Nehru: Pioneer for mid-day meals and greater representation of women in legislatures

The broader aspects of secularism are now in danger because of the counterculture fostered by Hindutva ideology which goes against the Constitution and civilisational values associated with India

PTI photo
PTI photo

SN Sahu

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was described by his critic professor Hiren Mukherjee as a Gentle Colossus. On the occasion of his birth anniversary celebrated as Children's Day, it is of national and global significance to unearth the unexplored ideas of that Gentle Colossus because of whom India today has emerged as a leading nation defining the twenty first century in a major way in terms of Indian attributes.

Nehru introduced the Mid-day meal for schools

Nehru's ideas are of exceptional significance for our time and for future generations. How many in India know that he was the originator of the Mid-Day Meal for school children which was implemented by K Kamraj in Tamil Nadu for the first time and is now prevalent across the nation in all government schools?

It was Nehru fondly hailed as Chacha Nehru, who during his visit to Rayalaseema in Madras Province in 1952, saw half a million people out of which 75% were children put in a camp and being fed because they could not get access to food on account of severe drought. Pained by the plight of children he asked the Madras Government to put children in schools and provide them meals free of cost.

That idea of Nehru was accepted by the Madras Government and he wrote about it in a letter dated 17th October 1952 which is available in volume 3 of the Letters to Chief Ministers.

While paying tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru for outstanding contributions as the architect of modern India we need to be sensitive to such pioneering leadership he provided to build human resources based on which India is now in a position to reap demographic dividends.

Nehru wanted greater representation of women in legislatures

It is lesser known that as the Prime Minister of our country he remained sensitive to the idea of gender equality and greater representation of women in legislative bodies even before the enactments of the Constitution. It is worthwhile to note that he took up the issue of gender equality during freedom struggle and in one of his letters to Indira Gandhi he wrote with anguish that when the first ever world anti-slavery convention was held, and women delegates wanted to participate in it they were denied the opportunity to do so.

It was indicative of his disapproval of the patriarchy which restricted women and prohibited them to participate in many crucial aspects of public life. Nehru’s perceptive understanding about the role of women in every spheres of life was amply manifested in Nehru's special letter to Chief Ministers dated 4th January 1950 when he sensitized them that elections for the new Parliament would be organised and stated "...about the necessity of having an adequate number of women members elected."

He regretted that "In the constituent Assembly women members were very few," and wrote with great deal of understanding that "I think it is important that we should keep up and add to the number of women in Parliament. From every point of view this is desirable. I have no doubt that a sufficient number of women, at least as competent and suitable as men, are available."

In 1952 after the first general elections when he found that sufficient number of women were not elected to the Parliament, he wrote another letter to the Chief Ministers and observed;

''I have been meeting our new Members of Parliament. I have been meeting our new Members of Parliament. There are over 700 of them as between the two Houses. I have noticed with great regret how few women have been elected. I suppose this is so in the State Assemblies and Councils also. I think we are very much to be blamed. It is not a matter of showing favour to any one or even of injustice, but rather of doing something, which is not conducive to the future growth of our country. I am quite sure that our real and basic growth will only come when women have a full chance to play their part in public life. Wherever they have had this chance, they have, as a whole, done well, better if I may say so, than the average man. Our laws are man made, our society dominated by man, and so most of us naturally take a very lopsided view of the matter. We cannot be objective, because we have grown up in certain grooves of thought and action. But the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men."

The introduction and passage of women's reservation bill in March 2010 in the Rajya Sabha initiated by the UPA Government was a step in the direction of fulfilling Nehru’s vision. It is unfortunate that the Modi Government which loses no opportunity to unfairly denigrate Nehru's legacy did not take action on that bill, the enactment of which could have brought about revolutionary changes in Indian polity and society. In the twenty first century when the nation and indeed the world as a whole is stressing on the need for greater number of women in democratic bodies it is worthwhile to recall that Nehru’s vision which was articulated even before India emerged as a Republic.

