Rukhmabai's was a typical case of child marriage. She was married at the young age of eleven to Dadaji Bhikaji Raut who was eight years her senior. At the time of her marriage it was arranged so that Dadaji Bhikhaji would live with Rukhmabai's family and in due course of time will attain education. The arrangement was made with consent from Bhikaji's mother. But after her death, Dadaji Bhikhaji became wayward and began living with his maternal uncle who was the principle instigator of the court case against Rukhmabai.
Rukhmabai continued her education at home with the aid of books from a Free Church Mission Library. She soon realized that her husband was not supportive of her education and if she moved to his house she would have to abandon her educational pursuits. She was opposed to the idea and hence began the tussle with her husband. In her letter written to Times of India, under the pseudonym 'A Hindoo Lady', she wrote,
"I am one of those unfortunate Hindu women whose hard lot it is to suffer the unnameable miseries entailed by the custom of early marriage. This wicked practice has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the thing which I prize above all others - study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner."
Dadaji Bhikaji, in 1884, sent a letter through his lawyers and insisted that Rukhmabai join her husband in his home. He contended that she was held back by her step father and mother because she had claims to the property of her father. The case came up for hearing in Bombay High Court in 1885 and was presided over by Justice Pinhey who in his judgement said, "It is a misnomer to call this a suit for the restitution of conjugal rights. When a married couple, after cohabitation separate and live apart, either of them can bring a suit against the other for the restitution of conjugal rights according to the practice in England, and according to the later practice of the Courts in India. But the present suit is not of that character."
He further stated, "The parties to the present suit went through the religious ceremony of marriage eleven years ago when the defendant was a child of eleven years of age. They have never cohabited. And now that the defendant is a woman of twenty-two, the plaintiff asks the Court to compel her to go to his house, that he may complete his contract with her by consummating the marriage, The defendant, being now of full age, objects to going to live with the plaintiff, objects to allowing him to consummate the marriage, objects to ratifying and completing the contract entered into on her behalf by her guardians while she was yet of tender age. It seems to me that it would be a barbarous, a cruel, a revolting thing to do to compel a young lady under those circumstances to go to a man whom she dislikes, in order that he may cohabit with her against her will..."
He thus declared that the court could not compel a young woman to go and live with her husband against her wishes.
The case came up for retrial in 1886 and this time the court ruled in favor of Dadji Bhikaji. Rukhmabai, however, was not one to give up and wrote to Queen Victoria who dissolved the marriage. In 1888, a resolution was finally met wherein Rukhmabai had to pay two thousand rupees to Dadji Bhikhaji who in turn relinquished his claim to Rukhmabai. After this, she sailed to England to study medicine.
This case opened up many horizons both for Rukhmabai and for women education in India. During the time the case was in courts, there had been debates not just about Hindu customs but about the status of education for women. While the reformists like Max Mueller had argued that it was because of her education that Rukhmabai was able to judge and make her own choices, there were others like Bal Gangadhar Tilak who argued Rukhmabai's defiance to join her husband was the result of an English education.
Rukhmabai, on her part, ignited a debate on various issues but also became a symbol of courage. She proved that the quest to seek knowledge and education was far more superior and dear to her than conformity to social customs.
Click here for more Education News