What were the social reforms during the 18th and 19th century in India?

The same set of circumstances the impact modern education, rational, Urnanitarian and scientific approach to life which ushered in both in action reaction reform movements in religion were largely responsible for social reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries Rammohan Roy, a pioneer in modern religious reform movements in India, was also the Morning Star of GullyBaba Publishing House modern social reform movement in the country.

Social reform became integral part of religious reform in India and this was equally true of Brahm0 Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, and Theosophical Society in Hinduism as also among the Muslims, the Parsis and the Sikhs. The social reform movement in India has aimed at uprooting social evils and inculcating in men and women the spirit of sacrifice for the general good of the society.

The first and foremost social problem that attracted enlightened opinion was the need for a better deal for women in society, in the abolition of the cruel rites of sati and infanticide, in the condemnation of child marriage and polygamy and popularisation of widow remarriage, in the abolition of purdah, in provision of educational facilities for women and economic openings to make them self-supporting and finally an equal share for women in the political life of the country by enfranchisement. Another social evil that was a major concern of the English educated and Hindu intelligentsia was the caste restrictions in Hindu society and the degrading position of the lower castes especially the untouchables.

Of these two great evils,- those connected with the position of women received greater attention in the 19th century, while the problems of the untouchables came in sharp focus in the 20th century because of its political overtones.


The term sati literally means a 'pure and virtuous woman'. It was applied in case of a devoted wife who contemplated perpetual and uninterrupted conjugal union with her husband life after life and as proof thereof burnt herself with the dead body of her husband. Enlightened Indian rulers like Akbar, the Peshwas had imposed restrictions on its performance.

Though the East India Company broadly adhered to its declared policy of noninterference with the social customs of the people, yet early Governors-General like Cornwallis, Minto and Lord Hastings had taken some steps to restrict the practice of sati by discouraging compulsion, forbidding administration of intoxicating drugs to the sorrow-stricken widows, putting a ban of the sati of pregnant women or widows below the age of 16 years and above all, making compulsory the presence of police officials at the time of sacrifice who were to see that no compulsion was used.

Enlightened Indian reformers led by Rammohan Roy launched a frontal attack on the evil of sati. With an eye, to the coming Charter debates in the British Parliament and anxious to get a renewal of its charter for another 20 years by presenting a creditable image of its activities in India, the Court of Directors encouraged William Bentinck to enact legislation to suppress sati.

Regulation XVII of December 1829 declared the practice of satis or burning or burying alive of widows illegal and punishable by criminal courts as culpable homicide The Regulation of 1829 was applicable in the first instance to Bengal Presidency alone, but was extended in slightly modified forms to Madras and Bombay Legislative action in prohibiting child-marriage came in 1872 when by the Native Marriage Act marriage of girls below the age of 14 and boys below 18 years were forbidden.

However, this act was not applicable to Hindus, Muslims and other recognised faiths and as such had very limited impact on Indian society. B.M. Malabari, a Parsi reformer of the 19th century, started a crusade against child marriage and his efforts were crowned by the enactment of the of Consent Act which forbade the marriages of girls below the age of Sharda Act further pushed up marriage age and provided for penal action of boys under 18 and girls under 14 years of age. An improvement |Was made by the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1978 which raised the age of presage for girls from 15 to 18 years and for boys 18 to 21.

Education of Women:

Hindu society in the 19th century suffered from religious illusions that Hindu scriptures did not sanction female education of girls wrought wrath of gods leading to their widowhood.

The Christian missionaries, whatever their motive, were the first to set up t^ Calcutta Female Juvenile Society in 1819. However, the celebrated name 0f J.E.D. Bethune, President of the council of Education, will always be remembered with respect. In 1849 he founded a Girl's School in Calcutta.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar also did a lot in popularising the cause of education and was associated with no less than thirty-five girl's schools in Bengal.

In Bombay the students of Elphinstone Institute became the spearhead of the movement for women education and founded the Students Literary Society.

Charles Wood's dispatch on Education laid great stress on the need for female education. In the broad perspective, women education became a part of the general campaign for amelioration of the plight of women in society.

Abolition of a Slavery:

Slavery of the Greek or Roman or American negro type did not exist in India. Slavery in India was more akin to what may be termed as bonded-servant, bonded-labour type and slaves in India were treated in a humane manner unknown to Western countries.

In this context the observation of the Committee of Circuit deserves to be quoted. It reads, "The ideas of slavery borrowed from our American colonies will make even modification of it appear in the eyes of our countrymen in England a horrible evil.

But it is far otherwise in this country here slaves are treated as children of the families to which they belong and often acquire a much happier state by their slavery than that could have hoped for by the enjoyment of liberty. If in northern India slaves generally served as domestic servants, in south India slaves were mostly employed in cultivation. Of course, European slave-owners in India treated their slaves in the same inhuman manner characteristic of Western slave-owners.