Enforced Widowhood (B.M. Malabari 1884)
Hindu parents deplore no misfortune so much as they deplore the widowhood of a young daughter. But it is a common misfortune. And its consequences are generally so inevitable, that exposure is a rare occurrence. When every village almost may be covering its shame, or may be in daily dread of having to do so, connivance is the onlv hope of the community. Direct evidence being nearly impossible in a suspected case, the policeman finds free scope for the exercise of mercy or cupidity. Yet, how many cases of infanticide do we hear of every month? And these are only exceptional cases that come to be known. The unknown ones may be twenty times more. There is a regular system of freemasonry maintained for the purpose—the removal of the widow in trouble on visits to distant relations or on pilgrimage—which baffles detection. When all attempts fail, the mother's health is ruined for life, or she dies with the babe unborn.
It is sometimes urged that enforced widowhood must be accepted as a necessary evil. If so, the question arises—is Hindu Society reconciled to the evil? No; Society is and has long been in revolt against this inhuman custom. Educated young men, and many of the orthodox old, are anxious to be saved from its demoralising effect, if for no higher purpose, at least for their own interest. Why don't they, then, shake off the evil? Because the Hindu is hard to move. Caste exercises overpowering influence. Caste is more potent in its secret persecution than was the Inquisition of Spain. Not only are the offending couple excommunicated, but their relations and friends too may become outcasts henceforth and for ever (unless they can afford to buy readmission) in life and in death. They are shunned like a moral plague. No European can have an idea of the operation of this dread award : it is more bitter than the bitterness of death.
Such are the results virtually of the abolition of Suttee by the British Government. Had Mountstuart Elphinstone and Lord William Bentinck anticipated them, they would have paused before enforcing the law without its legitimate corollary. For, whereas Suttee was one single act of martyrdom or heroism, as the victim conceived it, and an act of religious merit popularly believed, the life which caste imposes on an unwilling widow is a perpetual agony, a burning to death by slow fire, without any chastening or elevating effect on the sufferer or any moral advantage to the community at large by way of compensation.
Now, my contention is, has caste the power to punish an act which the State recognises as legal and natural, and for which, in fact, the State has presumably rescued the widow from the flames ? The plea as to re-marriage of all widows being forbidden by the Shastras has long been known to be untenable. The only rational objection that is urged against remarriage is based on the theory of over-population. But all remarried couples do not necessarily transgress the laws of population. Caste has no objection to the widower marrying again, as often as he likes, and more women than one at a time if he so wishes: lts cold-blooded philosophy is reserved only for the woman who has lost her husband, that is her all in life. Here, then, is a conflict between State and Caste. Who is stronger?
It has often been asked—why does not the remarried widow or her friend seek the protection of the Law against her persecutor ? My answer is a simple question—why at all do you allow the oppressor to oppress the weak and the innocent? Government save the widow from compulsory immolation. Henceforth the widow becomes a ward of the State, and has the power, if she have the will, to enter into another honourable contract. And yet, caste condemns her to an unnatural, if not an ignoble course of life, may be for its own purposes, and tramples upon her finer instincts to do this?
We are again told that the custom has a purely religious bearing. No such thing. It is more a freak of the priestly class and of a set of social monopolists. At any rate, this is what it has come to. And how many bad customs and usages have already been put down which were all alleged to have had their origin in religion? Suttee, infanticide, the rolling of the Juggernaut Car: the suppression of these raised a howl of indignation at the time. Government were threatened with mutinies and rebellions. What became of those hostile national demonstrations ? By all means, let us respect and preserve all that is good in a custom. But the British Government belie their cherished traditions in putting up with what is harmful simply because it is sanctioned by that custom.
Now, I am not one of those who are for violent interference by the State or for abrupt reforms from amongst the people themselves. We must move with the times, carrying the people with us. And I say that in this matter the people are ready to go a step further. Our progress, since the abolition of Suttee, has not been quite perceptible. But still I hold that a move forward has been maintained all along the line. There have been a number of remarriages in Bengal, Madras, Bombay, and elsewhere, in spite of the stringent prohibition of caste. But this progress has been far too slow. And there are so many obstacles in the way, that those who have watched the movement closely apprehend a re-action if the people are left much longer to struggle on by themselves. Karsandas Mulji, our foremost social reformer on this side, died broken-hearted under implacable persecution. Happily we have Societies and Associations working in aid of this particular reform. The widow's cause has enlisted the sympathy of notable men, official and non-official, European and Native, who think it cruel to take full cognisanee ot the errors and irregularities incidental to enforced widowhood. All that now seems to be needed is the interposition of authority to a small extent. Let Government rule :—
(I.) That no Hindu girl, who has lost her husband or her betrothed, if she is a minor, shall be condemned to life-long widowhood against her will.
