In 1885, Indian physician and feminist Rukhmabai was caught in what is now considered a landmark case involving her own marriage at the age of 11 to 19-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji.
When Rukhmabai hit puberty, she was to go and live at her husband’s home to consummate their marriage, as was the norm at the time. Cultured, educated and independent, she was terrified at the prospect of having to confine herself to a traditional marriage at an age where she could be pursuing her dreams. So when she refused to go to her husband’s home in 1884, Bhikaji petitioned the Bombay High Court for restitution of conjugal rights of a husband over his wife.
Her simple refusal stirred up a giant storm, and became one of the biggest cases India had ever seen in the 19th century. It received immense attention from the British press and Indian reformers who had been working to abolish archaic structures of child marriage and the ban on widow remarriage.
Rukhmabai’s case eventually led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act, 1891, which changed the age of consent for sexual intercourse from age 10 to age 12.
A number of forces were involved in the passing of this Act, which was monumental at the time. For example, it also involved the tragic death of 10-year-old Phulmoni Dasi, who died after she was raped by her 35-year-old husband. Alongside, the legislation was passed due to a significant role played by a social reformer named Behramji Malabari, whose role in the women’s rights movement was extremely prominent, yet unspoken of today.
A simple childhood marred by death
Behramji Merwanji Malabari was born in Baroda, Gujarat on 18 May 1953. His father, Dhanjibhai Mehta, was a clerk who worked for a meagre sum of Rs 20, and died when Behramji was only seven or eight years old. In an unusual act at the time, Behramji’s mother was married again to one Merwanji Nanabhai Malabari, who was an importer and ran a pharmacy. However, he suffered many losses in business, and Behramji and his mother spent most of their time battling abject poverty.
Behramji’s mother Bhikhibai was “no ordinary woman”, said judge, poet and social reformer Dayaram Gidumal Shahani in his book The Life and Life-work of Behramji M. Malabari: A Biographical Sketch. Shahani was Behramji’s friend in his later years. Together, they co-founded the Seva Sadan organisation in Mumbai.
Bhikhibai, a housewife, was always on her feet in the service of the poor, running from house to house to tend to sick children with medicinal herbs, with little Behramji often accompanying her. She was a shoulder to lean on for the women in her locality and did not care for the barriers of religion and caste when it came to lending a helping hand. Behramji was much inspired by her life.
He was 12 years old when his mother passed away. Before her death, he liked what most young children do — playing, loitering, and making merriment. After her passing, he became much more serious and focussed, and he eventually channeled his grief into songs and poetry. As he told Shahani later, the morning after she died, “I became an old man. All my past associations were discarded.”
Behramji took to reading to cope with the loss of his mother, and spent hours engrossed in the passages of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Premanand and more. Struggling to make ends meet on his own, he knew a good way to find his way out of poverty was to be enrolled in a university once he was out of school. After finishing his schooling at the Irish Presbyterian Mission School in Surat, he arrived in Bombay at the age of 15 and took up a tutoring job and teaching jobs, starting at Rs 20. Eventually, he earned up to Rs 150 per session.
When he came to Bombay, Behramji had carried a few poems in Gujarati and English that he had written back home. Around 1876-77, he published them under the title The Indian Muse In English Garb. This caught the attention of renowned names such as Florence Nightingale, Max Muller, and Alfred Tennyson. Despite the sudden attention his work was receiving, which could have catapulted Behramji to literary stardom at a young age, he chose to stick to writing occasional pieces for local newspapers, especially in the form of appeals and memorials of the poor.
His journalistic career truly began when he met eminent Parsi businessman Sir Cowasji Jehangir, who introduced him to Martin Woods, then editor of Times of India. After his stint there, he became the editor of The Indian Spectator, which was praised as being “the voice of the natives”. Over time, he became close friends with Dadabhai Naoroji, with whom he would go on to edit the monthly magazine Voice of India. Through his work, he advocated the rights of widows, the reason for abolition of child marriage, and other such issues through his written work and meetings with senior politicians.
Behramji was not Hindu, but “felt vividly the sin, the folly, the unnaturalness of this custom of Infant Marriage, and traced the woes of widowhood to this cause. How this pernicious custom could be abolished was a question that long perplexed him,” Shahani wrote.
Quiet champion of women’s rights
Wondering how he could take his ideas forward, he penned his thoughts on issues plaguing Hindu women in a long document named Notes on Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood.
