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Grant of Rothiemurchus
Part I - Biographical Sketch - Chapter III


IN 1853-54, owing to changes in the higher appointments of the Civil Service, Grant officiated for some months in the Foreign Office, and subsequently was confirmed as Secretary to the Government of India in the Home Department. Mr Halliday, who had proceeded to England on sick-leave in the year 1852, and had given most valuable evidence before the House of Lords with regard to the renewal of the Company’s Charter, returned to India, after an absence of some eighteen months, to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Council. His tenure of this high office was brief, seeing that in May 1854 he was called on to fill the still more important office of the newly-created Lieutenant-Governorship of Bengal. With the general approbation of all parties Grant was, by the Court of Directors, appointed to the vacancy in Lord Dalhousie’s Council caused by Mr Halliday’s promotion. And here the Governor-General, at that time in the very fulness and maturity of his powers and experience, found a colleague who, if he differed on some important questions from a statesman somewhat apt to carry all before him by forcible writing and by personal influence, did not at other times content himself with a brief minute of concurrence, but supported his chief by State papers, in which cogent arguments were set forth in a style of peculiar dignity and clearness. Mr Disraeli spoke of Grant’s Minute on the Annexation of Oudh as one of the ablest papers in the whole Blue Book. And Lord Dalhousie acknowledged that opposition on some points was almost welcomed by the powerful support brought to bear on the discussion of others on which the Governor-General had set his heart, and in which his colleague concurred.

In 1854, a new body was called into existence for the work of legislation. Previously, the draft of every proposed legislative enactment was published in the Gazette, “plain for all folk to see.” The Home Department was charged with the drafting and the discussion, on paper, of all new laws and all changes in existing statutes. Opinions were invited from the subordinate Governments and from Heads of Departments and district officers whose duties were in any way affected by the new measures of progress and reform. Remonstrances and petitions from individuals, or bodies, or institutions, European or native, were always welcomed, and never hastily dismissed. But, like administrative measures, the proposed legislation was attacked or defended by written Minutes and their counter-blasts. There was no such thing as oral discussion or debate in an assembly to which reporters and the public could be admitted. There had been, since 1835, a high official known as the Legislative Member of the Supreme Council, specially charged with the preparation and revision of statutes; and, not to mention others, these functions were admirably discharged, for twenty years, by such eminent authorities as Macaulay, Charles Cameron, and Barnes Peacock. But, as already said, before 1854 no councillor had got on his legs in an Indian Legislative Assembly to influence his colleagues and public opinion by reason and logic.

The time, however, had now arrived when Lord Brougham’s sarcasm, that India was a country in which men did not debate or write, and where “eloquence evaporated in scores of paragraphs," was to lose whatever point or application it may ever have had. Lord Dalhousie, on the 20th of May 1854, presided at the first open meeting of a Legislative Assembly, composed of the four members of his own Executive Council, the Chief Justice and one Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature, and four civil servants, representing, respectively, the Presidencies of Madras, Bombay, and Bengal, and the North West Provinces. It does not fall within the scope of this memoir to explain when, and from what causes, this Legislative Council was abolished, or, to speak correctly, was replaced by an Assembly differently constituted and composed. But it endured for just seven years, and in that period it dealt with measures of the highest importance, affecting the revenue in all its branches—Land, Customs, and Excise ; the Civil and Criminal Codes of Law and Procedure ; and more or less every executive department in the length and breadth of India.

Ergo ipsos quamvis angusti terminus aevi
excipiat; neque enim plus septima ducitur xstas;
At genus immortale manet; multosque per annos
stat fortuna domfis, et avi numerantur avorum.

