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Role of Mahatma Gandhi in Women's Political Participation
By Dr. Shubhangi Rathi*
"I would boycott that legislature which will not have a proper share of women members".
Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi has played an important role in the participation of women in political activities in India. Gandhi becomes uncompromising in the matter of women's rights. According to him woman is companion of man and gifted with equal rights of freedom and liberty. Woman is the better half of humanity, not the weaker sex. Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi was the first man to encourage participation of women in politics. The Constitution of India guarantees equal rights to men and women as voters and citizens. Presently there are very few women Parliamentarians in India. It shows that Gandhi's ideas about women and their role in political life was a departure from those of the 20th century reformers. In the 21st century, it is clear that quotas for women in politics have not essentially ensured higher equality. For the success of democracy, active participation of women is essential.. In this paper my focus is on participation of women in politics in Indiaand Mahatma Gandhi's role in motivating large numbers of women into mainstream politics. As per modern theory, both men and women are integral parts of social, economic and political set up of a state. Keeping this background in mind, this paper seeks to focus on the share of women in the electoral process of India.

Equal Rights in Indian Democracy:
India became independent in the year 1947. In all the elections held since independence, women had equal voting rights. Women play a dual role in politics - as voters and political representatives. On the voting front, though adult franchise was granted in 1937, the progressive spirit that pervaded the making of the constitution made it a reality. The Constitution of India guarantees equal rights to men and women as voters and citizens. Generally, in India, registration and participation of women as contestants is less than that of men.
Democracy implies equality for all, men and women. As against this basic notion of democracy what is normally seen is that women are excluded from different walks of life, more visibly in Politics.

Women's participation in Politics:

According to data maintained by Inter-Parliamentary Union, which maintains a record of women Parliamentarians, the world has only 20% women as political representatives. 10 years ago, the figure was 15.1%. (Sources: Inter Parliamentary Union, UNDP, Centre for Women and Democracy).
Finland is statistically an ideal example among the top countries. There is 42% representation of women in the legislature, there is no reservation and the Gender Inequality Index places Finland at a favorably high rank.
When we analyzed the data on women MLAs across India, we found that Bihar had the highest percentage of women MLAs, and, ironically, the lowest rate of female literacy. The 2013 Karnataka assembly polls saw only 5 women elected to the Vidhan Sabha out of a total of 224 members. Several state elections and Parliamentary elections in 2014 are coming up. How will women electoral contenders do this time round? Their numbers have been rising steadily over the years.

Women's Representation in Legislature:
India’s ranking in the above parameters does not present a very good picture. The scores for women Parliamentarians as well as gender inequality are poor. China is one country which closely compares to India for socio-economic and demographic analyses. There is electoral quota for women in China. It is ranked 54 with 23% women in the national assembly. The GII rank of China is 35.
Mahatma Gandhi said ,”Man and woman will attain equality only when the birth of a girl is celebrated with as much joy as in the case of boy." (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 87. p.229)

Mahatma Gandhi's views about Women:
Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India in 1921 that the female sex is the nobler of the two, as it is the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge. “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none to me is so degrading, so shocking, or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity, the female sex, not the weaker sex,” (CW. XXI: p. 105). He said that women have the right to participate in all the activities of life and like men have equal rights of freedom and liberty. “She is entitled to a supreme place in her own sphere of activity as man is in his,” (In his speech at Bhagini Samaj, Bombay, in February 1918). He realized that the backwardness of woman was a stumbling block in the path of progress.

Gandhi's View about Women:
Gandhiji attended the Second Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. All other delegates from India were nominees of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin.
In fighting for women rights, however, Gandhiji wanted the women of India, not to imitate the West, but to apply "methods suited to the Indian genius and Indian environment”.

Need of Women Participation:

At the RTC's federal Structure Committee meeting on September 17, 1931, Gandhiji clarified that, though the Congress was not in favour of any scheme of nominating members to legislative bodies to give adequate representation to minorities, the national organization was duty-bound to sponsor candidates giving fair representation to minorities including special cases like women. If they were left out, he would "have a clause in the Constitution which would enable the elected Legislature to elect those who should have been elected, but have not been elected or unjustly left out by the electorate."
Sarojini Naidu was a nominated delegate, Gandhiji, heaving a humorous sigh of relief, remarked: "Thank God! The women there did not put forward a claim either for separate electorate or for reservation of specific number of seats in Legislatures!" (Gandhiji's address to women at Santiniketan in 1940).

Women Participation on Merit basis:
Gandhiji wrote, “I am not enamoured of equality or any other proportion in such matters. Merit should be the only test. Seeing, however, that it has been the custom to decry women, the contrary custom should be to prefer women, merit being equal, to men even if the preference should result in men being entirely displaced by women. It would be a dangerous thing to insist on membership on the ground merely of sex. Women and for that matter any group should disdain patronage. They should seek justice, never favour. Therefore the proper thing is for women as indeed for men to advance the spread not of English or Western education among them, but such education on general lines through their provincial languages as will fit them for the numerous duties of citizenship. For men to take a lead in this much-needed reform would be not a matter of favour but a simple act of belated justice due to women." (Harijan, April 7, 1946).

