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Amrit Kaur: Woman of the Year

Amrit Kaur. Special plane from Canada on October 17, 1947. presenting the penicillin to the Hon'ble Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Health Minister Government of India at eh Paam aerodrome. Dr. Jivraj Mehta, Director General of Health Services appears on the left and standing on the right is sardar Balwant Singh Puri of the Indian Red Cross.
Amrit Kaur. Image credit: Photo Division, Govt. of India / Public domain (1947)

Indian social activist Amrit Kaur has been named ‘Woman of the Year’ by Time magazine for 1947 – the year she became the first person to assume charge of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. 

Ahead of International Women’s Day, observed on Sunday, Time magazine unveiled its pick for ‘Woman of the Year’ for the past century. The magazine observed that “for 72 years, Time named a Man of the Year. With a few exceptions, it was almost always a man, usually a President or a Prime Minister or perhaps a titan of industry. Throughout history, these are the kinds of men who have wielded influence over the world.”

With its selection of 100 Women of the Year – including the eleven women who the publication has named Person of the Year since the title was changed in 1999 – Time is “spotlighting influential women who were often overshadowed. This includes women who occupied positions from which the men were often chosen, like world leaders…but far more who found their influence through activism or culture.” 

Amrit Kaur fits into both categories. She played the role of both leader and activist, both when she was ingrained with the Indian independence movement and when she helmed for ten years the office now held by Dr Harsh Vardhan. 

“In 1918, a young princess returned to India from studying at Oxford and became fascinated by Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings,” Naina Bajekal writes in Time. “Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, born into the royal family of Kapurthala and educated in Edwardian England, decided her life’s mission was to help India break free from its colonial ties and oppressive societal norms. Before long, she was tackling social issues, pushing for women’s education and the right to vote and to divorce, and speaking out against child marriage. She became a secretary to Gandhi in 1930.”

Celebrating the 130th anniversary of Amrit Kaur’s birth in February, The Print quoted what Gandhi wrote to Kaur as he sought to solicit further female involvement of women in the movement. “I am now in search of a woman who would realise her mission,” he wrote. “Are you that woman, will you be one?”

Mahatma Gandhi. Amrit Kaur served as the Mahatma’s secretary for seventeen years.

Amrit Kaur heeded the call issued to her by Gandhi, by whose side she served as secretary for almost seventeen years. This followed a youth marked by high educational attainment overseas, which in turn acted as a prelude for her social activism – particularly in the arena of women’s issues – upon returning to India following her studies. As The Print highlights, Amrit Kaur was a pivotal figure in the march for women’s rights in India – taking a stand against “social evils like the purdah system, child marriage and the devadasi system” as well as being involved in the 1927 founding of the All India Women’s Conference. 

The commitment to social activism and Indian independence belied the affluence of her upbringing. The Indian Express writes that “born in a princely family in India and schooled in foremost institutions of England, Amrit Kaur carried within her the grandeur of both worlds.” Yet, in the words of independence activist Aruna Asaf Ali, “Rajkumari Amrit Kaur belonged to a generation of pioneers. They belonged to well-to-do homes but gave up on their affluent and sheltered lives and flocked to Gandhiji’s banner when he called women to join the national liberation struggle.”

Indian independence was granted in 1947. In the aftermath, inaugural Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru appointed Amrit Kaur Minister of Health in the first Union Cabinet. Listing her achievements, Bajekal writes in Time: “she founded the Indian Council for Child Welfare; helped establish the country’s top hospital and medical college; and campaigned to prevent malaria, likely saving hundreds of thousands of lives.” 

In its obituary of Kaur, The New York Times highlighted the malaria campaign, writing “at the height of the campaign, in 1955, it was estimated that 400,000 Indians who otherwise would have died had been saved by mitigation of malaria in their districts.” In addition to the Health Ministry, Kaur held numerous portfolios including the presidency of the Indian Leprosy Association and the Indian Tuberculosis Association; the vice presidency of the International Red Cross Society; was chief commissioner of St. John’s Ambulance Brigade of India; led India’s delegation to the World Health Organization (WHO) for four years; and occupied the presidency of the WHO Assembly in 1950. 

Amrit Kaur died on February 6, 1964 at the age of 75. Her legacy in India endures, not least at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences she helped to establish but also in the causes championed, the lives saved and the voices lifted through her advocacy and her work in government. Upon her death, The New York Times obituary quoted the citation she received upon being awarded an honorary degree from Princeton University in the United States – one also quoted in the Time profile – which read

“A Princess in her nation’s service. she has gone among the poor and the weak, the mothers and the children, the sick and the starving, not only with messages of hope and faith but also with substantial and highly effective programs of action.”

Bajekal concludes Kaur’s profile in Time by writing “in leaving her life of luxury, Kaur not only helped build lasting democratic institutions, she also inspired generations to fight for the marginalised.” As many in India – rightfully – used International Women’s Day to tout the voices of the women pioneering in multiple fields and fighting for many just causes, it is as important that voices from history – like that of Amrit Kaur – not be forgotten. 

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