HUM HINDUSTANI: The ‘growth story’ and the girl child —J Sri Raman - Friday, February 11, 2011

Source :\02\11\story_11-2-2011_pg3_5

According to UNICEF’s ‘The State of the World’s Children 2009’ report, 47 percent of India’s women aged 20-24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56 percent in rural areas. The report also revealed that 40 percent of the world’s child marriages are conducted in India

Many were bound to miss the brief report. It was buried under all those stories of scams and the Cricket World Cup tournament (just about a week away), with the Indian Premier League event blending the game and Bollywood glamour, not far behind.

But the report — about far less beautiful and powerful (as well as much younger) persons than film stars, cricketers and billionaires — deserved to be noticed. It should have come as a sharp recapitulation of India’s modern history, in the strange sense of what has not happened.

On February 8, the Indian government reportedly told the Supreme Court that it wanted child marriage to be declared illegal and banned. The country has had on its statute book a Child Marriage Act, which prohibits the marriage of girls and boys below 18 and 21 years of age respectively. Ironically, however, child marriage is not a cognisable offence and can, therefore, be declared illegal only in cases where a minor party themselves complain. The Hindu Marriage Act also does not authorise the court to declare the marriage void on the ground that either of the party is under-age.

Hearing a petition from the National Commission for Women, the court observed: “Hundreds of such marriages are taking place. Many of them are performed in the presence of public authority including ministers. Such marriages are publicised and the authorities are aware of it.”

The report should have thrown the mind of conscious Indians back to the days of Baal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), one of the earliest stalwarts of India’s freedom movement. The issue was, in fact, one of the first to be taken up by the movement, but not in a way flattering to India of today.

In 1890, the colonial government passed an Age of Consent Act, which raised the age at which a girl could get married from 10 to 12. Tilak was up in arms. In 1891, he launched a tearing campaign against the new law, terming it an act of interference with Hinduism although he personally was against child marriage.

British journalist and writer Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol, in his book The Indian Unrest, noted that other leaders of the freedom movement like Gopal Krishna Gokhale supported the new law. Chirol wrote: “Tilak raised against them a storm of passion and prejudice. In the columns of the Kesari –a pro-independence publication — of which he had become sole proprietor, he denounced every Hindu who supported the measure as a renegade and a traitor to the cause of Hinduism.”

The movement, of course, was to adopt an agenda of social reforms including abolition of child marriage under Mahatma Gandhi, who accepted Gokhale as his mentor. Gandhi’s own had been a child marriage — he and Kasturba were 14 when they married. The Mahatma urged a member of the Central Legislative Council, Harbilas Sarda, to introduce a bill restraining child marriages. Thus was born the Child Marriage Restraint Act (CMRA), popularly known as the Sarda Act, amended in 1978, to fix the minimum age of marriage at 21 for boys and 18 for girls.

Abolition of child marriage was inscribed on the banner of India’s renaissance. The banner was held aloft and carried forward by reformers and writers in different regions from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in Bengal and Munshi Premchand in the Hindi heartland to poet Subramanya Bharathi in Tamil Nadu.

The theme has figured as a recurring refrain in Indian films in many languages. The examples include Chhoti si Mulaqat (1967), Balika Badhu (1976) and, last but not the least, the celebrated Water of Deepa Mehta (2005). Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli’s award-winning Ghatashraddha (Final Rites) of 1977 also dealt with the same theme. Closer home for this columnist, in Tamil Nadu, Kula Deivam (Family Deity) of 1956, based on Bengali writer Prabhavati Devi Saraswati’s story, became a blockbuster, with poet Bharatidasan’s song, Vetkamillai, vetkamillai (No shame, no shame) rousing the audiences against child marriage. The theme was taken up again in Vennira Aadai (White Apparel) of 1965, which catapulted future Chief Minister J Jayalalitha to fame. The film may have helped boosted her fortunes, but did very little for under-aged brides even in parts of Tamil Nadu.

The court report cited earlier tells us about the current situation, 64 years after independence and 120 years after the law that Tilak opposed. According to UNICEF’s ‘The State of the World’s Children 2009’ report, 47 percent of India’s women aged 20–24 were married before the legal age of 18, with 56 percent in rural areas. The report also revealed that 40 percent of the world’s child marriages are conducted in India.

The same can be said about other social practices that freedom fighting social reformers set out to combat and eliminate. The incomplete reforms they espoused long ago include caste-related ones, especially the outrageous tradition of untouchables. This is a paradigm to which several parallels can be found in the history of several peoples to have countered aggression from and oppression by more advanced outsiders.

Big money may have come into India as the size of scams and cricket spectacles shows. But, India’s ‘growth story’ has made no great difference to female children in the marginalised sections of society.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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