Woman Suffrage in Bengal (1921–1925): The ‘Great Game’ Between the Imperialists and the Theosophists
From: Indian Historical Review
In September 1921, the Bengal Legislative Council rejected the Woman Suffrage Bill, in contrast to other provinces in India that had passed it with ease. The defeat was attributed to a conservative opposition comprising Hindu and Muslim aristocrats who influenced British legislators to vote against the bill. However, this explanation lacks depth and fails to consider the broader political context.
Barbara Southard's research in the 1990s focused on the social barriers obstructing Indian women's entry into legislatures. She argued that the Bengal Council's composition, with a mix of progressive Brahmos and conservative elements, led to the bill's defeat. However, her methodology and failure to consider other factors raise questions about her conclusions.
A more recent revisionist approach contextualizes the suffragist movement in India within the global restructuring of the British Empire during the inter-War period. The British administration, suspicious of theosophists' activities, associated Indian suffragists with Russian spies and agent provocateurs, leading to opposition to the suffrage movement.
The debate over the Woman Suffrage Bill in different provinces highlighted the complex political dynamics. Madras and Bombay passed the bill, while Bengal faced opposition. The Bengal Governor and British legislators maintained a studied silence and voted against the bill to avoid direct confrontation with suffragists, leaving Indian legislators to act as the primary opponents.
The association of woman suffrage with communism also played a role in the opposition, especially by Hindu and Muslim aristocrats who equated feminism with communist ideas. Leninist rhetoric influenced young leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, but the conservative landed aristocracy in the 1920s remained unimpressed.
Dr. A. Suhrawardy's speech sheds light on the orchestrated opposition to the bill, indicating the involvement of the imperialist Curzonian camp. He emphasized that the Bengal legislators were not the opponents but the Governor himself, who could grant their demands with a "stroke of the pen." The Rajas of Chakdighi, known for their atrocities on tenants, were also involved in influencing votes against the bill.
In Bengal, Margaret Cousins played a crucial role in organizing the Bangiya Nari Samaj (BNS) to campaign for Indian woman suffrage. While women began voting in Bengal municipal elections by 1923 due to Sir Surendranath Banerjea's efforts, suffrage rights were not granted until 1925.
In 1925, Lord Lytton, the Second Earl of Lytton and Governor of Bengal, succeeded the Earl of Ronaldshay, whose stance on woman suffrage was opposed to the suffragist movement. Interestingly, Lord Lytton's two sisters, Lady Constance Lytton and Lady Emily Lutyens, were both staunch suffragists, and Lady Emily would play a significant role in encouraging Indian women activists to organize anti-British protests. Lord Lytton himself was sympathetic to suffragists and theosophists, welcoming pro-suffragist figures like Sir Surendranath Banerjea at his Governor's Summer House.
The passage of the Woman Suffrage Bill in Bengal was facilitated by Lord Lytton's support, highlighting the cliques and politics of the British Raj. The bill was introduced following a deputation demanding woman suffrage, a tactic used previously during the Morley Minto Reforms to impose separate electorates, and it gained official support for its passage.
The appointment of Lord Lytton as Governor of Bengal can be understood as a diplomatic move amidst international political bargaining between Britain and Soviet Russia in the post-World War I era. Britain, seeking an understanding with the powerful global rivals outside the League of Nations, namely the USA and USSR, may have aimed to appease Soviet geopolitical ambitions in India and Southeast Asia.
British Intelligence, previously active in suppressing communist activities in Bengal, toned down its efforts due to a shortage of manpower and a perceived relaxation of imperial control. This leniency resulted in the British authorities' lethargy in suppressing the Calcutta riots of 1926, damaging British prestige.
The appointment of Mohammed Ali Jinnah to the Muddiman Committee in 1924 was another outcome influenced by the Soviet theosophist camp. Jinnah, a lifelong supporter of woman suffrage and a political disciple of Dadabhai Naoroji, played a crucial role in demanding and securing women's political emancipation.
Regarding the claim of 'solid Muslim opposition' to woman suffrage in Bengal, evidence suggests otherwise. Fazlul Haq, a prominent Muslim leader, strongly supported the Woman Suffrage Bill and refuted arguments against it. Furthermore, Muslim legislators in other provinces, including the United Provinces, expressed support for woman suffrage, citing examples like Kemal Ataturk to advocate for progressive change.
The Suhrawardy family's behavior, who were both Western-educated and supportive of women's education, remained ambiguous on the issue of woman suffrage, raising suspicions of arm-twisting by the British authorities. Similarly, landholders and aristocrats, representing a special constituency, held considerable power within the Legislative Councils due to high property qualifications. They were supported by the colonial administration and used as a source of capital for women's education institutions.
In conclusion, the opposition to the Woman Suffrage Bill in Bengal was shaped by a combination of political, social, and geopolitical factors. The suspicion of theosophists being Russian agents, association with communism, and the orchestrated opposition by British and Indian aristocrats all contributed to the bill's defeat. Understanding the broader political context and the British Empire's global dynamics is essential to grasp the complexities of the suffragist movement in colonial India.