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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 6, New Delhi, January 25, 2020 - Republic Day Special

Dayamoyee: A Blazing Star in Vidyasagar’s Neighbourhood

Monday 27 January 2020

by A.K. Biswas

The year 2020 marks the bicentennial celebration of educationist and social reformer, Iswar Chandra Bandyopadhyay, more popularly known and eulogised as Vidyasagar, who was born on September 26, 1820 in village Birsingha under Ghatal police station of district Midnapur. Intensive intellectual activities in West Bengal are underway to commemorate his contri-butions in various fields.

Dayamoyee, an untouchable illiterate woman, belonged to a faceless village in the neighbouring Tamluk thana in Tamluk subdivision under the same Midnapur District. Contemporaries though, both of them, I am afraid, never met or knew each other. She could have been the most suitable mascot for the social cause of the crusader of Birsinha, who committed to “give his life to relieve the sufferings of the widows.1” Sadly, the proverb, “Nearer the temple remoter the god” holds good here! As a widow, remarried a second time on the initiative of and organised by her father, Dayamoyee courageously fought a case for her right of inheritance through the labyrinth of the courts of the Munsif of Tamluk and then Sub-Judge, Midnapur up to the High Court, Calcutta which, in the end, handed down a landmark verdict. Bengal including Vidyasagar, turned a blind eye and deaf ears to this unique case. This essay deals with the case of a villager for securing, single-handed, her right of inheritance. In her era, an inspirational story of great social dimension and relevance authored by an illiterate woman from the margins of society was uncommon as also unheard of.

Why is Dayamoyee a landmark in nineteenth century Bengal?

Some 137 year ago, the case had meandered from her village to the Calcutta High Court via the Munsif Court in Tamluk and Subordinate Judge’s Court in Midnapur. Undaunted and indefatigable she fought legal battles valiantly and defended her right of inheritance enshrined in the extant law. The Munsif at Tamluk and the Sub-Judge at Midnapur had rejected her pleas for right of inheritance of her father’s properties and declared her re-marriage illegal, rendering thereby her two sons illegitimate and her pleas for right of inheritance untenable. Decisions of both the lower courts presided over by native magistrates at Midnapur were perverse and arbitrary. Overpowering orthodoxy and domi-neering feudal influences had vitiated the vision and faculties of the Munsif and Subordinate Judge for appreciation of the objective of the extant law in the end to deliver a fair and appropriate decision. The woman was unfairly denied justice, compelling an illiterate and ignorant litigant to approach the Calcutta High Court from distant village for redress of her grievances, that threatened her life and existence including the future of her sons. Considering the time and the crisis confronting her life, the decision of the rustic woman from Tamluk to approach the High Court, Calcutta was undoub-tedly a great and historic step in the 1880s. The illustrious neighbour of Ghatal Thana was active in full vigour.

Facts of Dayamoyee’s case

Dayamoyee was the daughter of Radha Mohan Dass. Dayamoyee admitted that “she became a childless widow during her father’s life time,” discloses I. L. R. [1883] 10 Calcutta 238 Hurry Charan Dass & Others vs Nimai Chand Koyal,”but she asserts that among her caste people widow marriage is in vogue from time immemorial, and that she was given in marriage a second time by her father, and that Chandra Mohan and Tara Chand are her children of her remarriage”.

