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Presidential Address

April 1944 — 17th Session, All-India Women’s Conference, Bombay, India


I wish I could address you in Hindustani to-day. We have been advocating a common language for the country and our organisation has recognised the claims of Hindustani as the “lingua franca” for India. In a women’s assembly of an All-India character, Hindustai is the only and the most suitable medium of expression. But, unfortunately, the time for its usage on an occasion like the present has not yet come. I still have to labour through a foreign language to make myself understood. I beseech your forgiveness for the flaws in my language and hope that before long, we shall be relieved of this handicap, and Hindustani will be generally understood and spoken even in the South.

The All-India women’s Conference to-day completes fourteen years of its life. Much cannot be expected during fourteen years as after all it is a very short time in the life of a people. But in these abnormal times when scientific inventions have so accelerated speech that it defies all human calculations, living organisms are keeping pace with the machine. And so the progress of Indian women during this period, even measured according to the present standards, is not disappointing. I remember those days of the late twenties. We had just started agitation on various social problems concerning women. Till then, the work of women’s educational and social advancement was mainly carried on either by men or under their direction. Women generally were unfamiliar with these problems and their conferences on an All-India basis were a novelty. Women’s participation in public work was rare and, although there existed hundreds of women’s societies in different parts of the country, there was no co-ordination or co-operation between them. The picture to-day is different. Among the well-to-do classes, the number of highly educated women has grown enormously. “Purdah” is fast disappearing, the age of marriage has been considerably raised, there is more freedom of movement and larger contacts all round. The number of women interested in public affairs is much larger. The women’s movement is directed and guided solely by themselves. They are found working in many spheres of life. In the district boards, municipalities, education committees, legislatures, in the government cabinets, in the national movements, though still in small numbers, they are making their contributions creditably. I am not vain enough to attribute all this progress to the Women’s Conference. Various forces have been at work. Religious and social reform agencies, political and constructive work of the Congress, contact with the outside world, the spread of education and, last but not least, the spirit of the times have all contributed towards this emancipation. And now we see a new life pulsating through women, who are thinking and planning and agitating for the removal of their wrongs. The desire for change, which was so far more or less confined to the educated sections of society has gone beyond them and is affecting the comparatively backward classes of women also. The success of the Marwari women’s anti-Purdah Conference, held in Calcutta the other day, initiated and organised by themselves, is an instance in point. The spirit of defiance shown by the “zanana” women who came out to organise their procession leading it on horseback, was something to be marvelled at. It is a sign of the times and shows how imperceptibly the women’s movement is penetrating into and transforming the various strata of society.

The special contribution of our Conference to the women’s movement is the definite shape and colour that it has given to it. It has focused public attention on women’s problems. It has created a machinery for the formulation of authentic views on such questions. It has consolidated and presented women’s demands to the pubic and the various authorities. It has decidedly succeeded in bringing under its banner a larger number of women than any other all India women’s organisation. It has decidedly succeeded I bringing under is banner a larger num of women than any other all India women’s organization. Its annual sessions bring into contact women workers from all arts of India. It has certainly established a spiritual family relationship between them which in itself is an invaluable gain. It has inculcated in women the habit of toleration of differences of opinion, of appreciating each other’s good points of working together. It has given them their first lessons in democracy which, from the success achieved, seems to me more suited to the feminine temperament than to the masculine. The annual conferences held in different branches and sub-branches, particularly in small towns, create a stir among women, draw them together, make them think and form opinions on different subjects. This has created a great awakening among women

The expansion of the scope of the conference from merely women’s problems to wider questions of human relationship has given it a new life. It is not possible for any organization, even though it be of women, to live only on making demands for feminine  right. A living organization needs growth and no narrow limits for its self-expression are possible. It was, therefore, a natural evolution of the growing life of our organisation. I need not point out that our main field of work is social and educational and in our resolutions we have dealt with these questions exhaustively. It is evident that all the reforms advocated by us were not capable of big achieved in a short space of time by any agency, government or private. They are much too numerous to bear mention here. I shall mention only a few by way of example.

In the sphere of education, we have laid great emphasis on free and primary compulsory education both for boys and girls and we have advocated more expenditure on women’s education. We have demanded better sanitary conditions, trained teachers and various other reforms for schools. Some of our suggestions have ben taken up and acted upon. Fine arts, advanced domestic science, provincial languages and included as optional subjects for college courses by some of the Universities. Women’s hostels have been started by others. These matters repeatedly formed the subject mater of our resolutions. Some of our own branches enthusiastically took up the work of the removal of illiteracy and achieved good results. Others are running Hindustani, English, sewing, Music classes of which hundreds of women are taking advantage.

The Lady Irwin college of New Delhi stands as an outstanding example of our efforts for giving domestic science a respectable place in the curriculum of women’s education.

