Tireless crusader (1909-1981)
Durgabai Deshmukh, an embodiment of woman empowerment in her lifetime, was among the few brave hearts of the 20th century, who thought, fought and worked, day and night, for the education and emancipation of women. Born on 15 July 1909 in a middle class family of Rajahmundry (East Godavari District), Andhra Pradesh, Durgabai faced myriad difficulties in her childhood. Her father passed away in her early childhood and she was married off when just eight. She was widowed soon after her wedding.
Her mother, who was associated with the Congress and was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, became her guiding spirit and Durgabai started learning Hindi from a teacher living in the neighbourhood. In those days, learning Hindi and its propagation at the national level was a part of India’s freedom movement spearheaded by Gandhi.
An astute learner, Durgabai not only gained command over Hindi language in a short period, but went on to open a school, namely, the Hindi Balika Pathshala for girls in Kakinada in 1923. She was only 14 years old at that time. Mahatma Gandhi himself was astonished by the tremendous feat of Durgabhai. From the year 1923, her adolescence period, Durgabai got actively involved in the national liberation movement under Gandhiji’s leadership. She took on the task of propagating and selling Khadi, and started awakening people to the menace of alcohol and other social evils. She was in the forefront along with stalwarts like Andhra Kesari T. Prakasam in the Civil Disobedience Movement launched by the Mahatma in 1930 by breaking the Salt Law. She was arrested twice between 1930 and 1934. She founded many organisations in which the names of the Andhra Mahila Sabha and the Blind Relief Association are noteworthy. Besides this, she completed her graduation from the Andhra University, earned a degree in law from the University of Madras, and started practicing law after getting herself enrolled at the Bar of Madras, a rare feat for women in those days.
In 1952, she married C. D. Deshmukh, an eminent economist, the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the Minister of Finance, Government of India between 1950 and 1956.
Participation in the national liberation movement, work for women’s education and social transformation were the three nodal tasks undertaken by Durgabai Deshmukh. She was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly and the Constituent Assembly of India in 1946. She was the first woman member of the Planning Commission of India established in 1952. It was she who as a member of the Commission played a key role in persuading the Government to declare a national policy on social work and support for such work, consequent upon which the Central Social Welfare Board was formed in 1953 under the Ministry of Woman and Child Welfare. Durgabai was herself appointed the first Chairperson of the Board. Under her guidance, a number of educational awareness programmes, schemes for training and rehabilitation of women, children’s welfare, particularly of the handicapped, were started all over the country.
Trail blazing work in education, health and training of women, handicapped children and weaker sections of society, continues to this day under the tutelage of the Andhra Mahila Sabha.
Durgabai breathed her last on 9 April 1981. She remains relevant even today as she inspires women to step forward and assert their identity and self respect. In recognition of her stellar work, Durgabai Deshmukh got many national and international honours including the ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 1981.
Speaking on 31 July 2013 at the platinum jubilee function of the Andhra Mahila Sabha, the late Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam paid rich tributes to her in Hyderabad and said, “She was an indomitable spirit. She drove ignorance away and welcomed the bliss of life. Dr. Durgabai Deshmukh was an embodiment of the spirit of Mother India”.