We all are quite informed about the Father of the Constitution of India, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. What we don’t know or have very little knowledge about is that the constitution drafting committee had 15 women members who had worked for 2 years, 11 months and 17 days before the Constitution was ready. Their contribution to our constitution is equally irreplaceable. Purnima Banerji, was one of those women who became a member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly in 1946. She was a part of the Constituent Assembly from 1946 to 1950, who played an important part in drafting our constitution.
Childhood and Personal Life
Purnima Banerji was born into a Bengali Brahmo family in 1911. Her father, a restaurant owner, hailed from the Barisal district of Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) who later settled in the United Province. Her mother Ambalika Devi was the daughter of Trailokyanath Sanyal, a renowned Brahmo leader. They were a group of five siblings, three brothers and two sisters. She was younger to Aruna Asaf Ali (a renowned freedom fighter), Uditendu and older to Amarendu and Prabhatendu Ganguly. The name Purnima was given by Rabindranath Tagore as they were connected by family relations. Her nickname was Norah (used mostly by the Nehru family). Later she became the daughter-in-law of Mr. Pyarelal Banerji, Solicitor General of Allahabad.
The Women in the Drafting Committee
Participation in India’s Freedom Struggle
Purnima Banerji became a part of the Indian National Congress since its inception in 1934. She was also the secretary for the Indian National Congress city committee in Allahabad. As a secretary, she effectively engaged the rural communities, organized trade unions and kisan meetings efficiently. As a socialist herself, her Marxian ideology diversified the culture of Congress.
She took part in the 24 days Dandi March in 1930 which was an act of non-violent, civil disobedience in colonial India. In 1941, she, along with Sucheta Kriplani started individual satyagraha for which both of them were eventually arrested. Banerji was again arrested in 1942 for taking part in the Quit India movement. She had to take her B.A. exams from prison. Neither did she ever shy away from the forefront of the freedom movement even if that meant imprisoning herself repeatedly, nor could anything deter her spirit. She was a staunch feminist in body and soul. However, when we read about Dandi March or Quit India movement, the texts usually resonate only the contributions of Gandhi or Nehru.
Role in the Drafting of the Indian Constitution
She represented the United Provinces in the assembly. Let’s have a look at some of the remarkably progressive amendments she had proposed in the Rajya Sabha during her tenure.
She wished to add a new paragraph in Clause 16:
‘All religious education given in educational institutions receiving Statewide will be in the nature of the elementary philosophy of comparative religions calculated to broaden the pupils’ mind rather than such as will foster sectarian exclusiveness.‘
State’s control over religious instruction in schools has never been more relevant than in the present times. She also felt strongly that along with education, right to livelihood and right to earning of honourable bread, must be made part of the fundamental rights. The ideal of common good must always prevail over a country’s profit.
Her amendment to Clause 18 (2) read,
‘That after the word ‘State’, the words ‘and State-aided’ be inserted.‘ This was extremely important to extend the protection to minorities against discrimination in public funded educational institutions. She also agreed with the amendment proposed by her friend Mr. Shibban Lal Saksena which stated that instead of imposing a minimum tax limit on everyone, tax should be calculated with respect to an individual’s income and family condition.
She pleaded to extend the provision to women, which formerly stated that casual vacancies with respect to minority communities like Sikh or Muslim are filled with members only of those communities. Since women were a minority in politics, they clearly needed reservation to represent themselves. She defied many male chauvinists to establish the fact that women’s role in politics is indispensable. Nobody could have described the plight of women in such a vivid way. When we look at the gender disparity in the Parliamentary Cabinet today, we sure know why she pointed this out decades ago.
Purnima Banerji believed that ultimate sovereignty lies with people. She also wanted to drop the word “sovereign” from the Preamble. She believed that just by giving the public the right to vote in every 5 years, it’s not appropriate to use the word sovereign. When we compare today’s politicians treating the public as vote banks and later forgetting all their promises after getting elected, we can see the relevance of her concerns. At the same time, she truly believed that it is the common masses who vest power in the positions elected.
Even when Purnima Banerji stood up in support of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar to pass the Draft Constitution, she was never hesitant to express her apprehensions. According to her, the Constitution only provided the basic means for a just and civil society. However, it is always dependent on people of power to scale our society to new heights of glory.
Banerji felt that the key industries and mineral resources of the country should have been taken over from private enterprises in order to save the government from foreign aggression. Keeping in mind, India’s tryst with salt, salt should have been kept duty free as a gift to free India. Her biggest disappointment with the constitution was the restrictions that it had put on the fundamental rights of speech and of meeting and forming associations.
She was the first woman to lead the chorus of Jana Gana Mana after it was officially adopted as our National Anthem on 24th Jan, 1950. Owing to her ill health, she died prematurely in 1951 in Nainital. Her life was definitely short-lived but its impact is evergreen.