The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

Civil & Military Gazette--Front Page Editorial on "Infant Marriage" (August 5, 1886)

At last it appears likely that some attempt will be made to deal with the subject of infant marriage in India. Mr. Malabari’s efforts have at any rate elicited a rough draft of a Bill to that end from a high official in Bombay. Why there should be this long hesitation, it is difficult to understand. The matter is at least no harder to deal with than was Suttee; and it is certainly no less important. The long living death of the Hindu widow can hardly be considered really less horrible than the short agony which one she accepted to avoid this. Indeed, until the remedy be applied to the first, the legislation which prevented the last can but be regarded as a half measure—perhaps a cruel kindness. When Suttee was abolished, the Indian mind was not nearly so well prepared to accept the measure, as it is now to accept its complement. Education has now done its work; and throughout India the hearts of fathers and mothers are in revolt against a social law which condemns their daughters to life-long misery. They are in revolt, but custom is too hard for them; the popular feeling needs guidance and authoritative direction. It is not a single social reformer like Mr. Malabari, no a hundred such, who can carry this point in the teeth of tyrannical social custom. For a people so timid, so habituated to the bondage of caste prejudice, as those of India, the order of the Government is absolutely requisite to enable them to throw off the habit of centuries. With that to appeal to, they are free; without that, they must remain under the yoke. No active interference is needed as in the case of Suttee. All that is wanted is the proclamation of the fact, that the law will recognize no marriage contract between parties who are not adult. Then no legal remedy will exist for breach of contract of marriage, except against one of the parties themselves; and then at one blow will disappear the whole shameful system of daughter selling, and of recovery through our courts of their price. The result will be that betrothal and marriage will become one ceremony, for no native of India will care to postpone the marriage of an adult betrothed daughter; nor will he, or the bridegroom’s father, desire a double ceremony and a double expense. Thus virgin widows will disappear; and moreover, matron widows will be fewer as years go on. The young widow who has once married of her own choice and free will will do so again, if sought, sooner than remain in contumely among her late husband’s relatives. At any rate, the custom which prevents her from doing so will have received its death blow; that custom which regards her as a mere chattel at the disposal of her male relatives, and incapable of exercising a choice or a will of her own.