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Amrit Kaur was a politician and writer, serving as the first central health minster from 1947 to 1957. A princess of the royal house of Kapurthala, she was a patriot and a firm believer in non-violence.

She was born on 2 February 1889 to Raja Sir Harnam Singh of the Ahluwalia royal family of Kapurthala. Her father converted to Christianity; this debarred them from succeeding to the throne of Kapurthala but their prestige remained intact. Her early education was in England at the Sherborne School for Girls and she later studied at Oxford. She was fond of sports, especially tennis. She never married, devoting all her time to the eradication of social evils.

She came under the influence of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, her father’s friend, and later also Mahatma Gandhi. From 1931 to 1933 she served as president of the All India Women’s Education Fund, responsible for the opening of the Lady Irwin College at New Delhi. In 1938 she became the President of the All India Women’s Conference. She served as Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years and was a prominent member of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly from 1946 to 1950. She participated in the Salt Satyagraha and was arrested. Later she condemned the Communal Awards. She went to Bannu in the Northwest Frontier Province or NWFP to advocate the cause of the Indian National Congress, was convicted on 16 July 1937 and imprisoned on a charge of sedition. During the Quit India Movement she faced a ruthless lathi charge at Simla and was arrested at Kalka.

She was the first woman to be appointed as a member of the Advisory Board on Education, resigning in August 1942 in the wake of the Quit India movement. In 1945 she was the Indian delegate to the UNESCO meet in London and the next year at Paris. She was responsible for the building of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and initiated schemes for the expansion of maternity homes, schools for nurses, and the control of diseases like malaria, leprosy and tuberculosis. She was associated with the YWCA and was president of the International Red Cross and the Indian Red Cross Society. She served as a member of the first Lok Sabha from 1952 to 1957, and then entered the Rajya Sabha that year. She was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha for a second term in 1958 where she served till the end of her life. She also led the Indian delegation to the WHO in 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1953. She died in 1964 of heart failure.

Reena Jain
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