Many officials of the East India Company wanted to remove various social evils present in Indian society but were forced to maintain an indifferent attitude. This was due to two reasons. Firstly, until about 1813, the East India Company was mainly interested in its trading activities and the profit from the revenue administration. No other factor of governance mattered to it at all. Secondly, the Company also did not want to disturb the strong religious base of Indian society. The British took a cautious stand since they were aware that any attempt on their part to rejuvenate the society could have been misunderstood by the people of India. This could result in the country rising up against their very presence here.
The ruling Conservative Party in England, therefore, wanted to leave things as they were. They were supported by Warren Hastings, the Governor-General in India (1773-1785), and some orientalists like H.H. Wilson. These people believed that the British masters should content themselves with the patronage of art, literature and religion without interfering with the established customs and norms of the land. Although Jonathan Duncan, a Resident of Benaras, attempted to stop female infanticide and some of Wellesley’s officers tried to stop the practice of Sati, these were mere exceptions and did not change the larger picture for the better. India continued to practice these social evils.
The Evangelicals, the Radicals and the Utilitarians, however, criticised the policy of the Conservatives. The Evangelicals believed that it was their moral duty to preach the Gospel, to show the people the right path of humanity, to oppose idol worship, superstitious and cruel beliefs. On the other hand, the Radicals and the Utilitarians believed in Bentham’s theory, that enforcing just laws could reform society. James Mills, the author of History of India (1818), was one of them who influenced the British Government to change its mind. Many Liberals in British Indian Administration like Montstuart Elphinstone, Charles Metcalfe and John Malcolm also worked as a pressure group and forced the Government to take initiative in bringing about social reforms a little more seriously. Lord William Bentinck was the first Governor-General who initiated, directed and implemented the policy of reform in India.
Luckily, for India, when the Liberals and Radicals were dominating in India, the same group also dominated the British Parliament. The progressive Indians too supported the liberal groups. Raja Ram Mohan Roy organised his volunteers, and like-minded people, and petitioned before the Government to pass legislation for social reform. The orthodox Indians also filed petitions to oppose any such bill which bans their age-old traditions like Sati. But Lord William Bentinck’s Government, with the support of the British Government, liberal and radical elements in the Government of East India Company and educated and progressive Indians, passed a Resolution in 1829 (Resolution No. XVII) that declared Sati as ‘Culpable homicide’. Punishment would be given to those who attempted Sati and to those who instigated it and the people who helped the women in committing Sati would be charged for a murder case. The same law was implemented in Bombay and Chennai in 1830.
William Bentinck’s Government was also responsible for ending slavery, an ancient institution called thuggi and female infanticide. Later in the Governor- Generalship of Lord Harding, human sacrifice was banned, which was most common among Gonds. Lord Dalhousie’s Government was responsible for passing two important acts related to social reform—Women Disability Act and Widow Remarriage Act (1856). Under the Women Disability Act, a person could inherit the property from his father even after a religious conversion. The Act was, perhaps, meant to encourage religious conversion, but one can’t deny that it recognised and honoured the individual’s choice, something that was unheard at that time, in Hindu society.
The Widow Remarriage Act permitted a Hindu widow to remarry. The number of widows was increasing due to child marriage and Kulinism (a man having many mistresses). Many progressive Indians were in favour of widow remarriage. Raja Ram Mohan Roy highlighted the plight of widows in his paper—’The modern encroachment on the ancient rights of females’ (1822). Some unmarried Brahmin girls appealed to the Government and intellectuals, through the Samachar Darpan, a Bengali newspaper, to take some steps in this direction. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar also started a campaign and wrote in favour of widow remarriage in ‘Tattavabodhini‘. He submitted a petition to Lord Dalhousie’s Government requesting them to pass the legislation. Though some orthodox Hindus put pressure on the Government against such legislation, Lord Dalhousie and his Executive Council supported the idea of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and passed the Widow Remarriage Act on July 26, 1856. Ironically, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, later, opposed the Act. In 1860, in the Vicoryship of Lord Canning, an Act was passed, which raised the age of consent for married and unmarried girls to ten. Reformers like B.M. Malabari through his journal ‘Indian Spectator’ created awareness and argued how child marriage was eroding the Hindu race at its roots. Due to his effort, the Age of Consent Act was passed in 1891, raising the age of consummation from ten to twelve. For Hindus, the Native Marriage Act of 1872 was passed, which forbade polygamy, encouraged widow remarriage and allowed inter-caste marriage for those who declared that they did not belong to any recognised school of religious faith.
Thus, it is clear that the progressive Indians supported the social reform legislation and the orthodox section opposed it, but even they, as a reaction, started social reform movement. The case of Arya Samaj is a fit example of this.
(Modern Indian History by Mohammad Tarique)