He sent it to over 4,000 Englishmen and Indians in positions of authority, including then Viceroy Lord Ripon and other members of the British government. In it, he detailed the social evils of ‘baby marriage’, the prohibition on widows to be remarried (blaming the “priestly class”, i.e, the Brahmins, and “social monopolists” for their “vulgar prejudice), and the superstitions that prohibited women from leading lives of freedom and agency.
His Notes were met with lukewarm response by leaders — while they were sympathetic to women having to deal with such abhorrent practices, alongside Behramji’s efforts to deliver justice, they felt they could not take action without “having…full information as to the sentiment and opinion of the community interested”. So Behramji circulated his notes widely, and they caught immense public attention, dominating the press over the next seven years or so.
When Rukhmabai’s case gained traction in the press, discussions regarding the amendment to certain parts of the Indian Penal Code began brewing in social circles. Meanwhile, Behramji travelled to London for the first time around the same time and set up a series of meetings with leaders to appeal for the “rights of Indian daughters”. He raised the subject of “raising the protected age” for girls to engage in sexual intercourse, and while it was met with strong agreement in London, back home, these reforms were opposed on the grounds that the British government was “interfering with Hindu culture”. He called this opposition and its reasoning “suicidal”.
An Indian above all barriers
Behramji’s detailed editorials and pursuance of Rukhmabai’s case gave it the prominence it so required. Upon his return from London, he met Indian advocate Kashinath Trimbak Telang to discuss the amendment to the Penal Code to change the age of consent, alongside issues of infant marriage and widow remarriage. The meeting ended with common consensus that the protected age should be raised from 10 years to 12.
Thanks to Behramji’s consistent efforts since Rukhmabai’s case first came to light (which he himself played a role in), the government passed the Age of Consent Act in 1891, which raised the age of consent for girls in both Britain as well as India. He also played a similar role in the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885 in the UK, where the age of consent was raised from 13 years to 16 years of age and strengthened the guidelines for penalties for sexual offences against women and minors.
Over the course of his life, Behramji held the strong belief that the Hindu priesthood was “misinterpreting the Vedas and Upanishads”. Needless to say, that he was not a Hindu and yet so strongly opposed age-old Hindu practices — even going so far as to have them amended by the government. This invited the strong ire of many renowned leaders, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak and other nationalists, who opined that Behramji should “focus on his own community”. But in reality, Behramji’s advocacy for women’s rights also led to Parsi Zoroastrians voluntarily turning away from practices such as underage and forced marriages.
In her preface to Shahani’s biography, Florence Nightingale, who remained an admirer of Behramji, wrote, “His work as a reformer of Indian social life cannot fail to set Englishmen, and especially Englishwomen, thinking of their duty towards their Indian brethren and sisters.” His role remained that of a mediator of sorts between Indians and the British, and he never formally joined politics with the Indian National Congress, for his focus was more on changing archaic structures in Indian society than ridding it of British rule. He also declined the British Viceroy’s offer of bestowing upon him the knighthood.
His later work involved his translation of Max Muller’s Hibbert Lectures in Indian languages, including Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and more, for which he travelled and researched extensively to fund the translation. His life and experience of British life were recorded in The Indian Eye On English Life, or Rambles of a Pilgrim Reformer. He also edited a monthly magazine named East and West from 1901 until the year he passed away.
As a writer, Behramji also knew when he could employ sarcasm and humour to drive his point across. While writing about his life in Britain, he expressed his innate exasperation at the noisy and peculiar lifestyles of Englishmen with a slight twist of words here and there. Of Madame Tussauds, he wrote; “We do not care to visit Madame’s Chamber of Horrors, to be introduced to many of the criminals and cut-throats known to history. We have just had our throats cut by the waiter at the restaurant, who charged us half-a-crown for two plates of mudwater, which he passed off as mulligatawny soup. These were horrors enough in that costly repast.” With a surprising sense of dignity, he mocks the instances of racism he faced for his naturally Indian appearances, without losing his cool.
On his passing in 1912, King George V reportedly wired a tribute to then Viceroy of India and said, “Please convey to the family of Malabari the sincere regret with which the Queen and I have heard of the death of our old friend. His death will be a loss to the country.”
A summary of his entertaining encapsulation of Indians among British can be read here.
Edited by Yoshita Rao