Gandhiji on child marriages, dowry and untouchability | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

From the Archives: Gandhiji on child marriages, dowry and untouchability

Sep 30, 2023 03:57 PM IST

Gandhiji said there should be no possibility of child widows. He was averse to child marriage.

The question of widow re-marriage would not arise if an end was put to the evil of child marriage. This view was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi in a written reply to questions after his prayer meeting at Char Sholadi on Sunday.

Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel at the AICC meeting in Mumbai. (HT File photo) PREMIUM
Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel at the AICC meeting in Mumbai. (HT File photo)

In the present condition of society, however, Gandhiji's belief in the equality of the sexes led him to advocate re-marriage for all young widows.

Gandhiji had two questions addressed to him to which he gave a written reply, on Monday, this being his weekly day of silence.

Question: Namasudra girls are usually married at 12 or 13, formerly the common age was 8 or 9. The bridegroom has to pay a dowry of Rs. 150 for the bride. The average difference between the two is about 12 or 15 years. Among one section of the caste, widow marriage was prevalent; but in imitation of another section, which is looked upon as superior, the former are giving up that practice. What is your advice regarding child marriage and widow re-marriage?

Dealing with the question, Gandhiji said that his opinion was definite on this point. In the first instance, there should be no possibility of child widows. He was averse to child marriage. It was an evil custom which unfortunately Namasudras had perhaps taken from the so-called higher castes.

No Dowry

Gandhiji was also against the system of dowry. It was nothing but sale of girls. He said that there should be castes even amongst Namasudras was deplorable and he would strongly advise them to abolish all caste distinctions amongst themselves. And in this, they should bear in mind the opinion he had often expressed, that all caste distinctions should be abolished and there should be only one caste, namely, bhangis, and all Hindus should take pride in being called bhangis and nothing else. This applied to Namasudras as well.

When child marriages were abolished, naturally there would be few, if any, young widows. As a general rule, Gandhiji was in favour of one man having one wife for life, and one woman having one husband for life. Customs had familiarised women with enforced widowhood.

The contrary was the rule with men. He called it a disgrace, but whilst the society was in that pitiable condition, he advocated widow re-marriage for all young widows. He believed in equality of the sexes and, therefore, he could only think of the same rights for women as men.

Civil marriages

Question: You may say you are in favour of inter-religious marriages but at the same time you say each party should retain his or her own religion and, therefore, you said you tolerated even civil marriages.

Are there any instances of parties belonging to different religions keeping up their own religions to the end of their lives? And is not the institution of civil marriage the negation of religion and does it not tend towards laxity of religion?

Gandhiji said that the questions were appropriate. He had no instances in mind where the parties had clung to their respective faiths unto death, because the friends whom he knew had not yet died he had however, under his observation men and women professing different religions and each clinging to his or her own faith without abatement

As to civil marriages. he did not believe in them but he would welcome the Institution of civil marriage as a much-needed reform for the sake of reform

At Haimchar Gandhiji drew the attention of the audience to the prayer meeting, which was attended by the Rehabilitation Commissioner.

He advised them to follow the advice he had given without waiting to know what others would do. He said he wanted the kingdom of God on earth. Surely we did not want to wait for anyone to do so.

‘Purdah system’

Then he dealt with the questions addressed to him. The first was: Do you think that strict enforcement of the purdah system would improve the moral condition of women?

Gandhiji answered that he was warned by some Muslim critics against speaking on purdah. He had, therefore, some hesitation in speaking about it. But he took heart when he turned round and saw that many Hindu women observed it and that numerous Muslim women of whom he had many friends, did not observe purdah. Lastly, real purdah was of the heart. A woman, who observed the purdah and contemplated a male on whom her gaze fell, violated the spirit behind it. If a woman observed the spirit, she was truly carrying out what the great Prophet had said.

Division of labour

The next question was: To those who had lost all their trade, your advice is that they should voluntarily turn themselves into labourers. Who will then look after education, commerce, and the like? If you thus dissolve the division of labour, will not the cause of civilization suffer?

To this, Gandhiji replied that the question betrayed an ignorance of his meaning. If a man could no longer carry on his original mercantile business, it was not open to him but obligatory for him to take to physical labour, say scavenging or breaking stones. He believed in the division of labour of work. But he did insist on equality of wages. A lawyer, doctor, or teacher was entitled to no more than a bhangi. Then only would a division of work uplift the nations on the earth. There was no other royal road to true civilization or happiness.

Spirit giveth life, the latter killeth. A Ganapati with an elephant's head cut off was a monster, but as a representation of 'om,' it was an uplifting symbol. Ravana, with ten heads, was a fabled fool, but if it meant a man who carried no head about him and was tossed to and fro by fleeting passions, he was a many-headed demon.

Real Bhangis

Question: How can caste Hindus look after the interests of untouchables? How can they realize the feelings of classes who had suffered so long at their hands? Is it not then better to entrust the interests of untouchables to men of their own castes?

Gandhiji was of the opinion that caste Hindus owed a sacred duty to the so-called untouchables. The caste Hindu must become bhangi in name and action.

When that happened, untouchables could rise at a bound, and Hinduism would have a rich legacy to the world. If that happened, the system of cleaning closets would undergo transformation. In England, the real bhangis were the famous engineers and sanitarians.

That could not happen in India so long as society was sluggish and slothful.

It was an easy descent to an audience composed mostly of Namashudras. He warned them against considering themselves as fallen or untouchables. Those so-called higher castes were the guilty ones. They were responsible for what they had become. If they realized the fact, they would never make the mistake of imitating the evil customs and habits of the higher classes.

Child marriages

He was sorry to hear that there were child marriages amongst them and that child widows were compelled, in imitation, to abstain from re-marrying. The result, he had learned, was that diseases which resulted from promiscuity were prevalent among them.

Their betterment would not come from the legislature or any other outside agency. It depended on their own efforts. They should remember what the late Malaviyaji used to say: that children of God should confine themselves to earning an honest cowrie and eat what it could procure. Then there would be happiness for them, and untouchability would be a thing of the past. The so-called higher castes would be ashamed of their sin against them.

Bapu pointed out the destruction that was wrought. He was sorry for it but would not shed a tear for it, nor harbor ill-will against the destroyers. Let them not bewail their lot.

They were used to hard labour or should be. They might plead with the Government to do justice and that in time. But they must not give in if that assistance did not come. They must trust their hands and feet to set them up again in life. God always helped those who helped themselves. Their reliance must be on the living God and not on the ever-erring mass - A.P.I.

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