The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856, also Act XV, 1856, enacted on 26 July 1856, legalised the remarriage of Hindu widows in all jurisdictions of India under East India Company rule.
To protect what it considered family honour and family property, upper-caste Hindu society had long disallowed the remarriage of widows, even child and adolescent ones, all of whom were expected to live a life of austerity and abnegation. The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856, enacted in response to the campaign of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, provided legal safeguards against loss of certain forms of inheritance for remarrying a Hindu widow,though, under the Act, the widow forsook any inheritance due her from her deceased husband. Especially targeted in the act were Hindu child widows whose husbands had died before consummation of marriage.
Several petitions with more than 30,000 signatures were sent to the Government opposing widow remarriage. Even eminent writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee criticised Ishwar Chandra’s move in his novel Bishabriksha. However, due to the sustained campaigning and public pressure, the Administration of the East India company eventually passed the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856.
While the legal act was passed, a challenge that Vidyasagar faced was to make widow remarriage a socially acceptable custom. The first widow remarriage was performed in Calcutta at Vidyasagar’s initiatives and expenses on December 7, 1856. The marriage was between a child widow Kalimati Devi who was only eleven and Siris Chandra Vidyaratna.
However, after the Revolt of 1857 and the shifting of the power from the English East India Company to the Crown, the English stopped interfering in Indian Personal Laws. Due to this, the bills against child marriage could not be passed for a very long time.