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

Infant Marriage in India (B.M. Malabari 1884)

        The British Government put down Infanticide by law. That was a great gain to society, apart from higher considerations. But we find Infant Marriage in practice a more serious evil than Infanticide. For, whereas the latter was one short struggle, in which the victim was almost unconscious, an ill-sorted infant marriage entails lifelong misery on either or both parties. Infant marriage is the cause of many of our social grievances, including enforced widowhood. The argument, that such an arrangement forbids the exercise of free will on the part of those most concerned, may not commend itself readily to all practical reformers. For, parental control is necessary and mostly beneficial even when the parties have come to years of discretion. Absence of choice, therefore, is not my only complaint. But the area of selection is so narrow where society is split up into numerous castes and sub-castes, that practically Hindu parents have to make Hobson's choice of it: to accept the first boy or girl available or to buy one who comes the cheap eat, all things considered. There may be physical defect or moral taint on one side or the other. But so long as this, and no other match, is to be secured, why, it must be secured at all risks. What wonder, then, if many of these forced unions turn out unhappy ? The physical defect may increase with age, the moral taint may grow into a malady. The wife may outgrow the husband, or “the husband may become fit for the grave when the wife becomes fit for his home.” There may be total or partial absence of physical adaptability or hopeless disparity of temperament. In any of these events the “ married martyrs,” as they have been aptly described, are socially alienated from each other, though perhaps living under the same roof. These are some of the many dread contingencies.
        But let us take the union to turn out happy, as it no doubt turns out in a large number of cases. What follows? A too early consummation of the nuptial troth, the breaking down of constitutions and the ushering in of disease. The giving up of studies on the part of the boy-husband, the birth of sickly children, the necessity of feeding too many months, poverty and dependence; a disorganised household leading perhaps to sin. In short, it comes to a wreck of two lives, grown old almost in youth, which might, in favourable circumstances, have attained to happy and respected age. That this is not an overcharged picture will be admitted by those who have even a superficial acquaintance with the domestic affairs of our people. Last of all comes Death to the relief of the husband or the wife. If the former, it adds one more widow to the forty million and odd, and two or three orphans to the fraternity of unprotected infants. Here we are confronted with that grave economic problem—over-population in poverty. If over population is felt as an evil in advanced and wealthy countries, where natural and artificial means exist to hold it in check, what must be the effect of over-population in a poor and backward country, where the evil is actively stimulated by unnatural means? can the State take no cognisance of this economic phase of the evil?—apart from the social aspect with which a foreign Government may well hesitate to meddle.           
        We are often told by benevolent Let-Alone-ists that the only remedy possible is to educate public opinion on the subject and then to set this educated public opinion to cope with the evil in operation. This is no doubt a very sound doctrine. But where such a very small portion of the population of India have received elementary education after so many years, the chances of bringing educated public opinion as a force to bear upon the question are extremely slender. The higher classes of Hindus, the more educated amongst them, feel the necessity of discountenancing child marriage; and most of these would undoubtedly act up to their convictions if they only could. But caste is I too powerful even for men in that position. Where the girl's parents are enlightened, the boy's may be the reverse; and as that is the only eligible boy in the caste, the former are obliged to sue for terms. Amongst the illiterate mass early marriage obtains most widely, and amongst them, least able to bear the strain, the consequences of such marriage are most far-reaching. They tell disastrously on the physical and social well-being of not only the contracting parties, but even their children and their children’s children. We occasionally hear of a debt incurred by a man towards the marriage expenses of his youngest son having to be repaid by his grandson or great-grandson.
       I have never heard an argument in favour of infant marriage as a national institution, except that it is enjoined by the Shastras. But so far as I have been able to see, no Shastra enforces marriage proper on a girl under 12 years of ago, when presumably the boy must be between 15 and 20. So much as to the social or so-called religious aspect of the practice. In India every custom that is unintelligible, or actually indefensible, becomes a religious question, the merits of which we are not supposed to appreciate in this Kali-yuga. But taking infant marriage as a purely economic question, as a source of over population and consequent disturbances, can the State do nothing to check it? I would not propose a legal ban to be placed upon it. But an enlightened Government might well show its disapproval of the practice indirectly. To begin with, the Educational authorities might rule that due notice being given, no married student shall be eligible to go up for University examinations, say five years hence. This would be some check. Several other departments of the State might also devise similar means to discourage this pernicious custom of modern India. I have little doubt that some such expedient would be welcomed by leaders of Native Society in all parts.
        An enlightened Hindu friend writes to me from Bengal cordially approving the proposal. Our educated young men can do a great deal to strengthen the hands of authority in this direction. An excellent suggestion was made only the other day, that University graduates and others should form themselves into an Association and take a pledge not to marry under a certain ago. To which another suggestion, equally good, has been added as a rider, namely, that no educated man should marry a girl too much under his age. This would be a fair beginning for the educated class.
       It appears to me that the State has a right to insist upon having the best available servant, if not the best available citizen. If so, the head of a department may prefer the unmarried candidate to the married, all other qualifications being equal. I am not blind to the risk to which this proposal is open; but the advantages far outweigh every possible inconvenience. Then, again, the Educational Department may give a few chapters in its School Books, describing the evil in its various forms. The State may offer in direct inducements to students remaining unmarried up to a certain age. There are ways in which the Executive can do a great deal towards the mitigation of social martyrdom, without invoking the aid of the Legislature. Let the officer evince personal interest in the matter, keeping his official position in the background. It is such friendly sympathy, in my opinion, more than anything else, to which we owe what little progress we have made socially during the last fifty years, especially in the matter of female education.  And I suspect that something very like gentle moral pressure had to be exercised by friendly officials when Girls’ Schools were first opened in the mofussil and pupils were hard to find. Parents would not allow their daughters to be out of sight for a few hours every day. But the thing had to be done, and we have now a Girls’ School in almost every large village. Shut up these schools to-day, and I dare say the villagers will make a grievance of it.
        The most obnoxious amongst early marriages (which are often unequal in point of age) are: 1, the marriage of an infant girl with an old man—the object generally being for the bride’s father or relatives to secure money from the bridegroom. This is much the same as selling the child, selling her into slavery and worse. Now the State may not directly interfere with the transaction. But indirectly, I think, it can aim a deadly blow at the practice itself. For instance, by ruling that the money received from the bridegroom, the price of the girl disposed of, is not to belong to the seller, the parent or relative of the victim, but to be safely deposited in her name and for her exclusive use. Some such ruling will discourage marriages of the kind. And where the marriage does take place the money paid by the bridegroom, the cost of the bride's sacrifice, will be a comfort to her in widowhood. For, in all human probability the girl must become a widow, in which case she has at present to be solely dependent on her male relatives, This suggestion was made to an English friend by a competent Hindu authority at Madras about a year ago.
        2.     Another objectionable form of marriage, so called, is—a girl of 12 to 15 married to a boy of 8 to 10. When we know that the marriage is brought about by the father or the elder brother of the boy, who (the father or elder brother) is a widower, we may guess the object. It is a criminal arrangement, leading to sin all round, and to much suffering for the unfortunate girl who must in name remain the wife of the boy. When the boy-husband realises his position, he may murder the wife, the father or the brother. For proof positive the reader may search the records of a Magistrate's Court here and there: of presumptive evidence there is no lack. The evil is limited in area; but it is nonetheless a horrible thing. How long will Society and the State put up with it?

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