Social Reform Measures By British Government

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Social reform measures by British Government (1828 to 1857)

Indian Society in the 19th century was caught in a vicious web created by religious superstitions and dogmas. All religions in general and Hinduism in particular had become a compound of magic, animism, and superstitions. The abominable rites like animal sacrifice and physical torture had replaced the worship of God. The priests exercised an overwhelming and unhealthy influence on the mind of people. The faithful lived in submission, not only to God, the powerful and unseen, but even to the whims, fancies, and wishes of the priests.

The conquest of India by the British during the 18th and 19th century exposed some serious weaknesses and drawbacks of Indian social institutions. The response, indeed, was varied but the need to reform social and religious life was a commonly shared conviction. It also brought in completely new sets of ideas and social world. The exposure to post-Enlightenment rationalism that came to signify modernity brought a change in the outlook of a select group of Indians.

The ageold traditions and practices were degraded and these were replaced by many social evils like female infanticide, sati, child-marriage, caste system, purdah; ban on female education, and widow re-marriage etc. The beginning of the social reform movements in India in the nineteenth century were clearly the outcome of coming in contact of two different societies- totally different from each other. On the one hand, there is the traditional orthodox Society and on the other hand is the English educated young generation. It is regarded as the product of the English education which brought the young India into contact with the Age of illumination in Europe. It is the age which proclaimed the supremacy of reason over faith, of individual conscience over outside authority and brought in its train new conceptions of human rights and social justice. The introduction of English education helps a lot in bringing about a great transformation in Indian society.

In nineteenth century, a large number of individuals as well as a number of organisations took active role in social reform movement. However, the story of Indian social reform movement practically began with R?ja R?mmohan Roy (1774-1833).

Brahmo samaj

Brahmo Samaj, was a theistic movement within Hinduism, founded in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1828 by Ram Mohan Roy. The Brahmo Samaj does not accept the authority of the Vedas, has no faith in avatars (incarnations), and does not insist on belief in karma (causal effects of past deeds) or samsara (the process of death and rebirth). It discards Hindu rituals and adopts some Christian practices in its worship. Influenced by Islam and Christianity, it denounces polytheism, image worship, and the caste system.

Whereas Ram Mohan Roy wanted to reform Hinduism from within, his successor, Debendranath Tagore, broke away in 1850 by repudiating Vedic authority and making reason and intuition the basis of Brahmanism. He tried, however, to retain some of the traditional Hindu customs, and a radical group led by Keshab Chandra Sen seceded and organized the Brahmo Samaj of India in 1866 (the older group became known as the Adi Brahmo Samaj). The new branch became eclectic and cosmopolitan and was most influential in the struggle for social reform. It sponsored the Band of Hope temperance society, encouraged the education of women, and campaigned for the remarriage of widows and for legislation to prevent child marriages. When Keshab arranged for his daughter to marry the Prince of Cooch Behar, both parties were well under age. He was thus violating his own reformist principles, and many of his followers rebelled, forming a third samaj (“society,” “association”), the Sadharan (i.e., common) Brahmo Samaj, in 1878. The Sadharan Samaj gradually reverted to the teaching of the Upanishads and carried on the work of social reform. Although the movement lost force in the 20th century, its fundamental social tenets were accepted, at least in theory, by Hindu society.

young bengal movement

Henry Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), a young Anglo-Indian teacher of Hindu College initiates this movement. His followers were also known as Derozians. Rev. Krishnamohan Bondop?dhy?y, Tarachand Chakraborty, Dakshinaranjan Mukhop?dhy?y, Ramgopal Ghosh, Ramtanu Lahiri, Pearychand Mitra were the important members of this group. Derozio inspires his students to think rationally and freely. His motto is: ‘he who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool, and he who does not is a slave’. Most of the supporters of this movement were Christians by faith. They use to follow Western culture, dress, food and manners. The Derozians were dead against the old, obsolete social customs of Hindu society of that time and protests against idolatry, polygamy, child- marriage, dowry, caste system, and the system of purdah. They were supporters of female education, widow remarriage, individual liberty, abolition of Sati etc.. One remarkable contribution of the Derozians is the establishment of the Calcutta Public Library in 1935 which later on becomes National Library, the biggest library in the country. They advocates for mass education, particularly education for women, and supports Western education. They set up a few schools at their own cost and they were in favour of introduction of mother tongue as the medium of instruction.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Widow remarriage

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was born in an orthodox family on 26th September 1820. Since childhood he was keen to get more and more knowledge. As his family was not well off, he used to study under street lights at night. Because of his vast knowledge on different subjects, the title Vidyasagar was given to him by the people of his village. Vidyasagar means an ocean of learning (“vidya” – learning, “sagar” – ocean). He became a Sanskrit pundit and acquired an extremely high proficiency in this subject. Till his retirement, he worked as a Sanskrit professor in Sanskrit College, Calcutta. While he was the principal of the college, the college became a place of reform. Not only this, Vidyasagar was a great writer and also known as the father of modern Bengali language. Many Bengali alphabets were revised by him. He also wrote a book on grammar rules of Sanskrit that is used till date.

Vidyasagar pressed on and urged the British to pass legislation that will allow Hindu widows to remarry. To support his request, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar collected almost 1000 signatures and sent his petition to the Indian legislative council. The council received thousands of signatures for and against this measure but the members finally decided to support the enlightened minority, The Hindu widow remarriage act was passé in 1856. Although, the value of this act for improving the lives of woman has been questioned, one cannot doubt Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s desire to create a more humane society.

