“The council admit that our native fellow subjects must be allowed the fullest possible freedom in deciding when their children should be ceremonially married. That, in the constitution of Hindu society, is a matter with which no Government could meddle and no Government ought to meddle.” So wrote the British Secretary to the Public Health Society to the Government of Bengal in 1890. The colonial government was reassuring the Hindu community that there was no plan afoot to “interfere” in matters of religion. Historian Tanika Sarkar goes on to emphasise that the official position of the time was that “the age of commencing cohabitation could be raised only if Hindus themselves expressed a great desire for change .”
But Phulmonee, 10 or 11 years old, had bled to death after being raped in 1890 by her 35-year-old husband, Hari Maiti. Hari Maiti could not be convicted of rape under existing laws even though Phulmonee’s mother gave a heart-rending deposition about her death and the reformists worked overtime collating data of similar deaths — of which there seemed to be too many.
Tilak on marriageable age
Recently, the Prime Minister of India, with a polarising record as Gujarat Chief Minister and in his current post, has cannily extended a promise to support Muslim “sisters” who want freedom from instant triple talaq. There is outrage on social media against the hypocrisy of his right-wing government. Somebody quoted Bal Gangadhar Tilak on the controversial Age of Consent Bill which was passed in 1891 due to tremendous reformist pressure: “We would not like that the government should have anything to do with regulating our social customs or ways of living, even supposing that the act of government will be a very beneficial and suitable measure.”
Tilak’s own daughters were married only at 16. In fact, he is credited with trying to persuade Hindus to voluntarily increase the age of marriage to 16 — even when the Age of Consent Bill was only increasing it to 12 — before he took the above-quoted public position against it.
In his recent article “Multiple Ways to Equality” (October 28, 2016, The Indian Express ) the noted juror, Faizan Mustafa, offers an erudite defence of polygamy, but makes it a point to announce right in the beginning that he personally believes in monogamy. Elsewhere he argues that the government has no right to interfere in Muslim personal law. He seems to me the 21st century Tilak. Unfortunately, going by the affidavit filed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), there also seem to be as many Muslim chauvinistic men today as there were Shastra-bound, child rape-defending Hindu nationalist men in the 19th century.
But the situation is not so bleak. On WhatsApp I come across a heart-warming statement by “Muslims and People of Muslim descent” condemning the divisive, communal actions of the present government and also lambasting the misogynist stand taken by the AIMPLB. The statement supports the demand of Muslim women to abolish “instant, arbitrary talaq”; but, alas, it adds a caveat: “We believe that social change is a slow process for which conditions on the ground need to be created...” I feel helpless, somewhat defeated by what might prove to be a weighty argument against overturning regressive personal law. But with so many liberal-progressive voices pontificating and cautioning, what option is there but to wait for a truly non-communal government committed to social change and successful in winning the trust of majority and minorities alike?
‘Waiting for Godot’
I am reminded of the world-famous play about waiting. Written by Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot” is about being frozen in time, waiting for something that would arguably alter the very coordinates of human existence. Even though Beckett objected strongly to any female intrusion, women have been singularly stubborn in continuing to play the all-male “Waiting for Godot”. They have been intent on extracting the most useful meaning from the text, in spite of the author, God, rearing up angrily: “Replacing women for men was like replacing violins for trumpets.” Beckett lost the case against the Dutch theatre company he sued in 1988 for going ahead with an all-female cast in spite of his objections. The judge ruled that since the play was about the human condition, “it could be played by women or men”. The Dutch judge was rightly dismissing essential difference to reiterate that women are as human as men and prioritising fair play over authority! In 21st century India, then, isn’t it absurd to tie up gender justice with “Waiting for Godot” and try to bamboozle protesting women with an all-male script they have already outperformed, here and everywhere?
Anuradha Marwah is a Delhi-based novelist and social activist.