Mithan Lam (née Tata), and her mother Herabai Tata, the wife of industrialist Ardeshir Bejonji Tata (a member of Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Tata’s extended family), were on a holiday in the cool climes of Kashmir in 1911, when they met Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. She was a well-known feminist, suffragist and daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire. During this chance meeting, Mithan was barely a teenager. Nonetheless, the mother-daughter duo saw a small yellow-green badge that Sophia wore proclaiming “Votes for Women”.
At the time, Sophia was a prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom and told the mother-daughter duo about the movement. That chance meeting convinced Herabai and her daughter to actively participate in the movement that sought voting rights for Indian women. Also, it helped Herabai that her family nurtured very progressive socio-political leanings.
Mind you, the cause of female suffrage in India was a contentious issue among the Indian nationalists. In the male-dominated spaces of nationalist politics, the question often framed was what should they prioritise — enfranchisement for women or independence from the British? But Mithan saw no reason why the two demands couldn’t co-exist.
She felt that the concerns of men in offering voting rights to women was nothing more than “soap bubble material”. In 1918, her mother expressed the famous nationalist slogan, “Home Rule is our birthright”, but added a caveat, “We [women] say the right to vote is our birthright, and we want it.” In the following year, they had their chance to make the case for Indian women in British Parliament, which was considering political reforms for India.
This process in British Parliament would result in what we understand today as the Government of India Act, 1919 or the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms. These reforms were based on the report tabled inside the British Parliament in 1918 by Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu and Governor-General of India, Lord Chelmsford.
In the autumn of 1919, Mithan and Herabai were chosen by various women’s groups in then-Bombay to represent their interests in London.
Since Mithan, who at the time was 21, and Herabai, were given only four days notice before their ship sailed for the UK, they prepared their arguments on the ship. In London, they held two meetings with British MPs in the House of Commons and travelled across the country, seeking public support for their cause.
Their argument before the MPs was quite straightforward.
Any meaningful political reform that excluded half the population based on sex would never work. “Attempt to reform without the cooperation of women and you are simply raising a paper fabric on foundations of sand,” she argued.
Unfortunately, the British Parliament didn’t take their representation on board.
But what the British Parliament did was leave the decision of female suffrage at the discretion of provincial governments in India. Just two years later, in 1921, both the Bombay and Madras presidencies gave women the right to vote. Although it was Rajkot State which granted full universal suffrage in 1923.
The evidence Herabai and Mithan presented before British MPs, alongside the likes of Annie Beasent, played a starring role. Moreover, they had become celebrities in their own right with future British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and feminist icon, Millicent Fawcett, expressing their support for their campaign.
Shattering the Glass Ceiling
Mithan’s work for the cause of women’s suffrage in India eventually earned her a legal education, while she also pursued a master’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1920. She pursued her legal education at the famous Lincoln’s Inn in London.
Three years later in 1923, she became the first woman from Lincoln’s Inn and the first Indian woman to be called to the Bar in Britain. Later that year in December 1923, she sailed back to India. Her timing couldn’t have been any better following the passage of The Legal Practitioners (Women) Act 1923, which allowed Indian women to practice law.
In 1924, she became the first woman to practice law at the Bombay High Court.
In her autobiography titled ‘Autumn Leaves’, she recalls, “I felt like a new animal at the zoo, with folks peeping through doorways…As soon as my shadow crossed from the library to the common room, there would be an uncomfortable silence, making me feel even more self-conscious.”
Ironically enough, her first court appearance was a result of outright misogyny.
As this profile in the BBC written by Parinaz Madan and Dinyar Patel notes: According to a former Supreme Court judge, Lam was approached by a solicitor whose client had a watertight case. “He has such a good case that he cannot lose,” the solicitor claimed. “But he wants to inflict upon the opponent the humiliation of being defeated by a woman.”
Having said that, Mithan would go on to have a stellar legal career, which involved shaping gender-sensitive laws for marriage, divorce and inheritance, particularly in the Parsi community. She was associated with the All-India Women’s Conference. As its president, she wanted women to move away from “sewing and knitting classes” to greater active participation in industries, besides strongly advocating family planning.
At the dawn of Independence, she became the first woman to be appointed Sheriff of Bombay and chaired a committee to resettle and rehabilitate Partition refugees, particularly women and children, who found their way in the erstwhile Bombay State.
Speaking about her research into the life of Mithan Lam, Parinaz notes, “But her activism was not restricted to only women’s issues. She also spearheaded hunger eradication programs, anti-child labour advocacy and slum improvement projects in India. In 1928, she joined protests with the Bombay Youths League about a proposed school fee hike for secondary education in India…These protests may have had a hand in the government backing down on the fee hike attempt for colleges and schools eventually.”
As this Mumbai Mirror review of her autobiography notes “She [even] worked to improve conditions in the Matunga Labour Camp, and ran a medical van to distant villages near Thana. And these were just a few of her activities.”
By the time she passed away in 1981, she had mentored generations of Indian feminists, some of whom became lawyers themselves. She mentored them in the hope that more women working in the legal profession would inspire greater social and political reform.
While the legal profession is still heavily male-dominated, her work continues to resonate.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)