A seat in this Assembly displayed Grant’s capacity in a new light. Hitherto he had been known in official circles as a forcible and luminous writer. He was now to show that he could debate. He had to meet colleagues who had the advantage of legal training and forensic experience; and in a very short time he showed himself the equal of such disputants as Lawrence Peel, James Colvile, and Barnes Peacock. Many of the legislative projects discussed and passed between 1854 and 1859, or the five years of Grant’s service in Council, though much needed, are technical, departmental, or local. Such, for instance, were the following subjects : Riots, affrays, and unlawful assemblies; embankments on rivers in Bengal; desertions from the Indian Navy; the law of evidence; Municipal laws in the interior; the Copper Currency in the Straits Settlements ; Municipal taxes in Bombay ; the sale of landed estates for arrears of Government Revenue in Bengal; conservancy in the Presidency towns; outrages perpetrated in Malabar by a set of fanatics known as Moplahs; disturbances in the Santal districts, in the year 1855 ; the registration of under tenures; patents, adjournments, and points of order. It is not necessary nor advisable to notice these multifarious topics in detail. But the law for the re-marriage of Hindu widows ought to have a considerable space in this memoir, affecting, as it did, the whole Hindu community from Peshawar to Cape Comorin, and illustrating the course pursued by a Government that, on the one hand, sanctioned or tacitly overlooked practices somewhat repugnant to Western ideas, and, on the other, dealt vigorously with customs opposed to morality, to the best interests of society, and to natural religion itself.

In 1829 Lord William Bentinck, as Governor-General, passed a law declaring that the rite of Suttee, or Sati, could no longer be tolerated by a British Government, and that persons convicted of aiding and abetting should be deemed guilty of culpable homicide. This rite had been reported on, discussed, explained away, tolerated, and petted for nearly fifteen years, till the cases of widow-burning, instead of diminishing, increased in number, especially in the Metropolitan districts of Lower Bengal. Bentinck, disregarding opposition, conscientious or other, passed a law abolishing the cruel custom, when he had only been a year and a half in India. The statute excited neither rebellion nor emeute, and no discontent was shown even in the holy city of Benares. But the Hindu widow, if no longer encouraged or allowed to burn on the funeral pile of her husband, was yet condemned to a widowhood of degradation, insult, and wretchedness for the rest of her life.

In the year 1855 a native gentleman, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar began to agitate “for the removal of all legal obstacles to the re-marriage of Hindu.widows.” Vidya Sagar was a man of high caste, unquestionable integrity, and profound learning. He was at that time Principal of the Sanscrit College at Calcutta, and then and afterwards was known to bring his influence and his talents to bear on the moral elevation of his countrymen. The re-marriage of Hindu widows was truly described as “a question which affected the most important social institution of the people, and went home to the heart of every man and every woman of the Hindu persuasion in this immense Empire." The community in every Presidency was profoundly moved. The local Governments were asked for their opinions. The Press entered fully into the subject Petitions for and against the measure poured in from every quarter. Hindu text books, the deliberate opinions of English Judges, and the reports of Residents and Commissioners intimately acquainted with the social peculiarities of the people, were laid before the Legislative Council. It was shown that, twenty years before, the Law Commission, with Macaulay as President, had remarked that the prevalence of child-murder in several provinces might be owing to the “cruel law which prevented Hindu widows from contracting a second legal marriage.” From the voluminous correspondence on Suttee, reaching from 1814 to 1829, it was proved beyond a doubt that the hardships to which widows were subject when prevented from following their husbands to the funeral pile were so intense and so heart-rending, that many were forced to sacrifice themselves, after an interval of many years, with a fiddle, a cushion, or an ornament, or even the slippers, which had been the property of the deceased. Learned pandits showed conclusively that the Shastras contemplated a state of widowhood, and that the prohibition to re-marry was not supported by any sacred texts. Centuries before our time, attempts had been made by native reformers, uninfluenced by Englishmen, to end the degrading practice; notably by Raghanandan in Bengal, by a Raja in Dacca, by the Rajput Chief of Kotah or Harauti, by Brahmans at Nagpur, and by pandits at Poona. All these praiseworthy attempts had failed from one cause or other—from the fierce opposition of bigots; from the greed of the interested reversioners to landed estates; from the apathy of large portions of the community; from the want of that timely and effective support from the English administrator without which, for at least a century, no Indian reform, legal or social, has ever attained a lasting success.

Non hsec sine numine Divfim
eveniunt.

