Hall of Fame : Durgabai Deshmukh - An institution

Hall of Fame : Durgabai Deshmukh - An institution

On the occasion of Durgabai Deshmukh's birthday on July 15, we recollect the memories of her indefatigable will and incessant work J Hanumath Sastri ...

On the occasion of Durgabai Deshmukh's birthday on July 15, we recollect the memories of her indefatigable will and incessant work

J Hanumath Sastri

durga bai1Touring through Andhra region in 1920, Gandhiji reached Rajahmundry. A girl came from Kakinada came with her parents to the city to attend a marriage of her relatives. That evening, a huge meeting was in progress at Rajahmundry. Gandhiji was addressing the huge crowd. The girl saw volunteers going round with tins and collecting money from the people there. The girl heard that the money being collected was for Gandhiji's Congress Fund. She might be about 12 years. She requested a person beside her to give her his Gandhi cap. He obliged her with the cap.

Holding that cap in hand, the girl went into the crowd requesting people to donate to Gandhi's fund. The cap was full in no time. Pushing through the gathering, the girl struggled to reach Gandhiji on the dias. It was her wish to hand over the collection personally the Mahatma. She shouted "Gentlemen! Let me go to hand over the money to Mahatma." Pleased with her patriotic fervour, an elderly man carried her on his shoulders and put her before Gandhiji.

"Bapu! Take this money", said the girl. With a pleased smile, he received the amount and said, "Give me the bangles on your hand." Happily and immediately, the girl handed over her two bangles saying. "Take the bangles, Bapu" Gandhiji laughed heartily and took them. That laugh had an indelible imprint on the tender heart. That laugh gave an inspiration to her life. That little girl was none other than Durga Bai who later played a significant role in Indian independence struggle..

At that young age itself, she ran a Hindi school for women and taught the language to women much older than her. One of the students was Durga Bai's mother Krishna Venamma. Durga Bai was born on July 15, 1909, at Rajahmundry. Her father was BVN Rama Rao. Durga Bai's grandmother and grandfather lived at Rajahmundry. Her grandfather, Manohara pantulu, was Superintendent of Police. He was deeply interested in social reform. He was a close associate and staunch supporter of Veeresalingam Pantulu.

Durga Bai was a brave and meritorious child. She won plaudits for her skill in playing veena and her proficiency in Hindi. In ornamenting the floor with artistic patterns using flour or limestone powder. The little Principal taught patriotic songs and poems to the elderly students in the Hindi school and helped them enact plays. Collecting funds to reach his target of Rs 1 crore, Gandhiji toured Andhra region in 1927. For a brief period, he stayed at Seethanagaram Ashramam near Rajahmundry. Gandhiji's brief stay sparked an idea in her.

In those days, there were troupes of women dancers and singers who lived deplorable lives and eked livelihood working in temples. On another plane Muslim women obliged to be slaves to mouldy conventions were being cut off from the world outside. Durga Bai was determined to show them all a way out and lead them to light. She decided to arrange a separate meeting for women and get Gandhiji to address them.

The brave young woman met the Congress leaders Bulusu Sambamurthy and Konda Venkatappiah and briefed them about her intention. Konda Venkatappiah remonstrated with Durga Bai. "What? You want to arrange a women's meeting? Should Gandhiji come to address it? What childish pranks can these be?"

Taking cue from him, Bulusu Sambamurthy said, "Well, if an amount of rupees Rs 5,000 were offered."

"Okay! we will offer the amount", rejoined the young woman. She went to the dancers and informed them about what had transpired. In a week, they collected the amount. Durga Bai went to the two congress leaders and said, "Here you are Sirs, there is the amount you had asked for. Kindly arrange the programme."

