UTKAL GAURAB MADHUSUDAN DAS; a protagonist of gender equality

Late Madhusudan Das was an outstanding personality and influential leader of his time. Born in Odisha on April 28, 1848, he led an eventful life marked by manifold accomplishments in diverse fields. Widely acclaimed for exceptionally high standard of service and sacrifice for the cause of Odisha and India, he breathed his last on February 4, 1934. In 1903 he founded the Utkal Sammilani (Utkal Union Conference) which became the nucleus of the historic movement to unify the Odia-speaking areas and create a separate State of Odisha on the basis of language.
A celebrated lawyer, he is part of the folklore of Odisha for achieving extraordinary excellence in the field of law and jurisprudence. His entrepreneurial skills proved his credentials as a dynamic man with a proven legacy for harnessing the business acumen of the people and developing their skills for economically empowering them and enhancing their self-esteem. The Utkal Tannery he established in 1905 to manufacture shoes and use leather for other economic purposes made a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who repeatedly referred to it in many parts of India in the context of his arduous efforts for providing alternative occupations to village people who predominantly depended on agriculture to earn their livelihood. Affectionately hailed as Madhubabu in the annals of modern Odisha, a lot has been written and said about him. It is, therefore, important to throw light on some of the extremely critical and sensitive aspects of his remarkable life which have hardly been discussed and disseminated.
There is a significant gender dimension to one of the epoch-making events of his life. In the year 1848 in which he was born, Jyotiba Phule established the first ever school for girls in our country. It was in the same year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the revolutionary document which inspired generations of exploited people to unchain themselves from bondage, exploitation and servitude. The establishment of the first girls’ school in 1848 by Jyotiba Phule was as revolutionary as the Communist Manifesto. Madhubabu, who was born in the year in which the first school for girls was established, took the initiative to establish the first women’s college in Odisha in 1913. He named that college after his adopted daughter, Sailabala, and now it is known as the Sailabala Women’s College enjoying high reputation as an educational institution of excellence. The fact that he founded that College in 1913 spoke volumes of his deep commitment to empower women through education and promote the cause of gender equality and women’s empowerment. One may say that establishment of the Sailabala Women’s College by Madhubabu was as revolutionary a step as the establishment of the first girls’ school by Jyotiba Phule and publication of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels.
To further appreciate his decision to establish the first women’s college in 1913, we need to understand the developments taking place then, both nationally and internationally, concerning women and their struggle for achieving equality and equal opportunity.
At that time in Odisha itself some of the great minds were exercised by the lack of opportunities for girls and women to have access to education. This was evident from a few of the articles written in the 1920s by none other than Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das on women’s education in Odisha. In one such article, titled ‘Nari Siksha Brudhi Paiba Kipari’(How to Improve Women’s Education), he regretted that social traditions and customs prescribing confinement of women to home for doing household and family work impeded the progress of women’s education. He, therefore, advocated measures for removing such mindset to ensure women’s access to education.
In 1913 at the international level a great churning was taking place for giving women equal legal rights. It is instructive to note that in 1913 when Madhubabu established the Sailabala College, American women in thousands organised a historic march demanding their right to vote which they eventually got in 1920. Similarly in the UK, the suffragette movement, started by women in the late 19th century, had become intense in 1913 inspired by the ideas of John Stuart Mill who advocated women’s rights and demanded extension of adult suffrage for establishing a better representative government. It is against that background that we need to understand the pioneering role played by Madhubabu to establish the first women’s college in Odisha in 1913.
It is all the more significant to note that the decision of Madhubabu to establish the first ever women’s college in Odisha in 1913 preceded the decision of Maharshi Danda Kishore Karve to establish the first ever women’s college in erstwhile Bombay on July 2, 1916. That college eventually became the first women’s university in the same year following the pattern of the Tokyo Women’s University. Such historical back-drops concerning women’s struggle for their legal rights and progress in education bring out the revolutionary significance of Madhubabu’s decision to establish the first ever women’s college in Odisha.
In the 21st century world gender equality, women’s empowerment and equal status of women with men are considered as major factors for achieving the sustainable developmental goals and countering the ever increasing problems arising out of global warming and climate change. British women themselves issued a manifesto in May 2007, called Women’s Manifesto on Climate Change,1 in which they stated: “We are also insufficiently empowered in taking action in our own homes to mitigate the effects of climate change”, and demanded more education and information so that they could be in a better position to deal with the menace of climate change. Against this background if we look at the decision of Madhu-babu to establish the Sailabala College, we gratefully acknowledge his farsighted approach in empowering women through education in the early part of the second decade of the twentieth century.
In the annals of the history for gender equality Madhusudan Das’ name will shine forever for his exceptional struggle for allowing women law graduates to enter the law profession in 1923. Before 1923, women were not allowed to practice law in courts in spite of possessing valid law degrees on account of the Legal Practitioners Act which allowed only men with graduation degree in law to practise law in courts. When the adopted daughter of Madhu-Babu, Ms Sudhansubala Hazra, finished her Bachelor of Law in 1921, she was asked by Madhubabu to apply to the Patna High Court for enrolment as a pleader. The matter was taken up by the full Bench of the Patna High Court which rejected it on November 20, 1921 on the ground of sex disqualification. The said Court held that the legal bar against women to do practice in law courts had to be removed by amending the Legal Practitioners’ Act and till that was done the High Court had no power to allow her application. She was heartbroken and shattered as her cherished ambition to pursue the profession of law and do practice as a lawyer received a fatal blow. She lost all hope and took a decision not to fight any more. Madhubabu, who was at that time the Minister of Local Government, was determined not to give it up. He drafted a memorial for her and it was sent to the Viceroy in August 1922 seeking for amendment to the Legal Practitioners Act for enabling lady lawyers to enroll as pleaders. A copy of the memorial was sent to the President of the Central Legislative Assembly, Sir Fredrick Whyte, who was then the President of the Central Legislative Assembly. In the enclosed letter he wrote that hardly memorials affecting public interest reached the Viceroy on account of the strength of the cause contained in it and stated that the memorial submitted by Sudhansubala “represents the grievances of a class of women who live in seclusion...” and “This is eminently a case in which public naturally expect personal attention of a Viceroy who is also an eminent lawyer.” Then he added: “Half of the population of India does not enjoy rights of citizenship of the British Empire. This is due to custom and caste. Government cannot abolish caste and social custom, but it is the duty of legislatures to steer between Scylla of social custom on the one side and the Charybdis of neutral policy of British Indian administration to the harbor of free British citizenship.” In other words, he was stressing the point that it was the legislature which should be proactive in taking up issues concerning rights of women without waiting for support from the caste and custom which hindered their progress. He also asked her to appeal to the Privy Council in London.
Accordingly the appeal was filed and the Secretary of State for India was made a respondent. To the utter shock and surprise of Madhubabu, the Privy Council informed its decision that 4000 pounds (Rs 6000) had to be deposited as fees to meet the expenses of the affected party, that is, the Secretary of State for India. He wrote a letter to Mr William Duke, Member of the India Office, on February 8, 1923 seeking assistance in the matter to bring down the fees to be deposited. Inter alia he wrote: “The question relates to permission to Lady Lawyers to practice in Courts. If there is any country and where Lady legal practitioners are necessary, it is in India and especially in those Provinces in which the Purdah system is stringent and Purdah ladies are often parties to suits involving decision of rights to properties of immense value. They cannot instruct lawyers of the other sex and consequently they become victims to the dishonesty of unprincipled Gomastas.” On March 8, 1923 the agents of the Privy Council sent a letter to Ms Sudhansubala informing that the matter was treated as a public interest and, therefore, no expenses would be required to be paid. Apart from taking those measures Madhubabu took up the matter with a Member of the Central Assembly, Mr H.S. Gaur, and requested him to introduce a Resolution to nullify the prohibition on women to enter the legal profession. He asked Sudhansubala to visit Delhi and meet the President of the Central Legislative Assembly and the then Home Member to sensitise them about the gravity of the matter. She also sent a copy of the memorial to almost all Members of the Assembly in August 1923 to make them aware of the importance of allowing women to become lawyers.
Eventually the Home Member introduced a Bill to amend the Legal Practitioners Act. The second reading of the Bill was completed in September 1923 and no Member opposed it. Ultimately it entered the statute book and became the law of the land empowering qualified women to practise law in the courts of India. Ms Sudhansu Bala enrolled herself as a lawyer on December 12, 1923 and appeared before the Patna High Court as the junior of Madhusudan Das who had by then resigned as the Minister of Local Government. It was because of the untiring efforts of Madhubabu that the women lawyers in India could remove an unjust barrier imposed against their entry into the legal profession. In the process he became the foremost champion of women’s rights to become practicing lawyers enjoying equal standing with men lawyers.

By Sh. Satya Narayan Sahu

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