Women Participation for Strengthening Panchyat:
Gandhiji said: "In my opinion, it is degrading both for man and woman that women should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth and shoulder the rifle for the protection of that hearth. It is a reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end." At the constructive workers' conference in Madras on January 27, 1946, Gandhi called upon women to enter the legislatures with the idea of serving the people and not politicking on party-basis. But how many of these would be able to enter the legislatures in a spirit of service, and strengthen the panchayat base, he asked. Their aim must be to build from below so that the panchayat foundation would be strong and the structure good. If any mistake occurred while building from the bottom, it could be rectified immediately and the harm done would not be much. (Addressing a few girls who called on him at New Delhi on April 7, 1947).

Role of Mahatma Gandhi in Women's Political Participation:
During the freedom struggle in the 1930s, Gandhiji exhorted women to take part in Satyagraha movement on par with men. That 17,000 of around 30,000 persons who courted arrest during the Salt Satyagraha were women volunteers is a conspicuous example of their equal role under the leadership of the Mahatma.
The message Gandhi gave to the women of India was of such a nature that they responded to it in a manner which they had never done before. “His civil disobedience campaigns brought about, in a dramatic manner, the entry of women in large numbers into the public life of India. These became the starting points of women’s emancipation in our land.” (Bose: 74).
It shows that the upliftment of women was given an important place in Gandhi’s constructive programme. Hearing his clarion call to action women came out in large numbers giving up their sheltered and secluded existence to play their role in the national movement. Aristocratic women discarded their fineries and adornments and cheerfully marched to prison wearing coarse handspun khadi and handmade chappals. Kamala Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Anasuya Sarabhai, Sushila Nayyar and Miraben are a few of the illustrious women associated with the Gandhian movement. The emancipation of the Indian woman has largely been attributed to the political awakening of the pace of national life in all spheres. The picketing of liquor, opium and foreign cloth shops in the thirties was almost exclusively done by women.
Gandhi played an important role in motivating women to participate in the freedom movement and in politics. Gandhi's ideas about women and their role in political life was a departure from those of the 20th century reformers. He saw women as a potential force in the struggle to build a new social & political order. He consciously attempted to articulate the connections between private and public life in order to bring women into the freedom struggle. However, he failed to come to terms with the fact that oppression is not a moral condition but a social and historical experience relating to production relations. On the other hand even while insisting that a woman's real sphere of activity was the home, he was instrumental in creating conditions which could help women break the shackles of domesticity.

Present position of Women Participation in India:

In the recent past, Indian records show that there has been an increase in the percentage of women voters. Such participation owes a lot to the mobilization efforts for spreading the importance of women exercising their franchise made by political parties, NGOs, Action Groups and the general awareness amongst the community. But we can't forget that its credit goes to Mahatma Gandhi. Because he was the first man to motivate women to participate in India's political movement.
Again, a note of caution is required; let it be assumed that political participation always indicates political awareness on the part of the woman voter. Usually, however, countries that do hold regular elections show an improved recognition of women as a political constituency and parties and candidates tend to adopt pro-women stances and appeal specifically to women's votes, especially at the time of elections. This becomes very evident when we look at consecutive elections in the Indian context, wherein there is a growing consciousness of the need to woo the woman voter and the need to pay attention to the needs and issues of women, in the election manifestos of political parties.

Politics in the present day society is mainly a skill controlled area. Persons skilled enough to control the environment are definitely active in politics. Therefore political efficiency and personal control is closely related. Individuals having personal control perceive the political system to have great influence on their socio, economic and other personal pursuits. For them the political system is the only source from which they can get some benefits, the decisions of the political system may also be viewed as interfering in their various pursuits and; they have an obligation to be concerned with the political process.
So, it is clear from a comparative analysis that quotas for women in politics have not essentially ensured higher equality. There is no simplistic explanation to the social and cultural influences on the position of women in politics in a country. Quotas have done their bit in securing equality for women in some nations. There are also countries that have secured higher representation for women without reservation in national politics. Constitutional quotas were introduced for women in local governments in India. The effects of these quotas are still not visible in state and national governments in India. From 5% in the first general elections to 11% women representatives in the fifteenth Lok Sabha; how much better can we do in the coming national elections?
The issue of low representation of women will be brought up again as political parties start issuing tickets for the general elections as the Women's Reservation Bill has been in limbo in the Parliament for years.

  1. International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Vol.1, New York, 1968, p.225.
  2. Laxmi Devi, Encyclopedia of Women's Development and Family Welfare, Vo1Anmol Publications, New Delhi, 1998
  3. Bose, Nirmalkumar. Lectures on Gandhism.
  4. Datta, D.M. The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.
  5. Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi.
  6. Gandhi, Mohandas Karam Chand. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. (CW.XXI ;105)
  7. Radhakrishnan, S. Ed. Mahatma Gandhi: 100 Years.
  8. GEETHA KUMARI M.B. Teaches English at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Much interested in Gandhian Studies in which she has a doctoral degree.

* Dr. Shubhangi Rathi is a Associate Professor & H.O.D. Political Science, Smt. P.K. Kotecha Mahila Mahavidhalaya, Bhusawal (Maharashtra- India) and Chairman, Board of Studies of Political Science, North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon. Email: