Today(July 22) is the 41st death anniversary of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy.
A distinguished , multifarious woman (Doctor,Freedom Fighter,Social reformer,Woman Activist and Orator) of her times, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy was a pioneer of many social reforms in our country, who had several FIRST to her credit.Though the age old parochial mindset of the society prevented her from attending regular school, her father tutored her at home and thus she completed her matriculation.Impressed by her brilliance,the then Maharaja of Pudukkottai intervened and passed an order exempting her- And she became the FIRST woman to be admitted to a Mens College.Later she joined Madras Medical College and completed her course in 1912 with several distinctions to her credit to become the FIRST woman Medical Graduate of our country.Deeply enkindled by her sister's death due to Cancer, she made up her mind to look into the the dreadful disease and pursued research in Royal Cancer Hospital, UK.In addition, she received training in Gynaecology there.
After returning to India, while practising medicine, Dr Reddy launched numerous measures for liberating the down-trodden women and others who were confined within four walls.Heeding to the request from the members of Women's Indian Association, she gave up her lucrative practice for contesting in the Madras Legislative Council where she was elected unanimously and she became the FIRST woman Legislator of British India.Sooner she was elected as the Deputy Chairperson of the council and she became the FIRST woman in the world to become the Vice-President of a Legislature.Dr Reddy was the founder-president of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) and became the FIRST alderwoman of the Madras Corporation.Perhaps, her election to the council can be referred to as a landmark in the social reform History of India.
Besides leading the agitation for Municipal and legislative franchise for women, she undertook free boarding and lodging for orphan girls and eventually established Avvai Home (1930) in Chennai. Even today, the Avvai Home provides vocational training, education and shelter to destitute girls and women.While serving as Legislator, Dr Reddy introduced a scheme of free education for girls upto Eighth Standard.Few years later, she pioneered steps to pass a Bill for the suppression of brothels and immoral trafficking in women and children .Simultaneously a separate home was opened to provide life to the children and women who were rescued form the brothels.Scholarships to Harijan girls was one of her laudable efforts.
Her initiative to pass a special resolution for the establishment of a separate hospital for women and children can be described as a relief for the plight of thousands of women who suffered without proper treatment and care.Moreover, Dr Reddy recommended a systematic medical inspection the students in all the schools and colleges run by municipalities as well as local bodies.
At the top of these achievements, she is known for her political activism in respect of social issues. First she rose in revolt against child marriage and the devadasi system. (Under this system, parents “married” off a daughter to a deity or a temple before she attained puberty. These girls became dancers and musicians and performed at temple festivals.)
In 1930, Muthulakshmi Reddy introduced in the Madras Legislative Council a Bill on the “prevention of the dedication of women to Hindu temples in the Presidency of Madras”. The Bill, which later became the Devadasi Abolition Act, declared the “pottukattu ceremony” in the precincts of Hindu temples or any other place of worship unlawful, gave legal sanction to devadasis to contract marriage, and prescribed a minimum punishment of five years’ imprisonment for those found guilty of aiding and abetting the devadasi system. The Bill had to wait for over 15 years to become an Act.
While progressive persons supported the abolition of the system, many conservative nationalists opposed it. While the then Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president C. Rajagopalachari, in the words of Muthulakshmi Reddy, “was not very much in favour of abolition of the pernicious practice”, another Congress veteran, S. Satyamurthy, argued that the devadasi system needed to be protected because it was essentially a part of the indigenous Hindu/national culture.
While addressing the Golden Jubilee Celebration of Madras Medical College in 1936, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy expressed her desire to start a separate hospital specialising in Cancer treatment.With the support of many like minded people, she accomplished her dreams in 1954 ( A twelve bed hospital)Today,that twelve bed hospital has become a renowned institution (Adayar Cancer Centre) offering treatment to nearly 80000 cancer patients every year.
She started a journal Stri Dharma. In 1952, she was requested to join the Legislative Council by Rajaji, but she declined it as she was 67 already.She was the only woman in the Hartog Education commitee and her contribution and work for the Hartog commitee is a great achievement.
Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy was a fearless and confident woman who never feared any party or Government.She achieved success in all the tasks she undertook.Throughout her life, she was hovered with challenges and the biggest challenge she faced was during the introduction of the Bill for Abolishing Devadasi System.Dr Reddy lead her life based on ideals and she adhered to her principles,values and mission till the end of her life.Her predilections for social reforms kept her away from politics and she was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1956.
Dr Reddy is an institution builder who has given life to thousands of real down trodden women and children.The more I read about her, the more I get inspired.History texts may not sing peans in her name.But her gifts to the society remains as an eternal beacon in the form of Adayar Cancer centre and Avvai home.Beyond any doubt, I would say she deserves a better and prominent place in the History chapters.
(The 3 paragraphs in italic font are copied from 'Frontline' issue dated May. 24-Jun. 06, 2008.)
(Written on July 22, 2009)