Dayamoyee was “given in marriage a second time by her father”, conforming to the custom of her caste. Her contention before the High Court was that “she is a widow daughter having sons of her own, and is, therefore, the only heir to her father”. The land in dispute belonged to Radha Mohan Dass who died in 1878 (1284 BS, leaving behind his brother Sadananda Dass, besides daughter Dayamoyee. Sadananda, representing himself as the only heir of his deceased brother, the said Radha Mohan sold the lands in dispute to one Nimai Chand Koyal under a kobala on March 24, 1880. Nimai Chand, the plaintiff encountered stiff resistance from Dayamoyee when he attempted to take possession of the land on April 5, 1880. According to the High Court, Nimai Chand Koyal, therefore”,.......seeks to recover possession and mesne profits after declaration of his title”. The Munsif of Tamluk, rejecting her pleas, had decreed in favour of the plaintiff Nimai Chand Koyal. In an appeal, challenging the Munsif’s order, an aggrieved Dayamoyee first moved the Subordinate Judge at Midnapur who “came to the same conclusion and on the same ground“. The Bench of the High Court expressed the view that “the lower Appellate Court (Sub-Judge, Midnapur) should have held from the evidence of both sides that Shunga marriage is prevalent among the Nomosudra caste, and the issues of such marriage are legitimate, and entitled to succeed according to Hindu law”.

Madhab Chandra Chakrabarty was the Munsif of Tamluk and Kedar Nath Mazumdar was the Sub-Judge of Midnapore. The Munsif delivered his verdict on November 25, 1881 and the Subordinate Judge affirmed the Appellate Degree no. 2074 of 1882 on July 26, 1882. Dayamoyee challenged the Appellate Degree no. 2074 of 1882 before the Calcutta High Court.2

Contemporary print media or intellectual curiosity of the nineteenth century Bengal during the so-called renaissance seem uncon-cerned about a case as this pregnant with immense sociocultural ramifications. Academia too turned blind eye to it till date! A Bench comprising Mr Justice Princep and Mr Justice O’Kinealy heard the case of Dayamoyee and handed down their verdict on June 29, 1883. It was alleged by the plaintiff Nimai Chand Koyal before the Bench that “Dayamoyee became a widow during the lifetime of her father, and that Chandra Mohan and Tara Chand are her natural sons, and that they are, therefore, not entitled to succeed.” The opposite party insinuated against the moral character of Dayamoyee and challenged her remarriage though her remarriage was sanctioned both by custom as well as by law in place. The opposite party had attempted to portray her in dark colours that her sons were ‘natural born’. A “natural born,” according to dictionary, is an “illegitimate child.” Such imputation is derogatory for the character of Dayamoyee. But her opponent’s aim was to smear her character before the High Court to reap benefit by scurrilous allegations of his opponent.

In the light of appellant’s contention with regard to the custom of widow marriage being in vogue from time immemorial and her sons of her re-marriage, the Division Bench was seized with most critical issue for decision: ”Whether widow marriage is a sanctioned custom among the Nomosudras and if so, is it a valid marriage.”3 Dayamoyee, the defendant was a Nomosudras, an untouchable caste of Bengal. The High Court observed that “the custom of widow marriage was in vogue amongst the Nomosudras and if so it was a valid marriage but he (Tamluk Munsif) came to the conclusion that the marriage was not a valid one as its recognition depended upon payments of money to the zamindar, the barber, the Brahmin and the village headman.”

Mr. Justice Princep and Mr. Justice O’Kinealy also observed that Madhab Chandra Chakra-barty had put reliance on issues immaterial to the case. Actually, at the beginning itself, the Munsif in Tamluk had placed blind reliance on immaterial issues and passed a perverse and arbitrary order and ultimately denied her right of inheritance. We, therefore, have to analyze the instant case in broad social perspective. Were the Munsiff and Subordinate Judge predisposed to pass order detrimental to the right and interest of Dayamoyee in the teeth of social custom and law in force?

The Munsif accepted and recognized that custom of widow marriage “was in vogue amongst the Nomosudras,” the caste to which Dayamoyee belonged.TheHigh Court Judges held the conclusion of the Munsif”that the marriage was not a valid one as its recognition depended upon payments of money to (1) the zamindar, (2) the barber, (3) the Brahmin and (4) the village headman”was immaterial. The native Tamluk Munsif Madhab Chandra Chakrabarty and Midnapur Subordi-nate Judge Kedar Nath Mazumdar, out of feudal instincts and inclination, blindly pandered to perverse interests! The High Court, we have noted already, indicted both these native officers, who took recourse to immaterial issues while denying justice to Dayamoyee.

