India needs another Vidyasagar now

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India needs another Vidyasagar now

Saturday, 26 September 2020 | Govind Bhattacharjee

Just two years ago, a tribal boy was killed in Karmatar because he wished to marry a widow. Has anything really changed in modern India?

On September 26, 200 years ago, an extraordinary personality was born in a village in south West Bengal. By the standards of his time, why, even by today’s standards, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was unique in every respect. As Rabindranath Tagore once said, “One wonders how God, in the process of producing 40 million Bengalis, produced a man.”

The 19th century Bengali society was in an advanced state of decay brought about by a lethal cocktail of superstition, depravity and exploitation, being trapped inside a complex hierarchy of castes and sub-castes embedded within each other. One half of the society — women — was excluded from education and economic activities, being confined to homes where they had no voice. They were treated as intellectually and morally inferior, and hence unworthy of education. Superstition proclaimed that a girl’s education would inevitably beget her widowhood. Her best contribution to society was to become one of the countless wives of Kulin Brahmins, whose main aim was collecting handsome dowries from multiple marriages — one had as many as 156 wives as per records. She would be lucky to enjoy her absentee husband’s company a few nights a year. She would attain salvation by burning on the same funeral pyre with her husband, who was 50-60 years older than her. Through the efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1838), the horrendous practice of Sati was abolished in 1829, nine years after Vidyasagar’s birth.

Child marriage was the order of the day. Girls were married before attaining puberty in a custom called gouridan. Born into a Kulin Brahmin family, Vidyasagar himself was married at the age of 14 to a girl eight years old. Bankimchandra, who was born 18 years after Vidyasagar, was married at 11 to a girl only five years old. Female infanticide was also the order of the day. Female foetuses would be destroyed brutally through what was called “ghat murder.” These monstrosities still exist in many pockets in rural India despite all the laws we have in our books.

Women had no right to property or inheritance. Once they became widows, a lifetime of misery awaited them. They were forced to a single stringent vegetarian meal a day to rob them of their sexuality, youth and beauty. Sexual exploitation by relatives and termination of unwanted pregnancies leading to death were not only common but met with society’s tacit approval. Legal abolition of sati did not end women’s miseries. The daily privations, insults and misery of existence forced many to join the brothels that were there to sustain the perverted Babu culture of Bengal. In 1853, the population of sex workers in Kolkata was 12,419 and by 1867 it touched over 30,000. And 90 per cent of them, according to the Amritabazar Patrika, were widows. By a crude estimate, the sex worker population increased from about five to nearly 10 per cent of Kolkata’s population over this period.

This, then, was the society Vidyasagar was born into, and this was the society he had sought to reform. He did so with a gusto and a fearlessness we have not seen in any other personality ever since. To fight the orthodox society steeped in deep superstition and ruled by the semi-literate Brahmins, Vidyasagar knew he would have to beat his adversaries at their own game. So, in January and October 1855, he wrote his two famous treatises on the Marriage of Hindu Widows, drawing upon the Sutras (literary compositions) and the Sastras (scriptures) to establish his logical argument that there was no prohibition on remarriage of widows in the Sastras.

Rather the Parashara Samhita sanctioned widow remarriage: “Women are at liberty to marry again if their husbands are insane, dead, have renounced the family or are impotent or outcasts.” About 2,000 copies of the first book were sold in the first week itself, followed by 3,000 and then a third reprint of 10,000 copies got sold out too. But the sales figures did not indicate society’s response. He was heaped with criticism, insults, motives, ridicule and even threatened with death.

The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act was finally passed on July 26, 1856 and the reform did not remain limited to Bengal alone. In 1864, Jyotiba Phule succeeded in persuading a Saraswat Brahmin widow to remarry. In 1866, Vishnu Shastri Pandit translated Vidyasagar’s book on widow remarriage into Marathi. But passing of the statute was only the first of the many obstacles. Vidyasagar personally presided over the first remarriage of a widow, Kalimati, with Srishchandra Vidyaratna, and then many others at his own expense, in the process gathering significant personal debt.

He even got his only son, Narayanchandra, married to a widow, Bhavasundari. Not many have the courage to practise what they preach. As he wrote to his brother: “Remarriage of widows is the noblest deed of my life. I don’t think I shall be able to accomplish a greater one, ever. I have sacrificed everything for this cause and won’t mind even laying down my life for it.”

He was also propagating women’s education. In 1849, he set up the Calcutta Female School along with Drinkwater Bethune for educating the girl child. In 1856, appointed Special Inspector of Schools, he established 30 schools exclusively for girls. Between 1857 and 1858, when the Mutiny was ravaging the country, he was fighting a different kind of battle, opening 35 girls’ schools all over Bengal.

After widow remarriage, it was the turn of polygamy. In 1857, he orchestrated a petition to the Government with 25,000 signatures for the prohibition of polygamy among Kulin Brahmins. The Mutiny postponed any action on this petition but in 1866, he inspired another petition, this time with 21,000 signatures. The Government, reluctant to interfere in Indian customs, refused to take any legislative measure, instead allowing time and education to bring an end to the practice. 

In 1871 and 1873, he wrote two brilliant critiques on polygamy, arguing that it was not sanctioned by the sacred texts, but was opposed by five eminent scholars, led by his friend Taranath Tarkavachaspati of Calcutta Sanskrit College. Outlawing polygamy among Hindus, however, had to wait till 1955, eight years after Independence, through the Hindu Marriage Act. As regards child marriage, the Indian Penal Code, 1860, had fixed the age of consent to 10 years for girls, which was raised successively to 12 (1891), 14 (1925), 16 (1940) and 18 (2013). The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, also known as the Sarda Act, fixed the age of marriage at 14 for girls and 18 for boys, that was later raised to 18 and 21 respectively in 1978. This has since been repealed and replaced by the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.

In 1873, disgusted with the so-called bhadralok society, Vidyasagar went to live with the Santhals at Karmatar, a sleepy hamlet about 20 km from the district headquarters of Jamtara now in Jharkhand, where he would spend the last 18 years of his life till his death in 1891. There he set up a girls’ school and a night school for adults on the premises of his house, which he called Nandan Kanan. The house today lies in shambles.

The irony is that though in this village 24 tribal child widows were remarried by Vidyasagar, just two years ago, a tribal boy was killed in Karmatar because he wished to marry a widow. Has anything really changed in modern India?

Sati was abolished only in name. Countless satis continue to get burnt in 21st century India, though not on pyres. Countless brides get burnt to death in their nuptial homes for dowries, the faces and minds of countless more are scarred forever by acid attacks inflicted by spurned lovers and others. Scores of girls are murdered in “honour-killings” in rural India for marrying into another caste or community, by defying their families’ diktats.

Sati has actually metamorphosed into another form that is equally brutal and vicious. It is not about burning a woman. It is about denying her the choice to decide the course of her life. She is continued to be treated as morally and intellectually inferior to men, as she was 200 years ago. We need another Ram Mohan Roy and a Vidyasagar now, more than ever.

(The author is a retired Director-General from the Office of the CAG)

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