by Rahila Gupta

There has been widespread disappointment that the UN missed a trick in not electing a woman as its new secretary general. Given the scandals that have dogged it, general scepticism about its relevance today, and its inefficacy in the face of the many crises facing the world, perhaps it would have been a poisoned chalice.

However in a little known area of UN history, women did get an opportunity to shine at the helm and shine they did. As far back as 1953, the UN appointed Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (VLP), who was not only a woman but a woman from the ‘Third World’ at that – the newly independent country of India. This was in the days when the presidency mattered. The loss of stature of the President is partly to do with the gradual decline in importance of the General Assembly of the UN, according to historian Manu Bhagavan, which has become a ‘forum for grandstanding’ rather than a place for real negotiations of important matters and co-equal to the Security Council as it was in the early days. When the newly independent colonies became members of an expanded UN, the world powers saw to it that real power migrated to the Security Council.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

The fact that Madam Pandit, as she was popularly known, had a substantial media profile also suggests that the President’s role was more important than it is today. For who knows the name of the President of the UN today? In an archival filmed interview, VLP lays out her agenda as President of the UN: peace in Korea; racial conflict (she wouldn’t be drawn on whether she was referring to South Africa); and economic issues and aid. Interestingly, even in 1953, the interviewer wondered if people were justified in becoming pessimistic about the UN as an instrument of peace. VLP expressed her ‘great faith in the UN… It has done a great deal towards keeping peace in the world’, giving the unfortunate example of ‘Palestine where the fighting has stopped’ and the rather more successful example of the Korean armistice.

The story of how India came to be considered for the presidency of the UN is told by Bhagavan in India and the Quest for One World: The Peacemakers. Under Nehru and his policy of non-alignment with either of the superpowers in the Cold War, India won the respect of both as well as the Commonwealth countries, because it emerged as an ‘honest broker’ in negotiating an armistice in the ongoing Korean War. The story of how Madam Pandit got the job, as related by her, is simply, ‘I was just told (by my government) to pack up my bags and come here’.

This humility belies her achievements: she was the first woman Cabinet minister under partial self-government in British India; the first woman ambassador to Moscow and Washington and the first Indian woman to lead a delegation to the UN. She was well-known in the circles that mattered, she was, ‘charming when she wishes’ and let’s not forget, says Bhagavan, that ‘she knew how to throw a good party’, an achievement that is sometimes underrated. She forged excellent relations with everyone, even the British who had been wary of her anti-colonial speeches prior to Indian independence in 1947 and blocked her US visa when she planned to travel there in 1944. Later, as India’s ambassador to Britain, Pandit recalled her first meeting with Churchill who cautioned her against ‘putting ideas in women’s heads…Just because I have accepted you doesn’t mean that my views on women have changed’. He didn’t want women in high places, they should be social ornaments, is how she explained it.

Bhagavan, who is working on a forthcoming biography, Woman of the World: Madam Pandit, India, and the Global Stage, explains enthusiastically how VLP shed the halo of Nehru, her brother and PM of India, and Mahatma Gandhi and earned her own halo. Here was a woman with no formal education (she was taught by governesses at home) facing men trained in the debating halls of Eton and Oxbridge. Her grasp of technical legal arguments and her ability to demolish an opponent in debate were legendary. Bhagavan recounts the turning point in her international stature when she appeared on a popular radio programme in the US, ‘Town Meeting of the Air’ in which she annihilated Robert Boothby, British Conservative MP at the time, on the question of whether empires are good for peace. The audience started off undecided but ended up greeting every statement of hers with a thunderous applause.

At the founding conference of the UN in 1945, VLP battled it out with the British delegation who, under instructions from Churchill, were keen to ensure that the UN charter was worded in such a way that colonialism could continue unhindered: whatever lofty principles on world peace, fundamental freedoms, and human rights for all may have been enunciated, Article 2 (7) states ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’. In other words, colonial territories were to be excluded from UN scrutiny. To her dismay, VLP lost the argument; it would be the basis of the first challenge she would face when she led the Indian team to the UN in 1946 and was instructed to fight South Africa’s new law, the Asian Land Tenure Act, also known as the Ghetto Act which deprived people of Indian descent of a number of rights, including the restriction of ownership and occupation of land to certain clearly defined areas of towns. In its defence, South Africa used Article 2(7) on non-interference in its domestic jurisdiction to get the UN off its back.

The Indian team that VLP headed gave long legal reasons as to why Article 2(7) should be reinterpreted. VLP decided that legalistic arguments were too complicated to sway the Assembly and made a landmark speech arguing that this clause did not and should not protect states from internal human rights abuses. She reminded the General Assembly that ‘We are the trustees of the future, architects of the new world and it’s only on the foundation of justice that we can erect a new world order. Mine is an appeal to the conscience, the conscience of the world which this assembly is’. She won the vote by a two-thirds majority. This victory was significant – not only did it authorise the UN to condemn South Africa for its actions but it became the justification for interventionism and for the UN to uphold human rights in its member states. A year later, in 1947, Assistant Secretary-General for Social Affairs Henri Laugier said in his opening remarks to the Human Rights Commission: ‘The action taken in the case of South Africa established a precedent of fundamental significance in the field of international action…[for] out of these debates the general impression had risen up that no violation of human rights should be covered up by the principle of state sovereignty.’ With this kind of role on the world stage, it is no wonder that VLP slipped so easily into the mantle of UN president in 1953.

What would it have been like for a woman operating in a man’s world in the middle of the twentieth century? I caught up with Gita Sahgal, granddaughter of VLP, to get a personal perspective on the question. VLP undoubtedly came from an illustrious, privileged background – the Nehrus – but, for Gita, the key point is that it was a liberal family. VLP’s father had fought caste prejudice and had caused outrage by bucking religious superstition. At the age of 17, VLP ran away briefly with a Muslim lover, for which she might well have paid with her life in a more orthodox set-up. Gita believes that the movement for Indian independence also acted as ‘a motor force propelling women into the public space’. She faced police batons and at least three spells in jail in British India. ‘Pandit was a product of the struggle between imperialism and nationalism, in which both sides sought legitimacy through their claim to emancipate Indian women‘, says Rosalind Parr on her Dangerous women website. VLP was only 44 when her husband died intestate, which meant that financial reasons also necessitated her continued presence in public life. As a widow with three daughters and no male heir, she was ‘legitimately’ deprived of an inheritance by her in laws, a clause in the Hindu law that was overturned by Nehru in his first term of office.

Despite her extraordinary achievements, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was written out of history, occupying only secondary status as Nehru’s sister. Some things never change.

This article was comissioned for our academic experimental space  and was edited by Xavia Warren. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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Rahila Gupta is a writer and journalist. Her last book, Enslaved: The New British Slavery, explores the role of immigration controls in enslaving people with no formal status here. @RahilaG 

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