Ajit kumar Jha
For those who lecture India on human rights, it was an Indian woman who rewrote Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
In 1948, she redrafted “All men are born free and equal,” to “All human beings are born free and equal,” thereby emphasizing gender equality. Her name was Hansa Jivraj Mehta (1897 to 1995), one of the 15 women members of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution.
During his IIT Bombay lecture last month UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres mentioned her name with the utmost respect. In 2015, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon mentioned her name in a reverential tone. “The world can thank a daughter of India, Dr Hansa Mehta, for replacing the phrase in the UDHR”.
Trained in Journalism and Sociology from the London School of Economics, Mehta was appointed as an Indian delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48, serving as Vice-Chair to Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of former US President Franklin D Roosevelt).
Sarojini Naidu introduced Mehta to Mahatma Gandhi in 1922, while he was lodged in Sabarmati Jail. The Mahatma brought Hansa into the epicentre of India’s freedom struggle. In 1928, Hansa married Jivraj Mehta, Gandhiji’s doctor, who became Gujarat’s first chief minister.
A great champion of the Uniform Civil Code, Mehta, as president in 1946, of the All India Women’s Conference, piloted the drafting of the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties, a powerful manifesto for gender equality. In a telling inclusion, the Charter called for removing any “restrictions to marriage on the ground of caste or community”.