Durga Bai persuaded the Headmaster of Municipal High School and got his permission to arrange the meeting in the school ground. -

The gathering comprised only women dancers and Muslim women in veils. Commencing his speech, Gandhiji told Konda Venkatappiah, "Durga will translate my speech. Please sit down." Though supposed to speak only for five minutes, Gandhiji spoke one hour. He appealed to them to give money for the poor. No sooner had he said this than the woman gave their bangles and other ornaments on them.

durga bai deshmukGandhiji asked Durgabai to sit in his car. He praised the young woman. During Gandhiji's Andhra tour, she continued as his translator. Durga led the Salt Satyagraha in Madras. She was arrested and jailed. After serving a � year jail sentence, she came out. Durga was a woman with matchless determination. She privately did Matriculation from Benaras Hindu University. She passed Intermediate from the same university. She wanted to study BA (Hons) in the same university, but it was not possible. She came to Andhra University, Waltair, and met Dr CR Reddy, the Vice-Chancellor for a seat.

He said that he could not admit her as there was no hostel for women. She made ten women apply and met the Vice Chancellor with their applications. He agreed to admit her. Durga passed BA (hons) in first class. She took BL degree from Madras Law College. She earned a good name as a civil and criminal lawyer. While practising in Madras, she took up the construction of a building for Andhra Mahila Sabha. She collected thousands of rupees for Kasturba Fund and handed over to Gandhiji.

In recognition of her talents and efficiency she was elected as a member of the constituent assembly. She discussed fundamental rights and property rights of women with eminent constitutional experts like Amedkar, Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer and BN Rao, and got her views adumbrated in the constitution. After 1950, Durga Bai entered the arena of social service. Jawaharlal Nehru gave her a cheque for Rs 25,000 and entrusted her with the duty or supervising the supplementation of schemes for the prevention of famine in Rayalaseema.

In 1952, the Government appointed her a Member of the planning commission. From 1953, for ten years she served as the Chairman of Central Social Welfare Board. It is during this period that she married a great intellectual Dr Chintamani Deshmukh, then Minister of Finance in the Centre. Utter simplicity marked the marriage celebration. Jawaharlal Nehru and Acharya Kripalani attended the marriage.

Durga Bai Deshmukh worked indefatigably as the President of Central Social welfare Department . In 1957, Dr Deshmukh resigned as Finance Minister. Then he served as a Chairman of University Grants Commission for three years on a nominal salary of one rupee per month. During this period Dr Deshmukh was invited to be the Director, International Monetary Fund. Prime Minister Nehru opined that this would be a cause of pride for India. The salary was $30,000 per annum with all perks. Dr Deshmukh asked his wife Durga Bai for her advice. Durga Bai quipped, "Why so much money for us? Let's serve the people of our country. No need of that post. That ideal couple happily gave up such a big and influential post.

In 1967, Deshmukh couple left Delhi and settled in Hyderabad. They named their house "Rachana". The activities of Andhra Mahila Sabha spread fast. With the donations Durga Bai collected money for institutions like nursing home, orthopadeic centre, shishu vihar, hostel for nurses and many hospital buildings came up. She was the founder of 23 institutions.

The Deshmukh couple gave away all their property as a donation for setting up service institutions. Their 26-year married life became transformed into a saga of dedicated service. Durgabai was a gem of a woman embodying in herself ceaseless diligence. Dedication, perseverance, honesty and all such great virtues.In 1971, Government of India honoured her with Nehru Literary Award for her dedicated efforts for the spread of adult education.

In 1975, on January 26,Government of India honoured her with the award of Padma Bhushan. As a lawyer, she defended in the court of law all the cases of Zamindars and won. She donated to Andhra Mahila Sabha the entire fees the clients paid. She was indeed an embodiment of service and sacrifice.

Khasa Subba Rao, a pre-eminent and judicious journalist, wrote in the journal "Swatantra" thus: Durga Bai is an indefatigable and incessant worker. She is a leader who can transform her followers into untiring and enthusiastic persons dedicated to service. She knows no fear of defeat in life. Even in the Sahara Desert, she can find some service activity to pursue." Durga Bai was not a mere individual. She was a host of institutions. This towering personality passed away on May 9, 1981.

Indira Gandhi paid her tributes to Durga Bai thus: "Durga Bai is Mother of Social Service".

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