By a Prajnya Friend: Durgabai Deshmukh


Prema Kasturi who spoke at the Roundtable series a couple of months ago, writes with Prema Srinivasan on Durgabai Deshmukh.

Durgabai Deshmukh:A pioneer and a transformative leader, The Hindu, July 15, 2009.

A pioneer and a transformative leader

Prema Kasturi and Prema Srinivasan

DURGABAI DESHMUKH: Her legacy lies in the unseen and intangible spirit of sacrifice, dedicated work, leadership qualities, and stern discipline.

The nationalist spirit that led to India’s Independence engendered many unique personalities. At a time when women were considered mere commodities, a few pioneering women gained true empowerment by means of education, aided by their own courage and selflessness. Durgabai Deshmukh’s life is an illustration of what determination and dedication could achieve even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She revolutionised the concept of social work, building on the diverse foundations laid by statesmen such as Ramabai Ranade, Mahatma Gandhi and Kakasahib Kalelkar. She laid the foundations of organised voluntary efforts and lobbied for state recognition and support to these institutions.

Durgabai was born in Rajahmundry on July 15, 1909, into a family that was dedicated to social service and that practised religious tolerance. She displayed leadership qualities even during her youthful interaction with other young people, and could teach in a palatable manner. Durgabai passed her matriculation examination privately in 1934 from Banaras Hindu University. She passed the intermediate examination and later B.A. Honours in Political Science. She continued her education into her late-20s and became a lawyer. In 1953, she married C.D. Deshmukh, who was the Union Finance Minister. He later became Chairman of the University Grants Commission and served as Vice Chancellor of Delhi University. Both were dedicated to public service.

Seeds of social reform were sown early in her mind and she became conscious of the injustice suffered by women in all strata. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the social reformer Kandukuri Veeresalingam was a close friend of her grandfather.

An important episode in young Durgabai’s life was her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. As a 12-year-old she had collected money for the nationalist movement along with a few volunteers, and when she came face to face with the Mahatma she gave her gold bangles as well, on his request. It was a turning point, which further kindled her spirit of selfless service and patriotism.

Durgabai fought against the system of child marriage and dowry, and the harassment of widows in the name of custom, although she herself was married at the age of eight. She gradually became involved with the nationalist movement and understood the need for women to be educated. She was a forceful, persuasive public speaker and was imprisoned during the Salt Satyagraha. She came to understand the pitiable conditions of woman criminals and wished to arrange free legal aid for them. This gave the impetus to the free legal aid centre of the Andhra Mahila Sabha in Hyderabad, particularly to help unlettered women of all classes.

On the basis of her experience and observations, Durgabai realised that lack of education impeded women’s progress. Education would provide them economic independence and create social awareness. This impelled her to lay the foundation for adult education programmes, which were taken up by the government of independent India.

In 1922, she started Hindi classes in the Balika Hindi Pathashala. The mini-school was to be the nucleus of the future Andhra Mahila Sabha, the mammoth social welfare organisation which eventually had service centres in Madras, Hyderabad and several districts of Andhra Pradesh. The Madras institution, started in 1937, organised many programmes such as condensed courses of education for adult women, nursery schools and crèches for working mothers, milk distribution for poor children, training of auxiliary nurse midwives and maternity centres.

When her family settled down in Madras, the centre at Dwaraka, known as “the Little Ladies Club,” was formed. In 1939, Durgabai joined the Madras Law College and simultaneously started her work in the women and children’s wing of Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha. The celebration of the silver jubilee of the Andhra Maha Sabha led to the emergence of the Andhra Mahila Sabha. In 1946, Mahatma Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the first building of the Andhra Mahila Sabha. That marked the beginning of the establishment of numerous educational institutions at the primary, secondary, professional and tertiary levels.

Durgabai’s name is integrally linked with the Andhra Mahila Sabha. This grand institution has completed 100 years of useful service in the field of social welfare. The services organised by it are in the fields of health, medical care, nursing and education. The Sabha has contributed to the cause of adult education and literacy including functional literacy and non-formal education for rural women. Durgabai has been the inspiration for many dedicated, spirited, selfless and able voluntary workers, both men and women.

Durgabai was a member of the Constituent Assembly. By the time India attained Independence, she had established herself as a criminal lawyer and played an active role in drafting and enacting the Hindu Code Bill. Her efforts to elevate the status of women were evident in her involvement with parliamentary Bills. In 1952, she was appointed a member of the Planning Commission but relinquished the post as her husband was also a member. In 1953, she became the chairperson of the Central Social Welfare Board. In 1959, the government appointed her chairperson of the National Committee on Education.

Her autobiographies, Chintamani and I and The Course of My Life, were dedicated to Nehru. Her encyclopaedia, Social Welfare in India, is a valuable reference work for researchers even today. In 1979, Stone that Speaketh, her history of the Andhra Mahila Sabha, was released. It gives an account of the corner-stones of the institution laid by leading personalities over a period of 57 years, from 1921 to 1977.

Many awards and accolades came her way. She received the UNESCO Peace award for her work in spreading literacy. She received the Padma Vibhushan. The Paul G. Hoffman Award for bringing about social change in India and contribution to economic growth was conferred on her. She received the Nehru Literacy Award for services in the field of adult education.

She is perhaps best known for her work with the Andhra Mahila Sabha. But beyond that structure, her legacy lies in the unseen and intangible spirit of sacrifice, dedicated work, leadership qualities, and stern discipline.

 (Dr. Prema Kasturi was Professor and Head of the Department of History, Women’s Christian College, Chennai. Dr. Prema Srinivasan is a freelance journalist.)

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