In the social sphere, we have made a humble contribution towards the removal of evil customs and the obliteration of unjust laws. Among the many reforms that we have urged are the removal of “Purdah”, early marriage, widow remarriage, abolition of the dowry system, equal moral standard for men and women and economic independence of women. Our methods of work have been propaganda by means of meetings and conferences, but some of us have urged the necessity of legal enactments for the removal of these practices. I personally feel that conversion is a surer and better method of reform than compulsion. Compulsion eve with the best of motives leaders to bad result. In the matter of reforms, the law can be used only as an aid, helping the reformers to press in their points where unnecessary obstinacy is displayed. Had the Child Marriage Restraint Act been backed by intensive and widespread propaganda its success, in spite of all other drawbacks, would have been ensured.

We have advocated radical changes in the personal laws particularly of the Hindus, and have demanded that the law with regard to inheritance, marriage, guardianship of the children and other matters should deal equitably with the rights of women. We want that polygamy should be abolished by law and divorce on specific conditions should be introduced among the Hindus. Bills embodying these reforms have become a normal feature of our legislatures but few have been destined to bear the test of the anvil and become the law of the land. A more drastic method of dealing with these unjust laws is indicated. I agree with the suggestion made by some of our members that an equitable comprehensive law based on the equality of the sexes should be enacted even though its adoption by individuals in place of the present divergent laws of the community may be voluntary.

Acts for the suppression of immoral traffic, for the protection of children, for the abolition of the Devadasi system and for various other purposes of a similar nature have been demanded by us and ar enow on our statute books. We have tried to do some investigation and organization work among working women and have embodied their demands of better housing, antenetal [sp] and prenetal [sp] maternity benefits, creches, nursery schools etc., in our resolutions.

From what I have mentioned merely by way of the nature of our work it is evident the scope of our work has become as extensive as life itself. Necessarily, therefore, practical work was done only in a very few instances. Most of our work consisted of preliminary opinion investigations and consolidation and focusing on these subjects. This has exposed us to criticism from many quarters, which we must determine to live down by devoting ourselves afresh to the task before us.

Among the subjects chosen for discussion at the present session and for work during the coming year, I would like to offer a few remarks on untouchability and communal unity from the social group and cottage industries and housing from the economic group.

Removal of untouchability is my own subject and I can say from experience that work in that sphere is most purifying. It brings us nearer to the realization of “Ahimsa”. It helps us to see ourselves I the true perspective as perpetrators of terrible injustices on a vast community for which each one of us is individually and collectively responsible. Harijan service, like the worship of God, lifts one morally to a higher plane. It is like the redemption of a crushing debt which relieves the soul of its heavy burden. I little contribution made towards the removal of untouchability, a little effort made to bring light and cheer into the dismal life of these victims of our oppression will lift us as individuals and as a nation to a higher level. I invite all sister delegates present here and, or them, the women of the whole country to make the experiment and test the truth of my assertion. This is not the place for me to give practical suggestions for work. I have been making suggestions for decades. Not much direction is needed when the heart is given. It knows how to make its own way. I, therefore, make a general appeal for women to take up this work as their own. Some of our branches are doing a little in that direction, and I am grateful to them. But much greater effort is needed and I am sorry to observe that women’s contributions to the work is not striking [something] to be proud of. We may not forget that the achievement of our freedom is is impossible till we have rectified this great wrong. The awakening among the Harijans is growing very fast with the education they are receiving, but the prejudices of the cast Hindus are not dying out with the same rapidity. This breeds a resentful attitude among the Harijans which weakens the growth of the whole nation. Even from the point of view of national freedom, untouchability must go.

Communal unity is another allied chose subject of the year. Its achievement for our national advance is as fundamental as the removal of untouchability. The nature of this problem bears affinity to the problem of untouchability. Nothing perhaps is more acute  and requires more delicate handling. It is a mixture of political, economic and religious elements made complex and difficult of solutions by the presence of a third and interested party. But we may not put the blame on the third party and seek absolute of responsibility for ourselves. Th very fact that the third party succeeds in creating or augmenting schisms among us shows our weakness. For the removal of that weakness ways and means must be found. The Women’s Conference has done a considerable amount of work to bring the women of all communities on a common platform. I can vouch for the fact that among us there are no distinctions of caste or creed. We do not even remember which religion or community we belong to. On the platform of the Conference we are just women serving the cause of women and the Motherland. But we have not yet been able to take this amity and goodwill farther than the boundaries of our conference. We ought to make an effort to do this. One point which I would like to bring to the notice of the delegates is that the number of our Muslim members and delegates is very small. Great attention should be paid to increase their number and I request my Muslim sister delegates to make it their special concern for the next year. Without their earnest co-operation this work cannot be accomplished. The end of the year must show a large increase of Muslim members on our registers. That in itself will bring the two sister communities a step nearer.

