Saturday, March 18, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur
By Illa Vij

Extracts from Gandhiji and Women
by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur

AMRIT KAUR who was born to be a princess, cast away all luxuries and comforts and spent her life in the service of humanity. She was born on February 21, 1889. She had seven brothers and together they spent their childhood in the luxury of a royal house. Her father Raja Harnam Singh was an heir to the princely state of Kapurthala. But he converted himself to Christianity and became ineligible for succession. Amrit’s mother was a Bengali Christian (a Presbyterian). Her parents taught her the importance of honesty, cleanliness of body, mind and surrounding, kindness to animals and compassion towards humanity.

For her early education, Amrit was sent to England. She excelled in all her activities and was also appointed head girl of her school. Amrit had a special interest in games too. She enjoyed playing tennis, hockey and cricket. Her higher studies were completed in London and Oxford. She loved music and could play the piano and violin.

  At the age of 20 Amrit returned to her family. She refused to get married and no one pressurised her either. She had a vision for the children, women and the youth of India. She also desired to see her country free from the shackles of the British, she cherished the days she had spent in England, but she did not want her country to be in bondage.

Amrit had heard about Mahatma Gandhi, but met him only in April 1919. (She had earlier heard him speak). She was so influenced by his thoughts and vision for the country, that she wished to join his ashram. Since both her parents were ailing, she looked after them. After her mother passed away in 1924 and father in 1929, she could spend more time for her country.

In 1930, Amrit took part in the salt campaign. In 1934, she joined the ashram as one of Gandhiji’s secretaries. During the Quit India Movement she led many processions and was arrested too. She was deeply concerned about the welfare of children, women and sports for the youth. She worked towards the betterment of education facilities and the eradication of child marriage and purdah system etc. She was one of the founder members of the All-India Women Conference. She was appointed its secretary in 1930 and president in 1933. She stressed that women must be given opportunities to work outside the four walls of their homes. She attended theUNESCO conference in London and Paris in 1945 and 1946, respectively.

In 1947, when India got Independence, she became Minister of Health. She initiated many projects to improve the health of her countrymen. She was a strong force behind the establishment of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. She became the first president of the institute. She sought financial help for the institute from New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Germany and the USA. She initiated the Tuberculosis Association of India and the Central Leprosy Teaching and Research Institute in Madras. She also started the Rajkumari Amrit Kaur College of Nursing. Her ability and intellect was admired so extensively that she was elected president of the World Health Assembly in 1950. Thus she became the first woman as well as the first Asian to hold this post. She received the Rene Sand Memorial Award.

Amrit ensured that maternity and child welfare centres were set up all over the country. She also started the National Sports Club of India. In her later days also she continued to give to the people. Her speeches were effective, warm and most appealing. Khadi became an important part of her wardrobe. If she desired she could have lived in luxury and glamour, but she chose to serve the people of her country, the country she deeply loved.


Extracts from Gandhiji and Women
by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur

GANDHIJI’S contributions to Indian life and thought, indeed to world life and thought, have been many and varied. But women, in particular Indian women, owe him a special debt of gratitude.

It was but natural that the heart of a man who believed so firmly in Truth and Non-violence should go out in sympathy and understanding to all those who were oppressed or unjustly treated. It hurt him to think that woman whom he looked upon as ‘the mother, maker and silent leader of man’ should have so lost herself as to have become a mere chattel of man.

Gandhiji was uncompromising in the matter of woman’s rights. ‘In my opinion she should labour under no legal disability not suffered by man. I should treat daughters and sons on a footing of perfect equality.’ Those who tried to argue with him on the basis of what the great law-giver Manu is supposed to have said that ‘for woman there can be no freedom’ or what is contained in some texts in the Smritis met with scant attention. Such sayings or texts were not sacrosanct to him. They could ‘command no respect from men who cherish the liberty of woman as their own and who regard her as the mother of the race.’ He upbraided those who on behalf of orthodoxy resorted to quoting such texts as if they were part of religion. He recommended that some authoritative body should ‘revise all that passes under the name of scriptures, expurgate all the texts that have no moral value or are contrary to the fundamentals of religion and morality and present such an edition for the guidance of Hindus.’ While a Sanatanist Hindu in the highest sense of the term Gandhiji was wise and good and big enough to realise that ‘the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.’ He, therefore, had no hesitation in preaching in no uncertain terms, whether through the woman in the name of law, tradition and religion. To him even the slightest injustice was a form of violence and, therefore, an untruth. As he always maintained, Truth was impossible without Non-violence and equally the converse was true.

There is no doubt that of all the factors that have contributed to the awakening of women in India the most potent has been the field of non-violent action which Gandhiji offered to women in his battle for India’s political freedom. It brought them out in their hundreds from sheltered homes to stand the furnace of a fiery trial without flinching.