Image: Sarojini Naidu with Gandhi before boarding ship at Mumbai, going to London, September 1931

27 MARCH 2018

The first formal demands for female suffrage in India were made over a hundred years ago, in November 1917. Led by an Irish suffragette, Margaret Cousins, and an Indian nationalist, Sarojini Naidu, a delegation of fourteen women presented a petition and met with government officials in India to demand that women be treated as ‘people’. As one Punjabi reporter put it, aware that some British women were about to be enfranchised, these campaigners wanted to show British imperial officers that ‘Indian women are no less intelligent and deserving than British women’.

The demand for the vote in India was curtailed by the realities of imperialism. India was subject to the British Crown until 1947, and many decisions around governance in India were made in Britain. Campaigners for the vote not only had to win around officials in India, but also their superiors in Britain, and so many Indian suffrage campaigners were compelled to visit Britain and direct many of their demands towards British people. Campaigners also used their networks around the world to put international pressure on the government to enfranchise Indian women.

Campaigns for the vote could only become an issue when Indians were allowed to participate in parliamentary bodies. As India was under British imperial rule at this time there was little opportunity for Indians to have a democratic voice. Many Indian women had the right to vote on village and municipal councils, but these were only related to very local affairs. It was only in 1917 that the British Government began to discuss introducing some form of parliamentary representation for Indians. It was from this time onwards that Indian men and women could (and did) start demanding a parliamentary vote.

The British Government introduced a new central parliamentary body to India in 1920. They also introduced representative assemblies for Indian provinces. However, in setting up a new electorate, the Government decided to explicitly exclude women from the vote. British officials used stereotypical arguments about Indian women, suggesting that their lack of literacy, and segregation through purdah, meant that they would be unable to use a vote wisely or independently. Despite demands by numerous women’s groups, as well as men’s groups, the British Government ensured that the division of the franchise on sex grounds was implanted from an early stage in India’s democracy.

Indian women – Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata and her daughter Mithan Tata – went to London in the summer of 1919 to petition the Government and ask for women to be included in the new Indian franchise. Why were women explicitly being excluded they asked? They lobbied parliament – held meetings with MPs, and asked British men and women to write letters of protest to their MPs as well. The Government gave one concession – they would allow the Indian provinces the right to choose for themselves if they wanted to enfranchise women. Each Indian province would have to have a vote within its new provincial parliament, and if Indian women were given the right to vote in their provinces, they automatically had a right to vote in national general elections too.

From 1921 onwards, Indian provinces awarded the vote to women, along the same terms as men i.e. if they owned a certain amount of property. By 1935, all provinces in British India had enfranchised women along these lines. However, as very few Indian women actually owned property in practice, this meant that less than 5% of Indian adult women had the vote, and in some provinces the percentage of women voters was less than 1%.

Once Indian provinces had enfranchised some women, Indian suffrage campaigners began to redirect their campaigns to urge for the franchise to be widened beyond just those who owned property. While the main Indian women’s campaigning organisations (the Women’s Indian Association and All-India Women’s Conference) demanded full adult franchise, some other campaigners suggested that the electorate should be increased in stages. A range of solutions were offered such as enfranchising women who had literacy qualifications, giving the vote to the wives and widows of existing male voters, or giving the vote to women who lived in urban areas only.

In the summer of 1933, three Indian women: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Muthulakshmi Reddi and Shareefah Hamid Ali, visited London to represent Indian women’s organisations and petition the Government. Sushama Sen and Lalita Mukerji, who both lived in London, also met with the Government. Sen and Mukerji suggested that the electorate should be expanded in stages, while Kaur, Reddi and Hamid Ali insisted that the Government should introduce full adult franchise to India.

In 1935, the British Government introduced a new Bill that enfranchised Indian women along the lines suggested by the MP Eleanor Rathbone - the wives and widows of existing male property owners were enfranchised, as were women who held literacy qualifications. The percentage of women who could vote remained woefully small.

The fight for female suffrage continued and became increasingly associated with a fight for national independence from British imperial rule. Many Indian suffrage campaigners were imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s for their role in the nationalist struggle. Ultimately, these campaigners had to wait until independence from imperial rule in 1947 to finally secure full adult franchise for all men and women (initially over the age of 21, and later reduced to 18).

Sumita MukhergeABOUT AUTHOR

Dr Sumita Mukherjee is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Bristol. Her current research project on 'Indian Suffragettes' is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.