Nehru on the Hindu Code for women's rights

When the Hindu Code Bill, the key aspects of which were gender equality, was taken up in the Parliament, it faced stiff opposition from RSS and other right wing organisations. It was Nehru who stood by it. Eventually it was broken up into small pieces of legislations such as The Hindu Marriage and Divorce Bill, 1952, The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Bill, 1953, The Hindu Succession Bill, 1954, and The Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Bill, 1956 and all those legislations incorporated the basic ingredients of the Hindu Code Bill. After the enactment of each Bill, Nehru made wonderful remarks which uplifted the national spirit.

The enactment of the Hindu Marriage Bill was a landmark event in our quest for gender equality. The progressive values embodied in it affirmed the commitment of our leadership to herald a new era for our women informed with equal right of freedom and liberty as men. The happiness of the whole nation in this regard was best expressed by the then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In a letter to the Chief Ministers on 20 May 1955 he drove home the point that legislative measures to improve the condition of women and giving them a fair deal reaffirmed his Government’s resolve to take the reactionary forces head on the individuals who were out to impair the abilities of women by keeping them suppressed.

He also made a significant remark that such a law to enhance the status of women within our country, enhanced the image of our country at the global level. “The Hindu Marriage Bill” he wrote “brought us full square against the conservative reactionary forces in the country”. He then added, “Apart from the merits of the measure itself, this action of ours has raised our prestige in other countries. It has shown that our government and the forces behind it are progressive on every plane and are not afraid even of coming into conflict with orthodoxy”.

It is of extraordinary education to know that the then Prime Minister of our country was making profound remarks after the passage of each and every Bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha for protecting the rights of women. It is important to reiterate that the Hindu Succession Bill was yet another legislation which was first introduced in the Council of States. After its passage Prime Minister Nehru made a reference to it in his letter to the Chief Ministers dated 10 May 1956 and outlined its deeper significance when he wrote that “ …this legislation marks a new epoch in India”. Further expounding its relevance in the larger context of our desire for social revolution he stated, “It indicates that we have not only striven for and achieved a political revolution, not only are we striving hard for an economic revolution but that we are equally intent on social revolution; only by way of advance on these three separate lines and their integration into one great whole, will the people of India progress.”

Slightly more than three weeks later, on 15 June 1956, in another letter to the Chief Ministers, he reflected on the Hindu law Reform Bills by stating that “…there is something revolutionary about them” and, “They have broken the barrier of ages and cleared the way somewhat for our womenfolk to progress” . Then he observed “I have long been convinced that a nation’s progress is intimately connected with the status of its women.”

Nehru saw secularism from the perspective of gender equality

It is well known that it was Nehru who strengthened the foundations of the secular State in India and defended it. It flowed from his deep understanding of secularism which the Supreme Court in Bommai judgment has declared as the basic structure of the Constitution. In 1954, Nehru wrote that the building up of India should not only be seen from the perspectives of improving agriculture or industry but also from the perspectives of society and community as well. He observed that "We cannot go ahead on the economic plane without changing some of our social background and breaking through some of our restrictive social customs." In that context he described caste as separatist, destructive and a source of inequality. He underlined the importance of women in positions of power and said that "We cannot go ahead if women do not play a full part in national progress." Then he observed that "When we talk about a secular State, this does not simply mean some negative ideas, but a positive approach on the basis of equality of opportunity for everyone, man or woman, of any religion or caste, in every part of India."

Such broader aspects of secularism are now endangered because of the counterculture fostered by Hindutva ideology which is inconsistent with the Constitution and civilisational values associated with the Idea of India.

Nehru on Nationalism

Today, when so much is being talked about nationalism and the government headed by Prime Minister Modi is dubbing each and everybody who opposes it as anti-national and nationalism is reduced to constricted ideas, it is important to recall Nehru's idea of nationalism. He said on 15th August 1949, "I do not believe in narrow nationalism, and I think that India came down in the scale of nations in the past because of her narrowness in outlook and because of many evil customs that developed and fed this narrowness and exclusiveness."

The so called nationalism that is being propagated by the NDA Government is perpetuating the narrowness and exclusiveness which is bound to be dragging India to lower levels of development. It is in this context that India has to rediscover the ideals of its first Prime Minister who laid the foundations of modern India.

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