Vidyasagar lived in a world where the males among the Kulin Brahmins, an aristocratic caste with rigid marriage rules were highly sought after as bridegrooms and able to marry as many women as they wished. As Vidyasagar collected data on this custom, he became horrified by the magnitude of the problem. Using as a sample 133 Kulin Brahmins of Hooghly district, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar revealed the abuses inherent in polygamy. One fifty-year old man had married 107 times; Bholanath Bandopadhyaya (age fifty five) had eighty wives; Bhagaban Chattopadhyaya (age sixty-four) had seventy-two wives, and so the documentation continued. Arguing that the practice of Kulinism was inhuman, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar presented the government with a petition signed by 2,500 persons requesting the legislative prohibition of polygamy. No action was taken and ten years later he presented another petition signed by 21,000 persons requesting the legislative prohibition of polygamy. The government cautious after the 1857 mutiny, declined to act.

Vidyasagar continued his campaign and although he produced anti-polygamy tracts in 1871 and 1873, the issue was dead. Vidyasagar’s third campaign focused on mass education for girls and boys. He had been appointed Special Inspector of Schools for the Districts of Hooghly, Midnapur, Burdman and Nadia and was able to use his influence to establish a system of vernacular education in Bengal, including forty schools for girls. J.E.D. Bethune, legal member of the Governor Generals council, had set up a girls school in 1849 and it became Vidyasagar’s responsibility to guide it through its difficult years. He remained associated with it until 1869.

Parsi religious reform movement

Religious reform began among the Parsis in Mumbai in the middle of the 19th century. In 1851, the Rehnumai Maz’dayasan Sabha or Religious Reform Association was founded by Nauroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naoroji, S.S. Bengalee and others. They started a journal Rast Goftar, for the purpose of social-religious reforms among the Parsis. They also played an important role in the spread of education, specially among girls. They campaigned against the entrenched orthodoxy in the religious field and initiated the modernization of Parsi social customs regarding the education of girls marriage and the social position of women in general. In course of time, the Parsis became socially the most westernized section of Indian society.

Women education and bethun school

The College owes its origin to John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune (1801 – 1851) who was born in Ealing, son of Colonel John Drinkwater Bethune of Salford, who had earned fame as the author of History of the Siege of Gibraltar. J.E.D Bethune was educated at Westminster School, graduated from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and later qualified for the Bar to secure an administrative position in Parliament. He was proficient in Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian and also earned fame as a poet. In 1848, he was sent to India as Law Member of the Governor General’s Council. Besides his ordinary official duties he undertook the presidency of the Council of Education and took a keen interest in the education of women and the eradication of social evils.  He was deeply moved by the illiteracy and hence oppression of Indian women who urgently required education, awareness and the ability to voice their protest and solve their problems. He decided to devote himself to the cause of Indian women. With encouragement from and participation of like-minded social reformers like Ramgopal Ghosh, Raja Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee and Pandit Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, Bethune established Kolkata’s first school for girls in 1849 called the Hindu Female School, which later came to be known as Bethune School. Bethune passed away in 1851.

In 1856, the Government took charge of the Hindu Female School, later renamed as Bethune School. The Managing Committee of the school was then formed and Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, the celebrated social reformer responsible for the eradication of the custom of Sati and a relentless supporter of women’s emancipation was made the Secretary. In August 1878, Bethune School was amalgamated with Banga Maha Vidyalaya which was founded by Miss Annette Akroyd with the help of Durgamohan Das, Dwarka Nath Ganguly and Anandamohan Basu.

Paramahansa mandali

Paramahansa Mandali was founded by Dadoba Panderung in 1849 and was one of the most effective socio-cultural organizations that had its influence across the state of Maharashtra. During the phase of conceptualization, most of the leaders of Paramahansa Mandali and Manav Dharma Sabha were common and shared similar ideologies.

The basic philosophies of the society were that God alone should be worshiped; that real religion is based on love and moral conduct; that spiritual religion is one; that every individual should have freedom of thought; the daily words should be consistent with reason; mankind is one caste; and that the right kind of knowledge should be given to all.  

The Mandali also denied the polytheism of popular Hinduism, the caste system and the Brahmanical monopoly of knowledge. The Mandali promised for freedom of thought and insisted on reason as a base for moral conduct. The members of the Mandali might do so without adherence to a single doctrine.  For all their ideologies the Mandali worked on two basic principles. Firstly, that the members of the Mandali would not attack any religion. The second principle was that, they would reject any religion which claimed that it had `the infallible record of God`s revelation to man`.

Balshastri jambhekar

Best known as the “Father of Marathi Journalism”, Balshastri Jambhekar is renowned for his contributions in the field of print media and social awareness. He was one of those social activists who made continuous effort in generating useful and healthy consciousness amongst the common masses and attempted to educate the uneducated.

Jambhekar’s newspaper was just not a source of updating oneself with the British moves. It also dealt with several social issues prevailing in India, since times immemorial. Jambhekar emphasized on issues of widow re-marriage and helped in creating awareness amongst the uneducated Indian masses. Though this effort took time, it urged the common masses to think over, thereby launching a movement to support the re-marriage of widows eventually. He was passionate about spreading knowledge throughout India through his newspaper and desired to build a society with a scientific outlook. He often dreamt of a society that we see today about 200 years back.


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