She was the youngest of their thirteen children. Ammu never went to school and received only a rudimentary education at home, which consisted of minimal reading and writing in Malayalam, cooking and keeping house, to prepare her for married life. She lost her father at a very young age, and her mother struggled to raise her children and arrange marriages for her many daughters. Dr. Swaminathan visited the family after he had established himself as a lawyer in Madras and offered to marry the young Ammu who agreed to marry him only if she was assured of complete freedom, a good education and life in a city. They did not enter into a sambandham as was the usual practice between a Brahmin male and Nair female but had a traditional Nair wedding which was boycotted by the Brahmins.
It was around 1914 that Ammu became politically active. In 1917 she formed the Women’s India Association along with Malathi Patwardhan, Annie Besant, Mrs. Dadabhoy, the Margaret cousins, and Mrs Ambujammal. They tried to address the social and economic issues of women labourers.
Ammu joined the Indian National Congress in 1934. She was a strong advocate for universal adult franchise and equal constitutional rights for women and this reflected in her activities as part of the Indian National Congress as well. She was an active participant in the Quit India Movement in 1942 and as an aftermath was jailed for a year in Vellore.
She was also a strong advocate of pro-women legislation and pushed for the Sarda Act or the Child Marriage Restraint Act, Age of Consent Act and the various Hindu Code Bills aiming to reform succession, inheritance and marriage laws. Later as a member of the Lok Sabha she also pushed for maternity benefits for women.
In 1943, while being in Vellore jail, she heard one of the inmates calling out a sanitary worker by the name “Shudrachi” (meaning a lower caste person) and walked up to her saying “Yes, tell me”. The confused woman explained to Ammu that she was referring to the worker to which she is supposed to have spiritedly replied “I am a Shudrachi too. Now say what you want”. This is just one of the many instances where Ammu had explicitly shown her disagreement with the Caste System that was an integral part of the society then.
In 1946, she was elected to the Constituent Assembly from Madras and was one of the very few women involved in the drafting of the Indian Constitution. Although she was happy with the final draft that the Assembly passed, she criticised it for going into too many details and becoming a very lengthy volume.
In 1959, while Satyajit Ray was the President of the Federation of Film Societies, she became its Vice President. Later she also headed the CBFC and the Bharat Scouts and Guides.
Ammu also criticised Nehru for responding to the title of “Panditji”, which according to her was a mark of caste superiority. While Nehru had supposedly provided a justification that he never asked anyone to address him as such, Ammu still found it problematic that he responded to the title.
She also faced difficulties in her marital life as she belonged to a caste considered lower in hierarchy to her husband’s, who was a Brahmin. She came to know of her daughters being made to consume food outside the house on the veranda in Swaminathan’s ancestral home because they were not ‘complete’ Brahmins. Both she and her husband Dr. Swaminathan were opposed to this and campaigned against such regressive caste practices.
Ammu had four children, who were distinguished in their respective fields.
Govind Swaminadhan, the elder son, a barrister at the Madras High Court. His wife was the daughter of Pundit Santhanam, founder of Lakshmi Insurance Company of Lahore
Subbaram, the younger son,an executive with Mahindra. His wife Nuru Swaminathan, was the sister of M. C. Chagla, the Chief Justice of the Bombayi High Court.
Captain Lakshmi Swaminadhan (1914-2012). Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal led the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army. She was also a Member of the Rajya Sabha.She led a medical team to Bhopal after the gas tragedy in December 1984, worked towards restoring peace in Kanpur following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and was arrested for her participation in a campaign against the Miss World competition in Bangalore in 1996. She was still seeing patients regularly at her clinic in Kanpur in 2006, at the age of 92.
Mrinalini Sarabhai, a Bharatanatyam dancer and wife of Vikram Sarabhai, a renowned scientist. They are the parents of Mallika Sarabhai, a dancer and former Gujarati film actress.
Image Source: Congress Chronicles
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