Saturday, June 11, 2005

Durgabai Desmukh

Born in Rajahmundry on July 15, 1909, Durgabai could not pursue higher education when she was young because of the prevailing social conditions. She could learn only Telugu and Hindi. While she herself was a learner, she began teaching some girls what she was learning. She called her school `Balika pathashala.' This was the seed of AMS. Clearly signs of future leadership qualities were glaringly visible at that young age. She learnt English in her late 20s and went on to become a lawyer. One was never, too, old to learn was her motto. In the early 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi addressed a public meeting in Kakinada.

Durgabai, then 14, was a volunteer at that meeting. She requested him to address women separately because some women, including Muslims, could not attend. He obliged her. Her interest in the freedom movement began with that.

As a volunteer she joined Mahatma, Rajendra Prasad, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Motilal Nehru, Sardar Patel and other stalwarts travelling all over the country to raise popular consciousness about the freedom movement.

Madras, 1930. Memories are strill green and images vivid even after 72 years. As young girls, we watched it from the balcony - Durgabai leading the salt satyagraha rally holding a big national flag to Triplicane beach. As a political prisoner, she sacrificed personal comfort to stay with ordinary criminals in `C' class prison. She triggered our interest in freedom movement and began reading newspapers.

The AMS was registered under the Society Act. Rules insisted that seven members of the institution sign the concerned papers. I happened to be one of them. Those times, institutions looked for support to the rich and the philanthropic, not the Government. The Rani of Mirzapur gifted the site on which the main buildings of AMS in Madras stand today. The Pithapuram Maharani helped set up the Chinnamba Vidyalaya and the Rani of Bobbili contributed for the Mallama Devi Mahila Mandir, a hostel for women. Many others followed suit in Madras, Hyderabad etc.

Durgabai was a frank person and a good friend. She used to consult board members in AMS matters. Things always moved fast. The AMS nursing home in Madras was inaugurated in 1952, fulfilling a long-felt need. Citizens were happy. Nursing courses were introduced to fulfil another necessity.

Durgabai later became a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Planning Commission. The Government accepted her proposal to set up social welfare boards supported by Central grants. She became first chairman of the Central Board which she, with her practical knowledge of the field and personal experience, managed successfully for 10 years.

The Godavari originates in the Sahyadri hills as a small stream. Gathering tributaries along, it becomes a massive river making the land fertile. Similarly Durgabai's brain child AMS, inspired by lofty ideals, began with the teaching of a few girls. In the same way, under Durgabai's stewardship, the AMS became a symbol of women's service.

Durgabai Deshmukh was one of the great women of the country. She will be remembered for her constructive social work, for the innovative programmes introduced and the institution she built and nurtured.

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