childhood, she left the school, to protest against the imposition of English language education and even went on to begin the Balika Hindi Paathshala in her hometown to promote Hindi education for girls.
She was the main driving force behind women in Andhra and successfully garnered their support for the freedom movement. Andhra contributed the largest contingent of women Satyagrahis who, despite hardships, filled the prisons.
Durgabai Deshmukh was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi and propagated his ideas everywhere in and around her hometown by setting up schools for women to give them training in spinning and weaving. She was so inspired by him that just to translate his speeches from Hindi to Telegu, she improved her knowledge of Hindi. Jawaharlal Nehru was impressed to see Durgabai’s courage and commitment towards her duty when he met her during a conference at her hometown of Kakinada in 1923.
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A dynamic activist and social reformer
Durgabai Deshmukh realized that the major limiting factors in the progress of the nation were lack of education, superstitions and inferior treatment given to women. She exhibited her leadership skills by establishing a unique organization by the name of Andhra Mahila Sabha in 1937 that played a remarkable role in empowering women through education, health facilities and vocational training. Till date, this organization is considered a pioneering institute in women’s welfare and education in South India.
As a dynamic activist for women’s liberation, she succeeded in overstepping the hurdles of caste and creed and began helping those in distress. Durgabai Deshmukh was also the President of the Blind Relief Association. In that capacity, she set up a school, hostel and a light engineering workshop for the blind. Because of her major contributions in the field of education of girls and disabled children, she was given the title of ‘Mother of Social Work in India’ by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Planning Commission, Durgabai also affected welfare-based legislation to reach out to children, women and the economically disadvantaged.
Contribution at the national level
Durgabai Deshmukh was the only female member of the Panel of Chairmen in the Constituent Assembly. She played a significant role in the enactment of many social welfare laws.
Later, she got nominated as a member of the Planning Commission and gathered a great support for the formation of a national policy on social welfare. This, in 1953, resulted in the establishment of a Central Social Welfare Board. As the Chairperson of the Board, she was instrumental in mobilizing a large number of voluntary organizations to initiate programs in education, training, and rehabilitation of women, children and the disabled.
She was also made the first chairperson of the National Council on Women’s Education, established by the Government of India in 1958. In 1963, she represented the country as a member of the Indian delegation in the World Food Congress held in Washington DC.
She was the one who proposed Hindustani (Hindi+Urdu) as the national language of India. She wanted non-Hindi speakers to learn Hindi. Being a multi-talented and multifaceted personality, Durgabai Deshmukh authored a book called The Stone That Speaketh. Her autobiography Chintaman and I was published one year before her death in 1981.
This eminent personality, who was called ‘a born leader’ was honoured with many national and international awards:
- Paul G Hoffman Award
- Nehru Literacy Award
- UNESCO Award (for outstanding work in the field of literacy)
- Padma Vibhushan
For her mammoth social service and outreach, Durgabai Deshmukh would continue inspiring us forever. Her indefatigable zeal and commitment to her cause became the catalyst for change and social reform in India. A pioneer and transformative leader, Durgabai Deshmukh would continue to be an epitome of women empowerment for the generations to come.
The Indian Express
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Featured Image Credit: Telugu Wishesh