Rajkumari Bibiji Amrit Kaur Ahluwalia was an Indian activist and politician. She was appointed the first health minister of India in 1947 and remained in the office until 1957.
Amrit Kaur Ji also held the charge of Sports Minister and Urban Development Minister. She played a significant role in setting up the National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
During her tenure, she led several health care reforms in India. Amrit Kaur is remembered for her advocacy of women’s rights. Kaur was a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly, the body that framed the Constitution of India.
Life of Amrit Kaur
Amrit Kaur was born on 2 February 1887 in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (then United Provinces), India. Her father Raja ‘Sir’ Harman Singh Ahluwalia was the younger son of the Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Raja of Kapurthala.
Following a conflict over succession to the throne, Harman Singh left Kapurthala. He became the manager of an estate in the former princely state of Oudh.
Later, he converted to Christianity on the insistence of Golakhnath Chatterjee, a missionary from Bengal. Singh married Chatterjee’s daughter, Priscilla. They had ten children and Amrit Kaur was the youngest.
Kaur was raised as a Protestant Christian. She had her early education in Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset, England. She had her college education at Oxford University. In 1918, she returned to India after completing her education in India.
Kaur died on 6 February 1964 in New Delhi. She was cremated following Sikh custom. She never married and had no children.
Participation in India’s Independence Movement
After Kaur returned to India, she became interested in the Indian Independence Movement. Her father had shared a close association with Indian National Congress leaders including Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
Work as Mahatma Gandhi’s Secretary
Amrit Kaur was drawn to the principles and vision of Mahatma Gandhi, whom she met in Bombay in 1919.
She worked as Gandhi’s secretary for 16 years. Their correspondence was subsequently published as a volume of letters titled ‘Letter to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’.
Effect of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre on Amrit Kaur
In 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre occurred, in which more than 400 peaceful protestors in Amritsar, Punjab, was shot by British forces.
This incident changed the life of Amrit Kaur. She became a strong critic of British rule in India.
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Active participation in the Independence Movement
She then joined the Congress and began active participation in India’s independence movement. She also focused on social reforms.
In 1937, she went on a mission of goodwill to Bannu (present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), as a representative of the Indian National Congress. The British Raj authorities charged her with sedition and imprisoned her.
The British authorities appointed her as a member of the Advisory Board of Education, but she resigned from the position following her involvement with the Quit India Movement in 1942. She was imprisoned by the authorities for her actions during the time.
Kaur referred to the cause of universal voice and testified before the Lothian Committee on Indian Suffrage and Constitutional Reforms and the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament on Indian Constitutional Reforms.
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Appointed at important positions
Kaur served as the President of the All India Women’s Education Fund Association. She was a member of the Executive Committee of Lady Irwin College, New Delhi.
Kaur was sent as a member of the Indian delegation to the UNESCO conferences in London(1945) and Paris(1946). She also served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the All India Spinners Association.
Amrit Kaur and Social Reforms
Amrit Kaur was strongly against the practice of Purdah and child marriage. She also campaigned to abolish the Devadasi system in India.
In 1927, Kaur co-founded the All India Women’s Conference. Later, she was appointed its secretary in 1930 and president in 1933.
In 1930, she was imprisoned by the British authorities for her participation in the Dandi March, led by Mahatama Gandhi. In 1934, Kaur went to live at Gandhi’s ashram. She adopted a modest lifestyle despite her noble background.
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Amrit Kaur as a member of the Constituent Assembly
Kaur was elected to the Indian Constituent Assembly from the United Provinces(now Uttar Pradesh). Indian Constituent Assembly was the government body assigned to design the Constitution of India.
She was also a member of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights and Sub-Committee on Minorities.
As a member of the Constituent Assembly, she supported the proposal for a Uniform Civil Code in India.
Kaur also advocated universal suffrage, opposed affirmative action for women, and debated language relating to the protection of religious rights.
Amrit Kaur – the First Health Minister of India
After India’s Independence, Amrit Kaur became part of Jawaharlal Nehru‘s first Cabinet. She was the first woman to hold Cabinet rank. She was assigned to the Ministry of Health.
Kaur was elected as the president of the World Health Assembly. She led a major campaign to fight the spread of Malaria.
Kaur led the campaign intending to eradicate Tuberculosis. She was behind the largest B.C.G. Vaccination program in the world.
She played a significant role in the establishment of the All India Institute of Medical Science(AIIMS), New Delhi. She became its first president. In 1956, Amrit Kaur introduced a bill for the establishment of AIIMS, on the recommendation of the Government of India based on a national health survey. She raised funds for the establishment of AIIMS, obtaining aid from New Zealand, Australia, West Germany, Sweden, and the United States.
Kaur and one of her brothers donated their ancestral property and house in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh to serve as a holiday home for the staff and nurses of the Institute.
She also played a significant role in founding the Indian Council of Child Welfare.
Amrit Kaur served as the Chairperson of the Indian Red Cross Society for fourteen years. Under her leadership, the Indian Red Cross did several pioneering works in the hinterlands of India.
She served on the boards of government bodies aimed at fighting tuberculosis and leprosy. She started the Amrit Kaur College of Nursing and the National Sports Club of India.
From 1957 till her death in 1964, she was a member of the Rajya Sabha. Between 1958 and 1963, Kaur was the president of the All India Motor Transport Congress, Delhi.
Till her death, she headed the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Tuberculosis Association of India, and St. John Ambulance Corps.
She was also awarded the Renee Sand Memorial Award and was named Time magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1947.
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