Rukhmabai and her famous case, Dadaji vs. Rakhmabai, are credited with drawing attention to consent as part of the nineteenth-century debate on Hindu child marriage. Her letters were published in The Times of India, and the arguments she raised even elicited a response from Queen Victoria herself. The popular response both in England and India is seen by many historians as contributing to the passage of the 1891 Age of Consent Act.
(We have presented Rukhmabai's first letter to the Times of India here.)
Rukhmabai was born during the 1860s in present-day Maharashtra to Jayantibai and Janardhan Pandurang. Four years after Rukhmabai's mother was widowed at the age of 19, Jayantibai's father, Harish Chandra Jadoji, arranged a second marriage for her with Dr. Sakharam Arjun. As Uma Chakravarti points out, even though Jayantibai's caste of Sutars (carpenters) allowed for widow remarriage, it was still highly unusual for a woman as old as Jayantibai who had already had a child to remarry. Dr. Sakharam was highly respected as a surgeon and social reformer, and saw to the education of his stepdaughter, Rukhmabai, within the home. The household expanded when at the age of "11 or 13" (disputed, Chakravarti) Dadaji Bhikaji (19 or 20) married Rukhmabai and came to reside at her family's house to undergo the education required as part of the marriage agreement by his father-in-law. Though the parties dispute how exactly this arrangement changed, they both confirm that the marriage was never consummated, and that Dadaji left the household after a time to stay with his maternal uncle.
After several failed attempts to persuade Rukhmabai's family into sending her to live with him, Dadaji filed suit in 1884 for restitution of conjugal rights. The ensuing case, its appeal, and Rukhmabai's eventual loss fueled much discussion and controversy in both the English and vernacular press in India (and abroad). This case drew attention to ongoing debates on women's rights within marriage, the age of consent, and the difficulties of administering justice across the contexts of Hindu, Muslim, and English law precedent in India.
Dadaji vs. Rukhmabai: The Case and Its Appeal
Prior to Rukhmabai's case, "the denial of conjugal rights was made punishable by imprisonment" (Chakravarti 139). Multiple cases had been tried in India, but never before had a case for the institution of conjugal rights been tried. On these and that grounds that under Hindu law, restitution could not be claimed where both parties agree that the marriage had never been consummated, Justice Robert Hill Pinhey in 1885 decided in Rukhmabai's favor (Burton 1119). Dadaji appealed, and in March of 1887 Justice Farran heard the case.
As historian Uma Chakravarti has pointed out, the defense's decision to argue that Rukhmabai could not offer consent to marriage at such a young age put Justice Farran in a difficult position. Additionally, Rukhmabai publicly announced her unwillingness to join Dadaji, and even went so far as to publish her intention to refuse the court's directive even if she lost the case. Justice Farran thus had to decide between setting a precedent that would render almost all Hindu marriages illegal on the grounds of consent, or suffering the public outcry of essentially condemning a woman to choose between either rape or imprisonment (Chakravarti 176). The political risk of invalidating millions of marriages won out, and Ramabai lost the appeal. Justice Farran ruled in Dadaji's favor on the grounds that though Hindu law did not explicitly address restitution, it did not forbid it. Rukhmabai's sentence was to join Dadaji within a month, or submit to six month's imprisonment (Burton 1120). The judgement created a sensation in the press, especially since English law recently changed to prevent penal provisions against English spouses in 1884 (Burton 1120). Behramji Malabari, another author featured on this site, was responsible for advocating on Rukhmabai's behalf both in England and India. Even after winning, Dadaji sought to negotiate with Rukhmabai's family, and eventually agreed to drop his claims for a payment of 2,000 rupees (Burton 1120). Rukhmabai had bought her freedom, but the public discussion continued. The Age of Consent Act was passed in 1891 and raised the age of majority for girls from ten to twelve years of age in India. The resulting uproar even among existing social reformers in India contributed to rising nationalist movements in favor of noninterference and self-rule in India (Burton 1121)
Ramabai's Life After the Case:
After buying her freedom from Dadaji, Rukhmabai decided to pursue medical training. She traveled to London on the sponsorship of some English feminists who supported her cause, and is documented as associating with other Indian reformers and advocates of women's education like Cornelia Sorabji, the "first" woman to read law at Oxford (Chandra). While other Indian women like Pandita Ramabai and Anandibai Joshi had previously attempted to pursue medical education and practice, Rukhmabai appears to be the first Indian women to successfully succeed in qualifying as a doctor in 1893 and returning to India to practice. She was appointed the head of a dispensary at Surat, and died in 1955 "unattached" (Burton 1120).
Antoinette Burton, "From Child Bride to 'Hindu Lady': Rukhmabai and the Debate on Sexual Respectability in Imperial Britain" (The American Historical Review, Oct. 1998)
Uma Chakravarti, Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (Zubaan, Delhi reprint 2013)
Sudhir Chandra, Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, Law, and Women's Rights (Oxford UP, Delhi, 1998)