Teaching Module

Age of Consent Laws

Speech Defending an Increased Age of Consent in India (1891) [Speech Transcript]

Annotation

Mr Javeril Umiashankar Yajnik was a member of the Bombay Legislative Council and Chairman of the Bombay Public Meeting of the Hindoo Supporters of the Age of Consent Bill, held on February 22, 1891. On January 9, 1891, British colonial authorities had introduced a bill to raise the age of consent for unmarried and married Indian girls from 10 to 12 years. The law targeted the Hindu practice of child marriage. Once enacted, the law served to prohibit the consummation of marriage rather than the practice itself. In several high profile cases, husbands had caused the death of their child brides and the British public was outraged.

This approach represented a compromise, an attempt to address public indignation without breaching a commitment not to interfere in Hindu religious practices. Nonetheless, the bill provoked fierce opposition that rejuvenated nationalist politics in India. Even supporters of the bill framed their defense in terms of the issue of religious autonomy, as Yajnik did in this speech. His other argument drew on eugenic ideas to turn concerns about individual girls into a crisis for the Indian race. The bill became law in 1891, but further reform targeting child marriage stalled for more than 30 years.

Source

Yajnik, Javeril Umiashankar. Untitled Speech. In Bombay Public Meeting of the Hindoo Supporters of the Age of Consent Bill, 1891, 3–4, 6. Annotated by Stephen Robertson.

Primary Source Text

"It has been considered desirable, in the light of what has taken place in Bombay and elsewhere in reference to the Age of Consent Bill . . . that public expression should be given to the views of those who support the measure. . . .

It has been vehemently maintained that in the first instance, such a law will be a direct interference with the rights and duties of the Hindoos [sic], and will so far be a departure from the policy of non-interference laid down in Her Majesty’s Proclamation. . . .

I find that while scholars on both sides are agreed that the Garbhadhan ceremony must follow the appearance of the well-known physical condition [menstruation], there is a difference of opinion among them as to the exact period the Shastras prescribe for consummation. One view is that consummation must immediately follow the wife’s arrival at puberty. The other view is that no text of the Shastras expressly enjoins the performance of the ceremony immediately after the first course, that the precepts of the Shastras leave the matter indefinite, and that its performance is optional and not obligatory as maintained by the opposite side. . . .

I ask you to pause for a moment and calmly consider what object Government can possibly have in view proposing to enact this measure than that of using its influence to arrest the physical and moral deterioration of our people – deterioration due, as you all know, to a practice which the most sensible among us must reprobate. . . . [A]s time rolls on and the benefits of the measure . . . are seen and felt in developing a manlier race of Hindoos [sic], the unborn generations of our race will bless the noble Lord at the head of the Government of India for a measure enacted in the interest of humanity."

How to Cite This Source

Stephen Robertson, "Age of Consent Laws," in Children and Youth in History, Item #230, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/230 (accessed November 21, 2014).