This was a landmark judgement of Calcutta High Court that could go a long way in reforming the society. Dayamoyee made a history though history did not document for reasons known to historians and intellectual class, contemporary and/or about last fourteen decade the ssince!

Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930—March 21, 2013) was right in saying: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Act No. XV of 1856 legalised Hindu Widow Marriage: Vidyasagar’s movement flopped!

The Act No. XV of 1856, legalizing Marriage of Hindu Widow, received assent of Governor General of India Viscount Canning on 26 July 1856.4 Objective of the Act was ‘to remove all legal obstacles to the marriage of Hindu widows.’ Two of its sections were path-breaking for the Hindu society, which, in the nineteenth century, was steeped in the abyss of conservatism and orthodoxy.

Section 1 of the Widow Marriage Act envisaged that,

“No marriage contracted between Hindus shall be invalid, and the issue of no such marriage shall be illegitimate, by reason of the woman having been previously married or betrothed to another person who was dead at the time of such marriage, any custom and any interpretation of Hindu law to the contrary notwithstanding.”5

No marriage of any widow, in the face of this legal provision and authority, would be invalid and her son or daughter stigmatized as illegitimate if her previous husband was dead at the time of her second marriage. This provided an important legal safeguard for the widow to contract at the time of her second marriage. No custom or interpretation of Hindu law contrary to this provision, could render the marriage invalid. Unfortunately, social attitude as also mindset rarely changes. Orthodoxy invariably triumphed and reason together with enlightenment and above all, humanism trampled.

Section 5 of the Act further announced that

“..........a widow shall not, by reason of her re-marriage, forfeit any property, or any right to which would otherwise be entitled, and every widow who has remarried shall have the same rights of inheritance as she would have had such marriage been her first marriage.”6

Vidysagar had laboured hard to see that such an Act was in place for furtherance of the movement he had launched but success, to speak candidly, was limited. The first widow marriage under the Act was solemnized at Calcutta on December 7, 1856. He defrayed expenses for bridal dresses, ornaments and other incidentals.7 Several such marriages celebrated during his life time cost Vidyasagar “a good some of money.” One cannot count as success of his mission, if the crusader himself was obliged “to provide for the maintenance of many poor families, who were boycotted from the society and persecuted in different ways for contracting widow marriage or associating with those who had ventured to enter into such alliances by majority of the Hindus.” In the end, he incurred debts “to the fearful amount of nearly half a lakh of rupees” for the cause according to C. E. Buckland, ICS Vidyasagar made “the chief aim of his life.”8 Do we take pride in widow marriages that were greased for solemnization through brides paid in cash and kind to bridegrooms, their parents, etc.? 

Opposition against widow marriage emanated out of vain glorious sense of caste superiority in a tiny section of Bengali Hindus. The movement was not all-embracing nor did it involve a national question; “it affected Hindus only and of the Hindus only the upper castes, Brahmans, Kayasthas, etc.”9 What was the strength of these few castes? In 1872 Brahmans numbered 11,00,105; Baidyas, 68,353; and Kayasthas, 11,60,478—totalling 23,27,936 persons in Bengal Proper10 as against 1,2425,750 Hindus in Bengal Proper. Would we conversely be wrong to state that that these three castes failed the mission of Vidyasagar? 

Bengalees, designated and returned as “Semi-Hinduised Aboriginals in 1872 numbered 51,10,989. 11 Mind it these sections had widow marriage as social custom prevailing among them. It was the bhadralok who needed social reforms as their women paid highest prices because of sati, polygamy which their men folks considered prestigious and forced widowhood ordained by scriptures. 

The high wall of orthodoxy and prejudice against women was so stubborn, immutable and insurmountable that the reform movement like widow marriage, though blissful and noble for human happiness and social stability, actually flopped. The reason diagnosed for failure of the Vidyasagar-led movement of widow marriage according to a historian, may be cited here under:

“It (widow marriage) was more specifically a custom of the antyaja (low born) castes, prevalent among the Mehtar, Dom, Hari, Chandal etc. Vidysagar appeared to be proposing the adoption of the values of the unclean castes who were at the bottom of the society, by the Brahman and the clean Sudras who were the elites of the Bengali Hindus. He was asking the bhadralok to adopt a social practice that the chotalok had been pursuing since time immemorial. This must be looked like a reform of the popular culture in reverse direction—a counter reform. The elites could only be expected to resist this effectively.”12

The above observation, while flattering for the untouchable castes, e. g., Mehtar, Dom, Hari, Chandal, etc.it is galling for women of the advanced castes. A cursory perusal of the ethnological survey carried by Herbert Hope Risley, ICS in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa along with the report of various censuses since 1872 yields mines of information on castes and tribes that practised widow marriage as a social custom. They were Amat, Bagdi, Barhi, Barai, Barui, Bhandari, Bhuiya, Bhumij, Bind, Binjhia, Chakma, Chamar & Mochi, Chandal, Dhoba/Dhobi, Dom, Dosadh, Goala, Hajam, Hari, Kaibartta, Kahar, Koch, Kumhar, Lepcha, Mal, Munda, Musahar, Nunia, Pan, Pasi, Patni, Santal, Sunri, and Tanti. These castes aggregated at 15,221,547 in 1872. Some of the castes that socially recognised widow marriage was numerically very populous.13 Goalas,for instance, returned in census of Bengal 1872 were 29,32,969; Chandal, 16,20,545; Chamar and Mochi, 8,93,490; Bagdi, 6,80,278; Kaibartta, 6,92,140; Koch and Rajbanshi, and 831,491 persons.14

An infinitesimal section of Hindus, self-styled as bhadralok, determines what was good for tens of millions and those who did not follow their diktat were held to be inferior, if not barbarous, and subjected to cold terror through torture and indignity, discrimination, injustice, inequality and segregation. Those who imitated the terror-mongering tint section in social behaviour and rituals, the process initially coined was called brahminization but was later changed to Sanskritization. In a word, Sanskriti-zation invasive in connotation and nature, denied them the right of free choice and self-esteem to live in their own way. Widow marriage practised in their society was far more humane in character and capable of ensuring happiness in the family and society at large. The despicable miseries of the upper caste women speak eloquently and their tales of woes cannot be subject of this deliberation here.

Footnotes

1. Subal Chandra Mitra, Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar, [first published in December, 1902], Rupa and Co., 2008, p. 201.

2. I. L. R. [1883] 10 Calcutta 238 Hurry Charan Dass & Others vs Nimai Chand Koyal.

3. Spelling “Nomosudra” has been retained unchanged as mentioned in the Calcutta High Court verdict.

4. His tenure of office was between 28 February 1856 to 1 November 1862.

5. Subal Chandra Mitra, Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar, [first published in December, 1902], Ruma & Co., 2008, p. 230.

6. Ibid., p. 232.

7. Ibid., p. 252.

8. S.C. Mitra, op. cit., pp. 252-253.

9. Dr Arabinda Podder, introduction to Marriage of Hindu Widows by Vidyasagar, K.P. Bagchi and Company, Calcutta, January 1976, p. xiv.

10. Report on the Census of Bengal 1872, by H. Beverley, Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, General Statement V. B. pp. cxvii-cxviii.

11. Ibid.

12. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, essay Caste, Widow-Remarriage and Reform of Popular Culture in Colonial Bengal, compiled in Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar, Women and Social Reform in Modern India, A Reader, Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 112.

13. Ibid., pp. cxiv-cxxiii.

14. Ibid.

The author, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, may be reached at biswasatulk[at]gmail.com

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