Here I need not be reminded of Act XV of 1856. It is a fairly adequate provision in itself. But what has it done for the re-married widow and her friends in the course of the last 28 years? Practically it has remained a dead letter. I ask for little more than that the existing provision be made known to the victims and enforced in their favour by all possible means. That the secret opposition of caste be met by some indirect encouragement to them from the Government. Show your dissatisfaction at the prevailing state of affairs and your anxiety to do something on proper representations being made. At present there is a struggle between caste and the code. It is an unseemly encounter. The practical impunity—the feeling that Government cannot and will not interfere— encourages the aggressors quite as much as it discourages the aggrieved seeking redress from the tyranny of caste.
(II.) That arrangements may be made, in suspected cases, to ascertain whether a widow has adopted perpetual seclusion voluntarily or whether it has been forced upon her.
(III.) That every widow, of whatever age, shall have the right to complain to the authorities of social ill-usage (over and above excommunication), and that proper facilities shall be afforded her for the purpose, such as the gratuitous service of counsel, exemption from stamp duty, attendance at Court, and so on.
(IV.) That the priest has no right to excommunicate the relations and connections of the parties contracting second marriage, besides excommuuicating the principals. Unless some such protective measures are adopted in time, I repeat there is fear of re-action at least on this side of the country. What little progress has been achieved after thirty years of arduous struggles may be washed away by one wave of the returning tide of fanaticism. If Government fail, as guardians of the unprotected, to rescue the widow from this terrible thraldom, they will, in no small degree, be responsible to the Supreme Authority above and to the civilised world for the results of a vile custom in working. For, there is scarcely a village in India, scarcely a hamlet, whose shrine is not desecrated by murder; where the blood of the innocent does not pollute the sanctuary of its God. Emancipate the woman of India, ye English rulers! Restore to the widow her birth-right of which she is robbed by usurpers who owe no allegiance to God or to man. Give her back the exercise of free will. Is it meet that in the reign of the most womanly Queen the women of India should remain at the mercy of a foul superstition? Raise the status of our women, and in time England shall be furnished with a Volunteer Corps a million strong. Win the blessings of India’s women,—the most grateful amongst a grateful nation. You are following in the steps of your predecessors. Then complete the reform inaugurated by them, carry it to its logical conclusion. Declare that the widow, being the State's adopted daughter, shall not be wronged by caste, and that even if custom allows the wrong to be perpetrated, the victim shall be avenged by law.
But I am afraid what I ask in the last paragraph is a question of time. Government may not at present go beyond the four suggestions made above. Nor would it be advisable to press the authorities. I believe an advance would have been made before now by the people themselves but for certain conditions which have always operated adversely on the progress of the Native community. In the first place, it is a mistake to trust entirely to the educated agency. Education by itself has failed to secure influence in the country. Our educated young men want position. They are no match for the priestly class, who are, in a sense, better educated. Nor are the orthodox Pandits so devoid of sympathy as young reformers seem to fear. Be that as it may, it is a fact that the mass of the people look up to the Pandits and Shastris as their guides. The priest is a friend of the caste, the custodian of its honour and integrity. He directs the affairs of many a household, and is instrumental in maintaining the patriarchal relations betweeh old and young, rich and poor. The priest is an institution whom the poor man worships, and the rich man thinks it a privilege to bow to his teachings. Besides, so long has this priestly class been on the defensive against attacks from within and without, that organisation—that is the power to work together—has become the law of their very existence. Has the average educated man, the young reformer, any two of these advantages to offer for our purpose? Modern education has made him impatient and offensive. He has no hold on the popular mind. Not only have his orthodox neighbours no confidence in the educated young reformer, but they look upon his doctrines with positive distrust. Then, again, in many cases his acts fall short of his words. Last of all, the educated class lacks the means for organisation—the different elements are generally so incohesive. I hope and believe that these are only temporary difliculties. But there they are, and one is obliged to recognise them as seriously interfering with the usefulness of the educated class in matters social.
If an earnest reformer, therefore, wishes to carry the mass with him, he finds the support and co-operation of the priest indispensable. And such support he may not seek in vain. The priest is not so bigoted as to deprecate social progress. But he is rather shy of outside light and wants gentle handling. The reformer must go to him as a friend, and perhaps as a suppliant.
At this stage I would propose the establishment of a national Association for social reform, with the existing Societies as branches, and get most of the prominent members of Government to join as sympathisers, from the Viceroy and the Governors downwards. I am not without hope that our cause would interest them so far. Indeed, we might look further up, going to England for similar countenance. An institution like that would have a certain prestige—people would deem it an honour to be associated with distinguished members of the ruling race. Besides its direct practical advantage, the presence of English friends might deter Native members from backsliding when the time came for action. This wealthy and influential Association may then try the usual plans of operation, lectures, tracts, &c., for the people, under the sanction not only of their secular rulers, but also of their spiritual guides. All such attempts in the past have been all but useless as directed upon the small educated class who knew the evils full well but had no power to remedy them. Let the people be addressed directly in their own vernaculars. Let the poet and the pandit go hand in hand, scattering the seeds of true knowledge broadcast amongst the mass, to bear fruit in time. Let Government move to some extent under a sense of humiliation that a hundred years of British rule could do but so little towards the amelioration of the social condition of the subjects. And let the people, too, now move for very shame, remembering that there is no hope of political elevation for us so long as we live, and apparently love to live, in such social degradation.