But the time had now arrived, under Providence, for the English statesman to take occasion by the hand. Not, however, that the reform was a matter of simplicity and ease. The agitation lasted during the Sessions of 1855 and 1856. Against the proposal there were forty petitions signed by 50,000 to 60,000 persons. Some of the local Governments were silent. Some memorialists petitioned against the Bill, on the ground, mainly, that it would interfere with the Hindu religion, or that, though in outward appearance permissive, it was, in reality, a coercive law. On the other hand, in Bengal, where the Hindu mind is most alert and active, petitions in favour of the Bill had come from the districts of Nadiya, Bankura, Midnapur, Murshidabad, Rangpur, and others. Mr John Russell Colvin, one of the most eminent of civil servants, selected by Lord Dalhousie for the Lieutenant-Governorship of the North-West Provinces, gave the reform his hearty support. The history and the arguments for the measure are so clearly set forth in Grant’s speech on the introduction of the Bill, that they must be given at length in his own language. On 17th November 1855 mover rose and spoke as follows:

“The petition on which the Bill was founded made certain allegations of fact. It is said that, by a long established custom, the marriage of Hindu widows is prohibited; that the civil law of this country, as administered both by Her Majesty's and the Company's Courts, incapacitates Hindu widows from contracting second marriages by pronouncing such marriages to be invalid, and making their issue illegitimate. It proceeded to say that this compels Hindu widows, whatever their own opinions, or the opinions of their families in this matter may be, to continue widows all their lives—in some cases from the age of five years. It further said that this state of the law inflicts great cruelty upon the widows, who, being now unable to burn as Suttees with their deceased husbands, have no alternative left, and must lead a life of severe mortification—in fact, a life of the most painful asceticism. It is said that this custom, cruel and unnatural in itself, is highly injurious to the interests of morals, and is otherwise most mischievous to society. From these premises it argued that a law having such effects ought not to be forced upon any one who disapproves of it; and it prayed that, as the petitioners are of opinion that the custom is not in accordance with a true interpretation of the Hindu Shastras, they, and those who agree with them, might be relieved from the legal restriction of which they complain.

"Now, if the premises could be proved, this argument was conclusive. The Legislative Council could not stand in the way of the removal of a municipal law enforcing upon unwilling people a prohibition which, so far from being for the public interests, was in the highest degree mischievous. He would speak of these premises in their order. He believed there was no legal decision affording a precedent which positively established the point that the marriage of Hindu widows is invalid, under the law as it is how administered, in British India; and an intelligent native gentleman, who had spoken to him on the subject of this measure, had expressed an opinion that, in the absence of such a precedent, it would be premature to legislate, because we do not know whether the Courts will enforce the interpretation of the Hindu doctrine which the petitioners presume that they will. But even if this question of law were really a doubtful point, he could not think the objection valid. He could not think that it would be right to sacrifice even a single Hindu family to such an objection. But it appeared to him that it was very certain that the Courts would decide in the manner alleged by the petitioners. The custom of the country was universally against the marriage of Hindu widows amongst the higher castes, and all modern English text-books affirmed that the law was as the petitioners allege. Indeed, the text-writers spoke on this point with less qualification perhaps than they might have done if they had given more attention to it. But the custom prohibiting re-marriage was followed so universally in practice, that the point did not appear to have been very deeply studied by any of the English writers on Hindu law. However that might be, he would quote enough from received authorities to show that the petitioners were correct in saying that our Courts would disallow the marriage of a Hindu widow. Sir Thomas Strange, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at Madras, in his work on ‘ Elements of Hindu Law Referable to British Judicature in India,’ in a chapter on ‘ Widowhood,1 wrote thus:—

“‘To this tyrannic instance of marital selfishness must be added the prohibition, to women, of second marriages ; and that this should apply, as it does, even to virgin widows, is an abomination surpassed only, if at all, by the custom that has just been denounced,’— the custom, namely, of Suttee. That was a statement of a learned Judge of a Supreme Court who was most sensible of the evil of the custom ; of whose wish, therefore, to open the law for the benefit of widows we might be sure; but who entertained no doubt of the existence of the prohibition as a legal impediment He would now quote a high authority of the Company’s Courts, Sir W. Macnaghten, from a work written when he was Registrar of the Calcutta Sudder Court Sir W. Macnaghten, in his 'Principles of Hindu Law,’ writes :—

“It is well known that women are betrothed at a very early period of life, and it is this betrothment, in fact, which constitutes marriage. The contract is then valid and binding to all intents and purposes. It is complete and irrevocable immediately on the performance of certain ceremonies, without consummation. Second marriages, after the death of the husband first espoused, are wholly unknown to the Hindu law, though in practice, among the inferior castes, nothing is so common.’

