To commemorate International Women’s Day, we focus on the life and contributions of one extraordinary woman, Dakshayani Velayudhan, the sole female Dalit member of the Constituent Assembly, as well as one of its youngest.
Velayudhan was born on 15 July 1912 in Mulavukad, a small island in present-day Ernakulam district. She belonged to the Pulaya community, at the bottom of the rigorously oppressive caste system. Pulayas were mostly engaged as lowly-paid agricultural labourers, and subjected to a range of humiliations including being barred from using public roads, maintaining a certain distance from upper caste persons, with women prohibited from covering their upper bodies with any garment.
By the time of her birth, anti-caste reformers such as Ayyankali had laid the grounds for greater assertion by the Pulayas. An epochal event was held in Kochi in 1913, in the form of the Kayal Sammelanam. Hundreds of Pulayas, including Velayudhan’s family members, came together and met on small boats in Kerala’s backwaters, as they were prohibited from assembling on land. The event clearly had a significant impact on Dakshayani’s life, who is said to have requested that her biography be titled ‘The Sea has no Caste.’
Velayudhan went on to become one of the first women from her community to earn a university degree in the form of a B.Sc in Chemistry from Maharaja’s College. Attracted to Gandhian philosophy, she spent a considerable amount of time in the Wardha Ashram, where she got married to Raman Velayudhan in 1940.
In the 1940s, as Achyut Chetan’s new book highlights, Velayudhan emerged as a fierce critic of Congress politics, writing strongly against them in the All India Scheduled Castes Federation’s (AISCF) weekly journal, Jai Bheem. At the same time, she was also critical of the AISCF and B.R. Ambedkar’s politics, specifically their demand for separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes.
Fierce often sexist attacks, from both Congress and AISCF followed. Fervent petitions were addressed to the Congress high command opposing her nomination to the Constituent Assembly. In spite of these, she was elected to the body in 1946.
In the Assembly, Velayudhan emerged as a strong, independent voice, unafraid to go against popular opinion. Velayudhan made her inaugural intervention during the Assembly’s response to Nehru’s Objective Resolution. She emphasised that the Indian Constitution had a more substantial task than simply mediating the relationship between state and society; it had to overhaul society itself.
She believed/ stated that ‘..Only an Independent Socialist Indian Republic can give freedom and equality of status to the Harijans.’ Urging members from the minority communities in the Assembly to not push for political safeguards, she further suggested that ‘It is the moral safeguard that gives real protection.’
Velayudhan’s criticism of political safeguards was articulated again almost a year later, when she took on B.R Ambedkar and S Nagappa on an amendment that would have required a reserved seat candidate to secure a minimum proportion of votes from Scheduled Caste voters. She stated that there was ‘no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates’ if Harijans continued to be ‘economic slaves of other people’. This emphasis on the underlying economic exploitation and landlessness as factors causing social backwardness was once again seen in a debate around an early version of Article 23 of the Constitution, in which she called for an ‘an economic revolution in the fascist social structure existing in India.’
Velayudhan’s interventions extended beyond social and economic questions, as she also held strong views on the type of federalism that India should adopt. Her critique of the Draft Constitution of India 1948 focused on the lack of decentralisation and the potential for a strong central government to dominate over state governments. She specifically highlighted the method of appointing Governors of states, which she argued would further centralise power, a prescient observation
Velayudhan’s interventions in the years leading up to the Constituent Assembly, and later as its member, are examples of certain strands of constitutional thought expressed by marginalised communities which have not received adequate attention in Indian constitutional and political history. The PACT project aims to bring these histories to life, by drawing on previously neglected archives and using innovative digital tools to trace the development and influence of these ideas on Indian Constitution-making.
(This piece was authored by Research Associate Siddharth Jha and edited by Senior Research Associate Vineeth Krishna E from the ConstitutionofIndia.net team at the Centre for Law and Policy Research)