September marks a momentous month in the saga of women empowerment in India. It was in Sept 1927 that the Hindu Child Marriage Bill was proposed in the Legislative Assembly of the Govt. of India. And it was on 28 Sept 1929 that it became an Act.
What was the Sarda Act and why was it so important? The marriage of girls as young as a few days or a few weeks old was rampant at the time when the law was being discussed (sadly one cannot say it has totally disappeared. Pre-1857, the British had tried to legislate on social practices. But after this period, they went slow on pushing any social reform in the fear of being accused of intrusion into traditions. Sadly, even the Age of Consent Bill 1927 making marriages of girls under the age of 12 illegal. was opposed by nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Madan Mohan Malaviya who saw it as British interference in Indian customs.
It was Har Bilas Sarda who took it upon himself to do something about this. Sarda was a scholar. the administrator of Agra and Ajmer, and later Senior Judge of the Jodhpur Chief Court. He was first elected to the Central Legislative Assembly in 1924, and then for two more terms subsequently.
He was deeply moved by the plight of child-widows in India. Introducing the Bill to the Assembly, he made a passionate plea to bring in legislation in this regard. Though a staunch Hindu traditionalist, he was ready to take a stand on calling for reform in this matter, stating: ‘No country in the world, except this unhappy land, presents the sorry spectacle of having in its population child widows, who according to the customs of the country, cannot remarry. Enforced widowhood is a feature peculiar to Hindu society; and when we consider that some of the victims of this pernicious—I had almost said inhuman—custom were babies eight to ten months old when they were married, Honourable members will realize how urgent and imperative is the call for legislation in the matter.’
But it was not just an emotional appeal though. He quoted facts and figures meticulously culled out from the census of 1921. To make it easier for the reader, here is a summary of the ghastly numbers he presents:
CHILD WIDOWS IN INDIA, CENSUS 1921
|Age of child||Number of widows|
|Less than 1 year||612|
|Total Number of Widows below the Age of 5||12016|
Sarda further goes on to state that the number of widows below the age of 10 was 97,596, and below the age of 15 was 3,31,793. Not a small problem!
He quotes Manu and Dhanwantri to support his plea to increase the marriage age of girls, saying Manu had said that girls should marry 3 years after puberty, which would take the minimum age of marriage to 15.
The Bill was referred to a select committee named as the Age of Consent Committee headed by Sir Moropant Joshi with several distinguished members. The Bill saw concerted advocacy by women for the first time in India, with the All India Women’s Conference, the Women’s Indian Association, the National Council for Women in India, groups of Muslim women, all presenting their pleas to the Committee to raise the age for marriage and consent, sometimes going against orthodox opposition. The Joshi Committee presented its report, and it was passed into law on 28 Sept 1929, as the Child Marriage Restraint Act (also known as the Sarda Act). It fixed the marriageable age for girls at 14 and for boys at 18, and was applicable throughout British India, for all communities.
Alas, like many other laws passed without either education or strict enforcement, the Sarda Act was not really successful in curbing the practice. Census figures in the next decade showed a steady increase in child marriages. The lack of success was attributed by Nehru and other scholars to the British reluctance to enforce the law as it would cost them the support of orthodox and communal elements.
After Independence in 1949, the age of marriage was further raised to 15 for girls; in 1978, it was raised to 18 for girls and 21 for boys.
But for all that, Census 2011 still shows that 3.7% girls were married before the age of 18. Which goes to show that while having laws in place is vital, there have to be concerted efforts to educate and enforce.
And at the same time to celebrate the battles women have won in the empowerment journey.
It is the moment to recall and celebrate the contribution of Har Bilas Sarda who with his persistence, propelled the first step in this journey.
Pic: New Indian Express