“The practice among the inferior classes had, of course, nothing whatever to do with the practice amongst Brahmans and other higher castes of Hindus. He thought he had said enough to convince the Council that if they wished to make it possible for a Hjndu widow to marry, with the reasonable expectation of having her marriage held valid, and her children pronounced legitimate, they must pass some such law as that which he had the honour to propose.

“The next point to which the petitioners referred was the extreme cruelty to widows of the prohibition against remarriage. He would not trouble the Council with quotations of what the Shastras required of widows who may not bum with their deceased husbands, because all that they did require was not strictly practised, and his object in introducing this Bill was entirely practical. Of the mortifications which the Shastras enjoined, it was difficult to say whether they were more remarkable for their cruelty or for their fantastic absurdity. But he would read to the Council a paper which had been partly supplied to him by a Hindu gentleman of great knowledge, and partly taken down from that gentleman’s mouth, which described the mode of life which a Hindu widow of respectability is now actually required to adopt until the latest day of her life:—

“A widow is required to live a life of austerity, the only alternative being to ascend the funeral pile of her husband. Her manner of life is minutely prescribed. Not only must she see no man, she must also avoid every approach to ease, luxury, or pleasure; she must neglect the care of her person; she must wear no ornaments; her hair must be shaved, or at least worn dishevelled; she must not see her face in a mirror, nor use perfumes or flowers; she must not freely anoint her body; and her dress must be plain, coarse, and dirty. The use of any kind of conveyance is prohibited, and she must not rest on a bed. Her food is limited as to quantity as well as quality. She must not take more than a single coarse meal a day, and the betel leaf, which terminates every repast in India, and is often substituted for a meal, is denied her. Besides other fasts, perhaps a dozen in the year, the Hindu widow is required to abstain absolutely from food and drink twice a month, one day and one night, during every bright and dark period of the moon, on the nth and 26th day of its age, from which fast not even severe sickness can give her a dispensation.’

“Sometimes, he believed, if one of the moveable fasts, of which there were, he understood, about a dozen in the year, happened to fall the day before or the day after the eleventh day of the waxing or the waning moon, this state of strict fasting lasted for forty-eight hours. During these fasts these unhappy victims, although a fever might be consuming them, and the hot winds might be blowing, were allowed not one drop of water, not one drop of medicine, though it should be necessary to save their lives. The paper from which he was quoting proceeded to say:—

“All amusements are strictly prohibited to her. She is not to be present where there is singing or dancing, or at any family rejoicing: she is not even to witness any festive procession.’

“This was the life to which a little prattling girl of five years old, taken from her dolls and her toys, and pronounced to be a widow, was condemned for the whole remainder of her existence upon earth.

“He now came to the immorality which the petition stated the prohibition engendered. He did not wish to dwell on this point longer than was absolutely necessary, for it was one which could be agreeable to nobody, and must be peculiarly distasteful to those for whose benefit this Bill was intended. But it was impossible to shirk the point altogether, for, in truth, it was the strongest argument in support of the Bill. The Hindu practice of Bramacharta was an attempt to struggle against Nature, and, like all other attempts against Nature, was entirely unsuccessful. Every candid Hindu would admit that, in the majority of cases, young Hindu widows fall into vice; that in comparatively few cases are these severe rules for a life of mortification virtuously observed; that, in many cases, a licentious and profligate life is entered upon in secret; and that, in many other cases, the wretched widows are impelled to desert their homes, and to live a life that brings open disgrace upon their families. He would read to the Council a very short passage on this subject from Ward’s description of the manners and customs of the Hindus:—

“‘Early marriages give rise to another dreadful evil. Almost all these girls after marriage remain at home one, two, or three years, and during this time numbers are left widows, without hsfring enjoyed the company of their husbands a single day. These young widows, being forbidden to marry, almost without exception become prostitutes.’

