How a feisty young woman made her mark in India’s legal history

In a landmark case during the British Raj, Rukhmabai raised her voice against child marriage and demanded equal rights for women. She was a catalyst behind the enactment of Age of Consent Act in 1891. She also went on to become India’s first practicing lady doctor

History is full of interesting personalities who continue to inspire several generations after them. This narrative is of a woman who became the first practicing female physician of India. Rukhmabai’s name is also etched in the legal history of India.

Rukmabai was born in the year 1865. She married Dadaji Bhikaji in 1876 when she was just 11 years of age. Dadaji Bhikaji was a cousin of her stepfather Sakharam Arjun.

On reaching puberty a few months after her marriage, the expected ritual was that of garbhadhan or the ritual of consummation of marriage. However, such early consummation was discouraged by Sakharam and so Rukmabai remained at her natal home and continued to study.

When Rukhmabai turned 22, Dadaji asked her to live with him, but she refused. After 11 years of the unconsummated marriage, Dadaji filed a case for “restitution of conjugal rights” in 1984, thereby initiating one of the most publicized court cases in Bombay and indeed, in India, during the 19th century.

In 1885, Justice Pinhey of the Bombay High Court declined to pass a decree in his favor, declaring that since conjugality had not been instituted, the question of granting relief of “restoring conjugality” did not arise.

The ruling met with opposition from the traditionalist lobby of Hindu nationalists known as revivalists, who viewed the judgment as interference in the sacrosanct Hindu customs and as a breach of the assurance of non-interference given in the Queen’s Proclamation.

Succumbing to the political pressure, in the following year, the appellate Bench presided over by Chief Justice Sir Charles Sergeant ruled in favor of the husband and rejected the argument that there was no authority for a decree for “institution” of conjugal rights under Hindu Law commenting: “the gist of action for restitution of conjugal rights is that married persons are bound to live together. Whether the withdrawal is before or after consummation, there has been a violation of conjugal duty which entitles the injured party to the relief prayed.”

Thus, a British law was incorporated by which either of the spouses could demand for the union with his or her spouse when either party was as living apart without adequate reason. Rukhmabai steadfastly refused to abide by the law and defied the Privy Council’s order to ‘return’ to her husband, stating that she preferred courting imprisonment for violating orders than remaining in a marriage that she did not want. She boldly wrote to Queen Victoria. Her argument that she cannot be compelled to be tied in a marriage that was conducted at an age when she was incapable of giving consent was hitherto unheard of. The Queen overruled the court’s verdict and dissolved the marriage. While this case was going on an anonymous writer with the pen name ‘the Hindu lady’ received whole lot of attention for her feminist perspective and later it was found that this writer was none other than Rukhmabai.

Rukhmabai’s actions violently foregrounded the double standards at the heart of conjugality customs. In the legal arena, she is recognised for her contribution to the enactment of the Age of Consent Act, 1891 (a legislation that raised the age of consent for girls in India to 12 years making sexual intercourse illegal with a girl below the stipulated age).

Questioning what was assumed to be natural, she offered a subversive model of assertion, as a desiring individual, in a terrain dominated by family, community, and imperial notions of justice and governance. This incident provided fodder for social reforms debates in India. After the case was closed, she continued her struggle for education and decided to train as a doctor and raised funds for studies in medicine.

Supported by Edith Pechey Phipson, the British director of Bombay’s Cama Hospital, Rukhmabai completed an English language course and went to England in 1889 to study at the London School of Medicine for Women. She completed her medicine degree and became the first practicing female doctor of India.

(The writer is Associate Professor, UPES School of Law)

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