From the economic group one of the subjects that I have chosen for comment is “Cottage Industries.” We may not lose ourselves in academic discussions on the comparative merits and demerits of cottage versus large-scale industries. We may only remember that under the present conditions, cottage industries in India are a necessity. It is through them alone that the starving millions can get their daily bread. Our time should, therefore, be spent in devising means for their promotion. The starting of training centres, of sales spots, propaganda and several other ways are open to us, but the most effective way is personal patronage. Khadi, of course, is the centre of all village industries. There are not many Khadi wearers among our members. I appeal for a respectable place for Khadi in their wardrobes. Khadi is an acquired taste and its beauties can be perceived by cultivation. Even its roughness has a charm. It is life-giving to the poor and peace-giving to the rich. An assembly of women, dressed in pure white Khadi is a feast to the eye. Khadi is a symbol of our love for suppressed humanity. It is an expression of our will to e free. Members of a nationalist organisation like ours should consider themselves morally bound to wear “Khadi”. And closely connected with Khadi is spinning. Sacrificial spinning is as ennobling s harijan work. Every turn of the wheel and every thread that is spun brings one nearer to the masses. It breeds a mentality which smarts under the injustices of the current social and economic system and strengthens the determination to change it by no-violent means. I, therefore, appeal to our members to take to daily sacrificial spinning which will automatically make them supporters of Khadi and of village industries.

Now I come to the last subject, housing. The paucity of houses in India is astonishing. In a country of nearly four hundred million inhabitants, the poor have hardly any houses to live in. Only those ,who have travelled widely in the interior of the country, and have closely studied the question can have an adequate idea of the sufferings caused to men and women on account of lack of houses. Over-crowding in cities is particularly deplorable. Hundreds of thousands of people spend their lives craped up in hovels called houses by courtesy. It is not within our scope or power to make up for this deficiency. But we can do something in rousing social conscience against this evil. We can remind the governments and local authorities, the rich and the educated classes that it is their responsibility to take the dumb toiling millions out of this veritable hell. Lack of money should make no excuse. The need is so imminent that if no other means are available, money should be borrowed for building purposes by governments and local boards, co-operative housing societies should be promoted by the people themselves and the rich should be persuaded to invest their money in housing schemes. House rents should be regulated by law to prevent the worst type of exploitation. I have seen landlords taking enormous rents ranging from Rupees 4 to 8 for tiny dingy one-room tenements without any amenities. This sort of exploitation must be stopped forthwith. Owners of agricultural lands should be compelled by law to give decent houses to their tenants. The duty of our Conference is to brig these facts before the public and to persuade them to rectify this great wrong.

I must now say a few words about non-violence in which we have repeatedly declared our unflinching faith. An Indian women’s organisation could do nothing les. No-violence is inbred in an Indian woman. She carries its impress on her soul. The traditions in which she is brought up, the deprivations she has to go through in life, the “sankars” from which she is born or her inherited genius all make her a suitable medium for the expression of non-violence. But that which has been so far latent has to be made patent. At present an Indian woman’s non-violence savours of the non-violence of the weak and the helpless. As such it is worthless. It requires a conscious training to turn it into the non-violence of the strong, without which it can not acquire the power to resist vice and violence. In the practice of non-violence in life Mahatma Gandhi, expects more from women than from men. Let us by constant effort at self-purification make ourselves worthy of this trust. The best training centres for non-violence are our own homes. But a search light has to be turned ever inwards and a constant watch kept on ourselves to make sure that from day to day the boundaries of our family are extending and the mother’s heart is constantly getting bigger to bring within its compass the whole of humanity.

Our responsibility is great. We should never forget that lip service to a cause is worse than no service at all. It weakens us as well as the cause. Truth and honesty demand that we practice what we preach. I, therefore, commend it to our members to give serious thought to the ways and means of realizing non-violence in their individual lives. I would suggest a serous study of Gandhian literature. The extension of non-violence from the individual to the group, its application to national and international matters is a new experiment with a technique evolved by Gandhiji in the laboratory of his life in which all through he has experimented with truth it is a glory and a privilege to be born in his time and be his contemporary. We must do all in our power to deserve that privilege.

One last word and I am done. To those of my bothers who do not agree with the policy of the women’s Conference, who see danger in our demand for freedom and sex equality, I say cast off these fears and have trust in us. We shall not fail you nor lose our balance. And even if we do momentarily, I say, to err in freedom is better than to keep straight n slavery. The spectres of disintegration, of disorder, of sex war that haunt some of you occasionally are phantoms of the imagination. There can be no war between the mother and son, between the father and daughter, brother and sister, husband and wife. And if there can be no war between them there can be none between man and woman. We have no bitterness in our movement. None is likely to come in. All that we want is to establish equity and fairplay in the relations of man and woman as well as man and man. That is the only foundation on which a stable structure of civilized society can be built.

To my co-workers and sister delegates, I want to say this last word that more service is demanded of us, more dedication is called for. Work from where you stand; where destiny has placed you. Do your best to finish with the old world of tyranny and exploitation and you’re your helping hand to bring in the new era of peace and goodwill.



Source: Speeches of Mata Rameshwari Nehru (1885-1966): The illustrious woman of India (Bhagat Puran Singh Pingalwara Amritsar) pp. 102-117.