Renuka Ray was a noted social activist, a fierce freedom-fighter, and a celebrated author and politician in India. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1988. At the young age of 16, she met Gandhi. She was massively influenced by him and boycotted the British Education System in response to his call for action. However, on his insistence, she went back to finish her education. She went to Kensington School and shortly after, she went to the London School of Economics to pursue a B.A. She had teachers included intellectuals such as Harold Laski, William Beveridge, Clement Atlee, Eileen Power, and others. She was married to Satyendra Nath Ray at an early age of 25.
Personal Life and Family
Renuka Ray came from a renowned and privileged family. Almost every person in her family has a first to their name. Her grandfather, Prof. P K Roy was not only the first Indian to receive a D. Phil from Oxford University, he was also the first Indian Principal of the prestigious Presidency College, Calcutta. Her maternal grandmother, Sarala Roy was a well-known social worker who worked for the emancipation of women. She founded the Gokhale Memorial School and College. She was the first Indian woman to be a member of the Senate, Calcutta University.
Renuka Ray is the descendant of the renowned Brahmo reformer Durgamohan Das as well as S R Das, the founder of prestigious Doon School. Among her siblings, Subroto Mukherjee was the first Air Chief Marshal of Indian Air Force. He was married to Sharda Mukherjee, a niece-in-law of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. He died in Tokyo. Her brother, Prosanto Mukherjee was the chairperson of the Indian Railway Board and was married to Keshab Chandra Sen’s granddaughter Violet. Her niece, Geeti Sen is a noted art historian and editor-in-chief of IIC, Quarterly and married to renowned Bollywood film director Muzaffar Ali.
When Renuka Ray returned to India, she joined All India Women’s Conference and worked relentlessly to champion women’s rights and inheritance rights in parental property. She was nominated as an independent member to discuss possible legal changes in the laws pertaining to women. In 1932, she became President of All India Women’s Conference. In 1943 she was nominated to Central Legislative Assembly as a representative of women of India. She was also a member of Constituent Assembly of India in 1946-47.
She was made President of All India Women’s Conference again, for the years 1953-1954.
She was appointed as Minister of Relief & Rehabilitation, West Bengal for five years (1952-1957). After she was discharged from her ministerial position, she became a Lok Sabha member for the years 1957-1967 from the Malda Lok Sabha Constituency. She also served on the Planning Commission and on the Governing Body of Visva Bharati University in Shanti Niketan.
She established the All Bengal Women’s Union and the Women’s Coordinating Council. Her memoir is titled My Reminiscences: Social Development during the Gandhian Era and After.
Social Work and Impact
In 1934, as the Legal Secretary of the AIWC, she submitted a document titled ‘Legal Disabilities of Women in India; A Plea for a Commission of Enquiry’. This articulated the committee’s disappointment with the treatment of the Sharda Bill. Sharda Bill, which was the Child Marriage Restraint Act, fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years (It was later amended to 18 for girls and 21 for boys). Her document showed their commitment to legally review of the situation of women before the Law in India. Renuka argued for a uniform personal law code, arguing that the position of Indian women was one of the most iniquitous in the world.
In 1959, she also headed a committee on Social Welfare and Welfare of Backward Classes, which is popularly known as Renuka Ray Committee. This committee, under her leadership, submitted its report and recommended that a separate department should be created under the Ministry of Home Affairs for backward classes. However, contrary to the recommendations by the Renuka Ray Committee, the Welfare of Backward Classes continued to be handled initially by the Department of Social Security and later, by the Department of Social Welfare.
She once visited 7 coal mines of the Jharia Coal Belt, where many women were employed. The scenes she saw there were so horrifying that she and her colleagues drew up a report urging that women not be allowed to continue in this hazardous occupation, and that the AIWC must immediately take on the responsibility of finding them alternative employment, a task which they recognised would not be easy. She was also a staunch believer in the importance of consumer rights. She insisted with utmost assertion that the defence industry should never be privatised.
Renuka Ray’s memoir titled My Reminiscences: Social Development during the Gandhian Era and After, published by Stree, chiefly concerns the status of women in India. It provides an in-depth view of the grand history of India, discussing the growth of the nationalist movement, to partition and independence, and the equally compelling post-independence period.
An interesting section of the book is her discussion on the impact of the Partition on the eastern region when she was the minister for rehabilitation and relief of West Bengal for five years.
Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi released a new edition of the memoirs of Renuka Ray, whose centenary was celebrated at Raj Bhavan in 2004. He said that being born into a leading Brahmo family, she was a Gandhian all her life, though not necessarily an uncritical one. He then spoke of the close association of his family with Ray, and referred to her confrontation with Ram Manohar Lohia while rising in defence of Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, to illustrate her feisty spirit.
Constituent Assembly Speeches
Ray was a powerful orator, and through her well-articulated, informed speeches in the Assembly sessions, she made her stance on various issues that concern our country absolutely clear.
Secularism is an ideal Ray held up with utmost certainty. She asserted, “We have never stood nor do we stand today for Hindu domination; we do not want that Hindus as such as a religious community shall override any other interests.” For Ray, the larger interest of the nation was of paramount importance, such as education.
While debating the citizenship clause, Ray said, “Turning to the citizenship Clause, I think there should be a categorical statement in it about a single uniform citizenship with equal rights and privileges. As rights involve responsibilities, so it is necessary that the obligations of citizenship should also be enumerated in this Clause.” She was a vehement champion of a Uniform Civil Code.
She strongly condemned the Devasi system and asserted, “Devdasi system—the dedication of women in temples—must be abolished by a categorical provision in the Constitution, as it would be better procedure as the custom still lingers in some areas.” She strongly criticised the trafficking of women and its continuance in her time. Further, she believed that a woman’s intelligence and her abilities resulted in her growth. She added, “Women in this country have striven for their rights, for equality of status, for justice and fairplay and most of all to be able to take their part in responsible work in the service of their country. The social backwardness of women has been sought to be exploited in the same manner as backwardness of so many sections in this country by those who wanted to deny the country its freedom.”
While Ray was never labelled as anti-capitalist, she believed that India is a sovereign socialist country. She believed that for the economy to bloom and for development to follow, it was important to uphold those socialist ideals. On this same issue, she said, “How could production be increased if you do not satisfy the capitalists on this point? I say, we have been making concession after concession to capitalists, and still production has not gone up so far. The question of capital for nation and of increased production is an urgent one today. Even if capitalists do not conform, we have to find ways and means towards this end.”
She continues to be a source of hope and inspiration for countless women, inculcating in us the values she fought for and upheld against the tough, patriarchal set-up of the pre-independence era. She was a beacon of strength, resilience and grace who upheld her morals in the fight for equality. Her views on the worrying issues of caste, consumer rights, women’s legal status and the rights provided to them for their protection and well-being serve as a reminder of the long battle ahead of us, which can only be fought by educating ourselves, admitting our privileges and organising the resources we have.
Sarah Carlos is a student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai pursuing Psychology and Anthropology. She has previously written for Live Wire and Youth Ki Awaaz.