“This was the evidence of an English witness. He would now quote the evidence of a native witness, a learned Mahratta Brahman, who, it may be presumed, was also a man of the world, as he was the son of the minister of a late Raja of Nagpur. Eighteen or twenty years ago this Brahman wrote an essay on the second marriages of widows, in which he argued that the prohibition of such marriages was contrary to the Shastras, and urged the general adoption of a contrary custom. Major Wilkinson, when Resident at Nagpur, published the essay, with an introduction by himself, in which he gave this abstract on the Brahman’s statements upon this point:—

“To revert to our author, he maintains that the present prohibition against the second marriage of widows, especially these infant widows, is highly impolitic and unwise, because, in the first place, it disappoints the palpable purpose of the Creator in having sent them into the world; secondly, because it inevitably leads to great moral depravity and vice on the part of these widows; thirdly, because it inevitably causes a frightful amount of infanticide and of abortions; fourthly, because the maintenance of these widows in an honourable and virtuous course of life causes a ceaseless, though fruitless, anxiety to their parents, and parents-in-law, &c.; fifthly, because those widows are inevitably rendered corrupt and vicious themselves by the hard and unnatural laws operating on them, and cannot be prevented from corrupting and destroying the honour and virtue of all other females with whom they associate.

“It was a Brahman who was speaking. To show that there was no exaggeration of the forms of evil which resulted from the system, Major Wilkinson specified several cases that had come within his own official knowledge within a very few months between the receipt by him of the Brahman’s essay and the publication of his own work. Major Wilkinson specified no less than nine cases, of which three had occurred in ten days. He (Mr Grant) would not trouble the Council by going through the cases —they were of considerable length ; but Major Wilkinson’s work was at the service of any honourable member who might desire to refer to it He would only say that these cases were proved instances of frightful murders, incests, and, in short, of every abomination which it was possible to conceive, caused by the prohibition of the re-marriage of widows.

“He thought he had proved the premises set out in the petition; and he was sure that, being convinced of their truth, it was the bounden duty of the Legislature to abolish a law which could force this cruel and demoralising prohibition upon one single human being who disbelieved the doctrine upon which it proceeded. The Legislature had no more right to prevent a single Hindu who believed that the existing prohibition was not in accordance with a true interpretation of the Shastras, and who, from a wish to preserve his widow daughter from life-long misery or vice, desired that she should marry again, from acting in accordance with his humane motive, than it had to force a Muhammadan or a Christian, because he happened to live amongst people of another creed, to sacrifice his daughter in the same manner. But this the Council would do if it refused to pass some such law as that which he held in his hand. This was a law which, while it would set the petitioners, and all who concurred with ‘them, free to follow the dictates of their own consciences, would leave all other Hindus precisely as they were now. It did not pretend to say what was the right interpretation of the directions for conduct in respect to marriage in the textbooks, or which of the conflicting authorities ought to be followed by a Hindu. It would interfere with the tenets of no class of people, it would offend the religious feelings of no human being.”

Again, further on, the speaker said :

“He had said before that the Act, as framed, did not pronounce any opinion whatever as to what should be the proper interpretation of the Shastras on the question of marriage. Of the conflicting^ authorities who had written on the subject, it did not say which authority ought to be followed. It left every Hindu to be guided in his conduct by the direction of any text-book to which his own judgment and conscience inclined. He denied, therefore, that there could be the slightest colour of reason for saying that the Act would be an interference with the religious opinions or feelings of any one Hindu. He said that this Bill would interfere with the religious feeling of no Hindu. He was not sure that it might not interfere with the sports of some Hindus. In every country there were too many who made it their sport to tyrannise over the conduct and the consciences of others. He could not be sure that his Bill might not be displeasing to some upon this ground. He did not know whether any remonstrance would be actually submitted to the Council against this measure, though he understood that the question of submitting such a remonstrance had been agitated. But of this he was quite sure, that whatever remonstrances against this just law might be laid upon the table, this feeling would be at the bottom of them; and remonstrances springing from such a feeling, this Council might well disregard.

“If the law which was now proposed were fairly looked at he believed it would be seen to be the natural and necessary complement of the law for the abolition of the rite of Suttee. The object of the law for the abolition of the rite of Suttee was to save innocent Hindu widows from a cruel death; the object of the law which he now proposed was to save innocent Hindu widows from a life which, in his conscience, he believed to be worse than death. He did not mean to say that, taking a general view of the case, the custom of Bramacharia was as dreadful as the custom of Suttee. An innocent young girl taken to a funeral pile, and there, in the broad light of day, burnt to death, according to law, before the eyes of a multitude—the officers of the law, armed with all the powers of the law, standing by calm witnesses of the spectacle—was such a horrible and demoralising practice as was never exceeded in any country. In a general or national view he could not, of course, compare this Bill with the law which abolished that open abomination. But, confining the view merely to the unfortunate widow who is the victim in either case; when he considered the personal consequences which the custom of Bramacharia forced on the unfortunate females who were made its victims; when he considered the misery—the certain life-long misery—the probable profligacy and sin which it caused, he did believe that it would be better for a woman to ascend the funeral pile of her husband, and bum with him as a Suttee, than to be condemned to the slow torment of such a life as he had described.

“The law prohibiting Suttee was a compulsory law. From the day it was passed every Hindu, whatever his own feelings on the subject might be, was compelled to obey it. All the glory, therefore, of that law belonged to Lord William Bentinck and his Council who passed it. But the present law would afford Hindu gentlemen of station and influence a rare opportunity of illustrating their own names. The present was not a compulsory law, and could not be made a compulsory law. It was merely a permissive law, which could have effect only when those for whose benefit it was intended, should choose to avail themselves of 4t Under this law, Hindu gentlemen who, from their rank and their education, may stand forward as the leaders of their nation, have it in their power to register their names in history as the names of those who shall have effected the greatest social reform ever effected in their country. The Legislative Council will have done all it can do, when it shall have struck the shackles from their limbs. It will be for them, when they shall gain their freedom, to make use of it like men.”

The discussion was ably continued by other Members in support of the Mover.

"In the month of July following, that is in 1856, Grant carried the third reading. Referring to Mr Colvin's support, he concluded as follows:—

“Mr Colvin, in recording his cordial approval, had said that he did not expect that the measure would have much early and large practical effect; and this, he (Mr Grant) was aware, was also the opinion of many other European gentlemen with whom he was acquainted. But he was happy to say that, amongst the 5000 native petitioners who had given their support to the Bill, he did not think there was one who had taken this discouraging view. His own expectations were certainly more sanguine. The measure, as was alleged on one side, and admitted on the other, was a measure of innovation. When he remembered what a creature of habit the Hindu was—what a willing slave he made himself to the society to which he belonged —the fact of 5000 Hindoos, acting independently, and scattered over many different parts of India, coming forward to ask for such a measure, was, to his mind, of strong moral significance. And then, when he remembered how often before, the same attempt had been made by Hindoos themselves at various times and in various places, and how nearly some of those attempts had succeeded, wanting only something like what this Council was, to give them success, he saw no reason to doubt that the pressure of t^e same evils which had induced large parties of Hindoos to make the struggle, would induce them to use their victory now that it was won. But, although he considered this to be a matter of very interesting speculation, he maintained that it was not, practically, an argument for the.Council to consider now. If he knew, certainly, that but one little girl would be saved from the horrors of Bramacharia by the passing of this Act, he would pass it for her sake. If he believed the contrary, that the Act would be wholly a dead letter, he would pass it for the sake of the English name."

Lord Canning, who had succeeded Lord Dalhousie in March 1856, gave his assent to the Bill on the 26th of July. The Act has by no means been a dead letter. Every now and then a paragraph in the native newspapers records the interesting fact of the re-marriage of a widow, not merely at the Presidency Towns, but at remote villages in the interior. The result, however, is not to be measured or gauged by the mere number of conversions in any one year. They will no doubt gradually increase in number. The agitation and its consequences bring out the true Statesman who knows when to abstain from action and when to act The existence of the prohibition was a disgrace to Hindu Society, while it reflected no credit on the British administration and the English name. That the new law of freedom had the smallest effect on the Sepoy Mutiny of the following year, is not the belief of any official with any experience or knowledge of the people. It is one of those bold and wholesome measures which justify our retention of a great Dependency. The credit, in the main, is due to John Peter Grant and to Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, and it connects both with the Bentinck who, a generation before, had “ effaced humiliating distinctions and abolished cruel rites.”


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