Nehru’s Word: Orthodoxy unites leaders of all faiths

“The government in its distress at having to combat a great political movement directed against it, sought allies in the most reactionary of religious and social bigots.”

India's first PM Pt Jawaharlal Nehru
India's first PM Pt Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

Recent developments in Afghanistan have triggered many debates in the Indian media about the similarities and differences between the social outlook of the Taliban and of those within India who are inspired by exclusivist religion-based ideologies. In that context, we bring to our readers a very interesting article written by Jawaharlal Nehru while imprisoned in Almora jail in August 1935, in which he cites a very telling example of how the orthodox sections of Hindus and Muslims united to oppose the Sarda Act which sought to prohibit the marriage of girls under fourteen.

“Some years ago, I happened to be in Benares and as I was driving through the narrow city streets, my car was held up by a crowd. A procession was passing through…. Crowds interest me and I got down from the car to find out what was afoot. The procession was certainly an interesting one and it had certain unique features. We saw Brahmans, the most orthodox of their kind, with all manner of caste-marks proudly displayed on their foreheads, marching shoulder to shoulder with bearded moulvies; the priests from the ghats fraternized with the mullahs from the mosques, and one of the standards they carried in triumph bore the flaming device: ‘Hindu Musalman Ekta Ki Jai’ — Victory to Hindu-Muslim Unity! Very gratifying, we thought. But still what was all this about?

“We soon found out from their cries and the many other standards they carried. This was a joint protest by the orthodox of both religions against the Sarda Act (or perhaps it was a Bill at the time) which prohibited marriages of girls under fourteen. The pious and the holy of both faiths had joined ranks and hands to declare that they would not submit to this outrage on their deepest convictions and most cherished rights.

“Were they going to be bullied by the threats of so-called reformers into giving up their right to marry child-wives? Never! Law or no law they would continue to marry little immature girls— for was not post-puberty marriage a sin? — and thus enhance the glory of religion. Had not a noted vaidya (physician) of Benares stated that in order to proclaim his adherence to the ancient dharma and his abhorrence of new-fangled notions like the Sarda Act, he, even he, although he was round about sixty years of age, would marry afresh a girl under the prescribed legal age? Faith and religion had built up their great structures on the sacrifice of their votaries. Surely the movement against the Sarda Act would not lack its martyrs.

“We mixed with the crowd and marched along for some distance by the side of the procession. Devadas Gandhi was with me and some Benares friends and soon we were recognised by the processionists. Our looks and attire separated us from the ranks of the faithful— we had neither beards nor caste-marks — and we carried on an irreverent and somewhat aggressive commentary on the procession and its sponsors. Offensive slogans were hurled at us and there was some jostling about.

Nehru’s Word: Orthodoxy unites leaders of all faiths

“Just then the procession arrived at the Town Hall and for some reason or other started stone throwing. A bright young person thereupon pulled some crackers and this had an extraordinary effect on the serried ranks of the orthodox. Evidently thinking that the police or the military had opened fire, they dispersed and vanished with exceeding rapidity. A few crackers were enough to put the procession to flight, but not even a cracker was required to make the British Government in India surrender on this issue.

“A little shouting, in which oddly enough the Muslims took the leading share, was enough to kill and bury the Sarda Act. It was feeble enough at birth with all manner of provisions which hindered its enforcement and then it gave six months’ grace which resulted in a very spate of child marriages.

"And then, after the six months were over? Nothing happened; child marriages continued as before and government and magistrates looked the other way while the Sarda Act was torn to shreds and cast to the dogs. In some instances, the person who ventured to bring a breach to a court, himself got into trouble for his pains and was fined….

“What were we doing all this time? We were in prison. For six years now we have been mostly in prison, sometimes as many as sixty or seventy thousand at a time. Outside, a strict censorship prevailed, meetings were forbidden and an attempt to enter a rural area was almost certain to lead to prison, if not worse….And the government in its distress at having to combat a great political movement directed against it, sought allies in the most reactionary of religious and social bigots. To obtain their goodwill the Sarda Act was sat upon, extinguished. 'Hindu Musalman Ekta Ki Jai’ — Victory to Hindu-Muslim Unity!

“The Muslims deserve their full share in this victory. Most of us had thought that the child-wife evil was largely confined to Hindus. But whatever the early disproportion might have been, Muslims were evidently determined not to be out-distanced in this matter as in others, by Hindus. So, while on the one hand they claimed more seats in the councils, more jobs as policemen, deputy collectors, tahsildars, chaprasis and the like, they hurried on with the work of increasing their child-wives….

“This instance of the Sarda Act was a revealing one, for it showed that all the shouting about Hindu-Muslim friction and disunity was exaggerated and, in any event, misdirected. That there was such friction nobody could deny, but it was the outcome not so much of religious differences as of economic distress, unemployment, and a race for jobs, which put on a sanctified garb and in the name of religion deluded and excited the masses.

“If the difference had been essentially religious, one would have thought that the orthodox of the two faiths would be the farthest removed from each other and the most hostile to each other's pretensions. As a matter of fact, they combine frequently enough to combat any movement of reform, social, economic, political. Both look upon the person who wants to change the existing order in any way as the real enemy; both cling desperately and rather pathetically to the British Government, for instinctively they realise that they are in the same boat with it.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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