Hindu widows in Bengal aged between five and ten years numbered a staggering 34,000 in 1903

Suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma, who sniggered at Prophet Mohammed's under-age wife, had no idea of the extent of child brides and widows among the Hindus

Hindu widows in Bengal aged between five and ten years numbered a staggering 34,000 in 1903

Alapan Bandopadhyay

The now suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma actually betrayed her ignorance of India and Indian reality while seeking to criticise Prophet Muhammad and Islam for allowing child marriage 1,400 years ago. It is also worth noting that the age of the Prophet’s third wife has ranged from 6 to 19 (consummation age also varies from 9 to 15) and cannot be said with any certainty.

Child marriage has been rampant in large parts of the world till recently. In India itself the ‘Age of Consent Act’ was passed only in 1891, barely 120 years ago. It was the death of a 10-year-old Bengali girl Phulmoni Dasi due to forceful intercourse by her 35-year-old husband Hari Mohan Maiti in 1889 that invited intervention by the British government (‘Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain’. Princeton, 2001). A Bengali newspaper, Bongobashi, edited by Jogendra Chandra Bose, published an article the same year opposing the Age of Consent Act. The article encouraged upper caste Hindus to revolt against the statute. Things went so far, that the British government had to invoke sedition charges against Bose, for ‘showing disloyalty to the crown’. In fact, this was the first registered case of sedition under Section 124A of IPC in India. He later apologised and got bail (Queen-Empress Vs Jogendra Chunder Bose and Others, 25 August, 1891).

A decade after passing the Age of Consent Act, another Bengali magazine called Probashi published a report in 1903 on the age of Bengali Hindu widows. The startling list was as follows:

Up to 1 year: 433

1 to 2 years: 576

2 to 3 years: 651

3 to 4 years: 1756

4 to 5 years: 3861

5 to 10 years: 34705

11 to 15 years: 75590

16 to 20 years: 142871

Udbahotattwodhrita Smriti prescribed seven years as the ideal age of marriage for women. Udbahotattwodhrita Yamabachana issued injunctions that fathers of unmarried daughters above 12 years of age were sinners and liable to be punished. Kashyap Commentary also confirms that no Brahmin could marry a girl above the age of 12.

Jimutabahana, in his ‘Dayabhaga’ commented ‘daughters must be married off before their breasts are well developed and before they experience menstruation’. Yama Samhita and Vyas Samhita reiterated that women must be married off before they reached puberty or else their families must face social boycott.

As per contemporary Hindu religious texts, eight, nine and 10 years of ages were considered the most ideal age for marriage of a girl. Eight-year-old girls were called ‘Gauri’, and nine-year old girls were called ‘Rohini’. According to some versions of the Ramayana, Ram was 13-year-old when he married Sita who was aged six years then.

Child marriage was a curse across the world and in India it still survives. In 2005-06, UNICEF had estimated that almost half of the female population in India (47%) were married before they attained the age of 18. The fourth National Family Health Survey in 2015-16 (NFHS-4), estimated the figure to be over 25%.

There is therefore no justification for criticising the Prophet for choosing a bride who was under-age by the standards of the 21st century 1,400 years later.

Religious texts often reflect the then prevailing social and political conditions and therefore commentary on ancient religious practices cannot and should not influence contemporary political or social narratives.

It is unfortunate that Nupur Sharma’s ill-informed comment overshadowed issues like price rise and job creation, universal education and health, lawlessness and violation of human rights, the threat of war and of peace.

(The writer is an independent commentator. Views are personal).

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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