The 26th of July marks a major milestone. After years of campaigning, it was on this day 161 years ago in 1856, that the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act was passed. This act legalised the marriage of Hindu widows in all territories ruled by the British East India Company and marked one of the great achievements of the Bengal Renaissance. The power behind this legislation and one of the leading lights of the ‘Bengal Awakening’ was educator, social reformer and writer Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay, better known as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar .
Young widows faced social stigmas for the rest of their lives.
In 19th century India, the condition of widows was pitiable. They had limited property rights and even fewer social rights. Often exploited by family members, many of these widows were even abandoned on the ghats of Varanasi. In many families, the widows had to wear white saris, forgo all comforts of life and live an isolated existence. Equally prevalent, especially in Bengal, was a practice of old men marrying pre-pubescent girls from poor families, who were unable to pay for their upkeep. These girls, when widowed young, spent the rest of their life facing social stigmas. The distressed condition of women had a deep impact on social reformers who realised the need for change, from deep within society.
Ishwar Chandra opened admission to all Hindus regardless of caste
Ishwar Chandra Bandyopadhyay was born into a poor Brahmin family living in Birsing village of the Midnapore district of West Bengal. He studied at the local village school after which he went on to study Sanskrit at the Sanskrit college in Kolkata. In 1839 he joined Fort William College as the head of the Sanskrit Department and eventually became its Principal. One of his first acts as Principal was to open admission to all Hindus regardless of caste. Till then, admissions were only given to Brahmin students.
An educator and reformer, his own life experiences propelled Ishwar Chandra to campaign for widow remarriage. In his childhood, he had witnessed the widowhood and subsequent plight of a close friend, after a short lived marriage. Another experience that left a mark was a visit to his professor’s house during his time as a student in the Sanskrit college. His teacher Sambhuchandra Vacaspati, an elderly Sanskrit scholar, had married a very young girl mainly to run his household, just a few months before he died.
The mid 19th century was a time of awakening across Bengal. Western educated progressive writers, thinkers and reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra were at the forefront of the campaign to address the ills of stifling orthodoxy that choked Indian society. Ishwar Chandra believed that change should come from within. In 1854, Ishwar Chandra started a campaign for widow remarriage by writing in Tattvabodhini Patrika, a Progressive journal. He quoted a shloka from Parashar Dharma Samhita , a set of Hindu laws for Kali Yuga, said to be written by Sage Parashar. The shloka states:
‘Gate Mrite Pravajite pleevacha patite patau
Panchasvapatsu narinam patiranyo bidhiyate’
Which means, women are at liberty to marry again, if their husband be not heard of, die, retire from the world, prove to be impotent or be an outcast.
Opposition was stiff: 30,000 signatures were sent to the Government opposing widow remarriage
In 1855 he filed a petition before the government for the passing of a law that would eradicate such draconian customs and permit widow remarriage. This gained him the support of the then Maharaja of Bardhaman, Mahtabchand Bahadur (1832-1879) as well as from reformers in different regions. But equally strong was the opposition from the conservatives. Several petitions with more than 30,000 signatures were sent to the Government opposing widow remarriage. Even eminent writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee criticised Ishwar Chandra’s move in his novel Bishabriksha. However, due to the sustained campaigning and public pressure, the Administration of the East India company eventually passed the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856.
While the legal act was passed, a challenge that Vidyasagar faced was to make widow remarriage a socially acceptable custom. The first widow remarriage was performed in Calcutta at Vidyasagar’s initiatives and expenses on December 7, 1856. The marriage was between a child widow Kalimati Devi who was only eleven and Siris Chandra Vidyaratna.
However, after the Revolt of 1857 and the shifting of the power from the English East India Company to the Crown, the English stopped interfering in Indian Personal Laws. Due to this, the bills against child marriage could not be passed for a very long time.
Meanwhile, disillusioned with the lack of public support, Ishwar Chandra spent the last 20 years of his life among the Santhal tribals at Karmatar (now in Jharkhand), where he opened the first school for Santhal girls. It is here that he passed away on 29 July 1891. It was only around 4 months before his death, in March 1891, that the Age of Consent Act, was passed which outlawed child marriage in British ruled territories. This was after years of relentless campaigning by Rukhmabai and other social reformers of Bombay.
Today, there is a ‘Vidyasagar Bridge’ in Kolkata, ‘Vidyasagar University’ in Midnapore and even a ‘Vidyasagar Hall’ in IIT Kharagpur. However, what needs to be truly remembered are his progressive ideas, which are equally relevant today as they were 161 years ago.
Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons