Role of Social Reformers
From the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of social reformers and social reform movements sought to promote the upliftment of women by giving them education, raising their marriageable age and taking care of widows, as well as to remove the rigidity of caste and raise the suppressed class to a status of equality. The reformers who led the movements were the forerunners of modern India.
a. Raja Rammohan Roy
There were some enlightened Indians who supported the British attempt to reform the oppressive social order of India. The first was the abolition of sati by law, on humanitarian grounds. Raja Rammohan Roy, the pioneer of Indian social reform movement was a casteless crusader of sati after having seen this practice in the case of his own sister-in-law. He started his camping against this in human evil practice. Influenced by the ruthless attack of the movement led by Rammohan Roy the British government declared this act as “culpable Homicide”. Raja Rammohan Roy is most remembered for helping Lord William Bentinck to declare the practice of Sati a punishable offence in 1829. He also protested against the child marriage and female infanticide. He favoured the remarriage of widows, female education and women’s right to property. Thus the evil practice of sati on any scale was wiped out.
b. Ishwar Chandra Vidhyasagar
Ishwar Chandra Vidhyasagar carried on the movement for female education, widow remarriage and abolition of polygamy in Bengal. He submitted petitions to this effect to the Indian Legislative Council and to the passing of the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. His son Narayanachandra set an example to others by marrying a widow of his choice. To promote female education, Vidhyasagar founded several girls’ schools in the districts of Nadia, Midnapur, Hugli and Burdwan in Bengal.
c. Kandukuri Veeresalingam
Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu was the earliest champion in South India of women’s emancipation. He published a journal viveka vardhani. He opened his first girls’ school in 1874 and made widow remarriage and female education the key points of his programme for social reform.
d. M.G. Ranade and B.M. Malabari
In Bombay presidency, M.G. Ranade and B.M. Malabari carried on the movement for the upliftment of women. In 1869, Ranade joined the Widow Remarriage Association and encouraged widow remarriage and female education and opposed child marriage. In 1887, he started the National Social Conference, which became a pre-eminent institution for social reform. In 1884, B.M. Malabari, a journalist, started a movement for the abolition of child marriage. He published pamphlets on this subject and appealed to the government to take action.
e. Gopal Krishna Gokhale
In 1905, Gopal Krishna Gokhale started the Servants of India Society which took up such social reform measures as primary education, female education and depressed classes’ upliftment. The spread of female education further led to the participation of women in the freedom struggle.
f. Periyar E.V.R.
Periyar E.V.R. was one of the greatest social reformers of Tamil Nadu. He advocated women education, widow remarriage and inter-caste marriages and opposed child marriages.
g. Women Reformers
Most of the reform movements like Brahma Samaj (1828), Prarthana Samaj (1867) and Arya Samaj (1875) were led by male reformers who set the limit of the freedom and development of women. Women reformers like Pandita Ramabai, Rukhmabai and Tarabai Shinde tried to extent further. In 1889, Pandita Ramabai opened Sarada Sadan (Home of Learning) for Hindu widows in Bombay. It was later shifted to Poona. Her greatest legacy was her effort, the first in India, to educate widows. Theosophical society was established at Chennai and Dr. Annie Besant who came from Europe and joined it. It also developed general social reform programme.
Dr. S. Dharmambal was another reformer who was very much influenced by the ideas of Periyar. She showed great interest in implementing widow remarriage and women education. Among ‘Moovalur Ramamirdham Ammaiyar’ raised her voice against Devadasi system along with Dr. Muthulakshmi Ammaiyar. In her memory, the government of Tamil Nadu has instituted the “Moovalur Ramamirdha Ammal Ninaivu Marriage assistance scheme”, a social welfare scheme to provide financial assistance to poor women as poverty was the root cause for all these evils. Thus women reformers also contributed a lot for winning their own rights.
Leading women realized the need of forming their own associations in order to safeguard their interests. As a result three major national women’s organizations – Women’s India Association, National Council of Women in India and the All India Women’s Conference were founded.