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Hansa Jivaraj Mehta

Lavanya Vemsani

Academic, feminist, and social rights activist merely describe some of the many facets of Hansa Jivaraj Mehta, one of the most brilliant daughters of India. Hansa engraved women into humanity when inclusive language was unheard of. In one of the most influential contributions of her life, she performed a crucial role on the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, on which she served as Indian representative (1946-50), ultimately becoming the vice-chairman in 1950. Her influence is plainly visible on the first article of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which originally began with ‘All men are created free and equal,’ Hansa Mehta suggested replacing ‘All men’, with ‘all human beings’, to include every resident of the world, which is what the UN declaration is intended to encompass. A true visionary she understood the power of inclusive language.

Born on 3rd July 1897 in Surat, to Manubhai Mehta (Dewan of Baroda State), and married Jivaraj Mehta (First Chief Minister of Gujarat State) in 1924. She died in Mumbai (previously known as Bombay) on 4 April, 1995 at age 98. As a freedom fighter of India, Hansa participated in a number of activities organized to obtain the independence of India, she was even imprisoned through 1930-31. She was the first female member elected to Bombay Legislature in 1931. As a feminist she constantly used her position to firmly place women at the center of policy. Upon assuming her position as Chair of the Women’s Conference (1946) she played a key role in passing the Women’s Charter, outlining the rights of all women.

Subsequently, as one of the 15 female members nominated to the constituent assembly upon the independence of India in 1947, she continued to work for women’s rights. She was not unwelcome in the constitution committee because she was a woman. She was told in no uncertain terms including noting women’s service was second-class. Despite the insults she persevered along with her colleagues and never forgot her duty. She took it all in stride and worked tirelessly to ensure equal rights for women in the constitution of India.

Even though deeply entrenched in political activism and public service, as an educator she performed many roles in academia. She authored a number of children’s books in Gujarati in addition to translating a number of English books into Gujarati, including Gulliver’s Travels. She served as member of the Bombay Schools committee (1926-30), member of All India Board of Secondary Education, and continued to serve as Vice-Chancellor of SNDT Women’s University, Vice-Chancellor of Maharaja Sayaji Rao University and President of Inter-University Board of India. She was awarded Padma Bhushan, in 1959, the 3rd highest civilian award in the Republic of India.