It’s A Myth That The British Raj Liberated Indian Women

In the wake of the shocking declaration of the Modi Government that the Koh-i-Noor diamond was a ‘gift’, I noticed that some liberal voices (an example is the post by Renuka Narayanan – screenshot attached) have argued that colonial rule was beneficial and liberating to Indian women, who otherwise would have remained in bondage. I respectfully beg to disagree, since the facts simply don’t support such a claim. And I feel the need to elaborate, because colonial rule then – and imperialist wars and occupations now – like to claim they are ‘liberating’ ‘native’ women from the clutches of patriarchy. Whether we take British colonial India or the US war on Afghanistan, these claims are simply not true.

As an antidote to this grievously misguided claim, I will recommend that those interested, read the chapter on ‘Conjugality and Hindu Nationalism’ in Tanika Sarkar’s Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, (New Delhi, Permanent Black) to get a sense of how the colonial state itself was not in any sense a feminist state, and the relationship between the colonial state and Indian patriarchy was not always confrontational and hostile. And the story of how self-critical and reformist strands among Indian intellectuals gradually gave way to revivalism that defined nationalism in terms of a defence of Indian patriarchy, is also a complex one.

I’ll quote some excerpts from the chapter, but it’s best that you read the fascinating chapter (I found an online file here – and indeed the whole book – yourself. All emphases are mine.

The chapter points out that the colonial initiatives to ban sati or raise the age of consent were “generally a belated and forced surrender to Indian reformist pressure.” She notes that “colonial structures of power compromised with— and indeed learnt much from—indigenous patriarchy and upper-caste norms and practices.”

In fact, the late 19th century “had in England seen profound changes in women's rights vis-à-vis property holding, marriage, divorce, and the rights of prostitutes to physical privacy. Englishmen in India were divided about the direction of these changes and a significant section felt disturbed by the limited, though real, gains made by contemporary English feminists. They turned with relief to the so-called relative stability and strictness of Hindu rules. The Hindu joint-family system, whose collective aspects supposedly fully submerged and subordinated individual rights and interests, was generally described with warm appreciation. Found here was a system of relatively unquestioned patriarchal absolutism which promised a more comfortable state of affairs than what emerged after bitter struggles with Victorian feminism at home.”

The chapter recounts the chilling 1890 case of Phulmonee, the little ten-year-old girl raped to death by her 35-year-old husband. The Indian reformist campaign, in the wake of this incident, began documenting other similar instances and demanding that the age of consent be raised from ten to twelve. 44 women doctors prepared long lists of child-wives maimed or killed because of marital rape. The English judge ignored the evidence of Phulmonee’s mother and aunt, and exonerated her husband from the charge of culpable homicide.

“What needs to be particularly noted here is that, throughout the trial, the judge was saying nothing about a husband who insisted on sleeping with a child, or about the custom which allowed him to do so with impunity. Above all, he was not making any judgmental comparison between the ways of husbands, Eastern or Western. In fact, he bent over backwards to exonerate the system of marriage that had made this death possible: 'Under no system of law with which Courts have had to do in this country, whether Hindu or Mohammedan, or that formed under British rule, has it ever been the law that a husband has the absolute right to enjoy the person of his wife without regard to the question of safety to her.’

“Both the Hindu husband and the Hindu marriage system are generously exempted from blame and criticism. There is, in fact, an assertion about a continuity in the spirit of the law from the time of the Hindu kingdoms to that of British rule.” Not only that, even influential English doctors argued that in spite of the voluminous evidence amassed by reformists of the effects of marital rape of child wives, the colonial state must not meddle with the custom of child marriage, unless the “Hindus themselves expressed a great desire for change” :“A significant body of English medical opinion confirmed the clean bill of health that the colonial judiciary had advanced to the Hindu marriage system.”

The legislation raising the age of consent was enacted. But “The new legislation was conceived after the reformist agitation had convinced the authorities that the 'great majority' was ready for change. After the Phulmonee episode, revivalist-nationalists were maintaining a somewhat embarrassed silence; this was broken only after the proposed bill came along. During the interval the reformist voice alone was audible. Since this, for the moment, looked like the majority demand, political expediency coincided temporarily with reformist impulse and the government committed itself to raising the age of consent. At the same time, official opinion in Bengal did not extend the terms of the specific reform to larger plans for invasive change. On the contrary, it displayed a keenness to learn from the codes of Hindu patriarchy. Did a recognition that they were confronted with the most absolute form of patriarchal domination evoke a measure of unconscious respect and fellow feeling among the usually conservative, male English authorities, rather than the instinct for reform? As the secretary to the Public Health Society put it: 'The history of British rule and the workings of British courts in India manifest a distinct tenderness towards … the customs and religious observances of the Indian people.'”
And of course, it cannot be forgotten that “It is remarkable how all strands of opinion—colonial, revivalist-nationalist, medical-reformer— agreed on a definition of consent that pegged consent to a purely physical capability, divorced entirely from free choice of partner, from sexual, emotional or mental compatibility.”

But also, “It would be simplistic, however, to conclude that there was complete identity of patriarchal values between reformers and revivalists. Whatever their broader views, reformers always had to struggle along with a minimalist programme since nothing else would have the remotest chance of acceptability either with the legislative authorities or in Hindu society.” And of course, it’s painful and salutary to read the Hindu revivalist-nationalist defence of child marriage and marital rape of child wives in this chapter. The chapter ends by noting “several instances when cases were lodged at the initiative of the girl's mother, sometimes forcing the hands of the male guardians—for those times a rare demonstration of die woman's protest action. We also have a court deposition left by a young girl who was severely wounded and violated by her elderly husband.

'I cannot say how old I am. I have not reached puberty. I was sleeping when my husband seized my hand …. I cried out. He stopped my mouth. I was insensible owing to his outrage on me. My husband violated me against my will. When I cried out he kicked me in the abdomen. My husband does not support me. He rebukes and beats me. I cannot live with him.' The husband was discharged by the British magistrate. The girl was restored to him.”

Kavita Krishnan's Facebook Post, April 21, 2016, 3 p.m.



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