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HANSA MEHTA (1897–1995)

Hansa Mehta was an activist and politician. She was born on 3 July 1897, in Surat, into a progressive Nagar family. Her father was Diwan in the Princely States of both Baroda and Bikaner. While young she was influenced by the reformer Aurobindo Ghose and Sayaji Rao III, the progressive ruler of Baroda. In 1918 she graduated with honours in philosophy from Baroda College and left the following year for England to study journalism and sociology. There she met Sarojini Naidu (q.v.) and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (q.v.). Coming back to India, in 1924 she married outside her caste—her husband, Jivaraj Mehta, was one of the most promising medical men in Mumbai.

Encouraged and inspired by him, Hansa started work in 1926 as a member of the committee for Bombay Municipal Schools. She also served as the president of the Bhagini Samaj. She campaigned against the Simon Commission and picketed shops selling foreign goods and liquor. She was active in the Indian National Congress, going to jail in 1930 and 1932. Her unusual brilliance and valuable experience proved to be a great asset when she served as a member of the Bombay Legislative Council in 1931. She represented the Congress from Mumbai in the Constituent Assembly. She was a fellow of Bombay University and SNDT University. From 1945 she was associated with Baroda University, and soon after in 1949 she was appointed founder Vice Chancellor of the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda, a post she held for many years. The Home Science faculty of Baroda University was the first of its kind in India, and the credit for establishing both this and later the Lady Irwin College of home science in New Delhi, goes to Hansa Mehta.

In spite of her busy schedule Hansa lent her support to many organisations working for the welfare of women. She served as a secretary to the National Council for Women and was president of the All India Women’s Conference and vice president of the International Alliance for Women. From 1947 to 1952 she represented India in the Joint Human Rights Commission, and became its chairperson in 1950. In 1958 she became a member of the working committee of UNESCO. She researched and wrote 20 books focusing on the problems of women and children, 16 of them in Gujarati. She also translated into Gujarati some of Shakespeare’s plays and parts of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Many universities conferred on her the honorary degree of D.Litt. In recognition of her outstanding contribution to the development of education in India, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1958.

Rita Dalmiya
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