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

The Case of Rukhmabai (March 24, 1887)

"Only a Woman" writes indignantly to a Bombay paper:—

Two years ago, in the case of Dadajee Bhicajee vs. Rukhmabai, Mr. Justice Pinhey, pronouncing a suit of this kind to be a creation of English law, gave judgment in the lines of English law in favour of Rukhmabai, stating at the same time that nothing could be more barbarous or opposed to the sense and principles of english law, than to compel a young virgin-wife to live with a husband, selected by others, whom she strongly dislikes.

These spirited remarks were a boon to the cause of justice and freedom. Unfortunately, Mr. Pinhey left India shortly afterwards, and the Court of Appeal has now judged against the woman, forcing her to go to her husband within one month, under penalty of six months' imprisonment. 

This judgment of the Appeal Court appears to be accepted by the public without question, believing that the Court has merely pronounced the judgment that was inevitable in a true rendering of the law. I, however, cannot acquiesce in this view, and believe that the judgment is neither in consonance with justice, nor with one of the fundamental principles of British law, viz., that every man and woman is the only and absolute proprietor of himself or herself, and that none other possesses the right to dispose of his or her person without his or her honest consent!

To tell me, therefore, that the judgment of the Appeal Court is in accord with sound law, is to tell me that slavery still flourishes on "the sacred soil of Britain," and that our boasted bulwark of liberty is a delusion and a snare. is law not the servant of justice? how then has it been perverted to the perpetration of one of the vilest tyrannies? Where, too, lies the legal logic and acumen allowing a suit to lie for restitution of conjugal rights where conjugal rights had never been instituted?

Rukhmabai was given in marriage in her infancy In her womanhood she is forced by the Court to ratify the contract made, not by herself but by others, and without her sanction, involving the surrender of her person, if not of her soul, to a man she loathes and detests. 

It will take much to convince me that a true rendering of English law supports such a judgment as this, or that the highest legal authorities in England would not have found English law to be full in harmony with liberty and justice. Laws weakly expounded, or weakly administered, become the tools of tyranny, and it seems to me that even when judgments are delivered in accordance with the law, but in conflict with justice and the mawin principles of our national laws, the Courts do not fully comprehend the sacredness of their duty when they fail to qualify these judgments with a recommendation to the Government, to deal with the sufferers in the light of equity and justice. Even then, if this odious decree be law, now is the moment to vindicate our national principles by an immediate reprieve being extended to the sufferer! To grant it only can be just, while to withhold it can be little else than criminal. She, a pure, but brave young woman, has broken the bondage of a custom viler than slavery and is looking to our boasted laws for protection; to the laws of a country that has liberty emblazoned on its standard, yet is satisfied to surrender a helpless woman to what John Stuart Mill has called "the vilest degradation possible." 

I say to Rukhmabai: "Be true to yourself, continue what you have so nobly and courageously begun! You have friends in plenty, who will stand by you till you have successfully fought the fight, and till every woman, be she Hindoo, Mussulman or Christian, is entitled to be judged by that British law which 'proclaims to the stranger and sojourner that the ground upon which he treads is holy, and is consecrated by the genius of universal emancipation." 

I would strongly urge Rukhmabai to appeal to the highest legal tribunal in England. The decision of the Court here would certainly be upset: and to defray the costs of the appeal, I would suggest that subscriptions be called for at once, and you will, of course, have the mite of. 

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