The intervening nineteenth century was pivotal in that it saw the initiation of this process that brought about an enormous transformation in the religious, social, economic, political and cultural spheres of Indian society. Many interrelated factors where in what in this transformation.
The British Raj influenced Indian life through many channels: administration, legislation, treads, new systems of communication, inchoative industrialisation and urbanisation, all has great influence of the society as a whole, because every measure in some way interfered with some traditional patterns of life.
The sum total of these influences on the life and ideas of the people forced them to adjust their patterns of life to the new circumstances thus affecting a continuum of social change.
The socio-religious reformers of India and the scholar’s educators and missionaries of the west also contributed to this transformation of society.
But they often needed the support of the Government the sole authority to enact or repeal any laws, the laws which have been vitally instrumental in effecting social changes of various sorts through with varying degrees.
Law is generally defined as the set of principles and regulations established by a Government and applicable to a people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognised and enforced by judicial decision.
It includes any written or positive rule or collection of rules prescribed under the authority of the state or nation or by the people in its constitution.
In the light of the above broad connotation of ‘law’, it can be argued that no society or civilisation can appear and exist without a certain corpus of law. Even the Vedic society of ancient India was no exception.
I was by and large an egalitarian society with sufficient equality between men and women. There was least hierarchical division of society and very little class or caste exclusiveness.
In the later Vedic period, when the Dharmashastras (law-books) appeared, women’s status vis-a-vis men declined, the society witnessed hierarchical divisions, the four fold divisions along the varnalines crystallised kingship became exclusive preserve of the kshatriyas, the Brahmin supremacy over other castes was established.
All these got sanctions of the Dharmashastras with the support of the ruling authorities. Later Dharmashastras and Government further consolidated these changes.
Manu imposed still more restrictions and deprivations on women and the shudras. He also prescribed different rites, rituals and norms on the occasions like birth, marriage, death, etc.
The entire society including the upper strata followed them. The climax came when the Indian society got feudal character because of the law-givers during the Gupta and the post-Gupta periods, when plurality of the society became pronounced.
With the establishment and enforcement of Muslim customs and traditions, through they more or less left the Hindu society alone, the Indian society saw vertical divisions.
However the rigidity of the Muslim law helped introduce a certain degree of social rigidity amongst the Hindus and led to further impositions upon the Hindu women.
The rule of conversion in the Shariat offered many a deprived section of Hindu society an opportunity to improve their lot by joining the ruling religious community.
With the Muslim law in prevalence the Brahmin supremacy and prominence in the society dipped rather low, especially during the regions of Firuz Tughlaq Sikander Lodl and Aurangzeb.
The imposition discontinuation and reimposition of the Jizya on the Jimmis, according to Islamic law always became the determining factor in the relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims. However the Law of Escheat in the Mughal period encouraged social mobility.
On the whole, however in ancient and medieval times, law as a declaration of age-old customs a codification of practice, rather than an instrument of social change. Law and social reform became linked with the emergence of concepts of liberal socialism and the welfare state of political philosophy.
During British rule, several laws effected far- reaching changes in Indian society. The Charter Ac of 1833 removed the legal barrier on the European colonisation of India.
Section 87 of his Act altogether abolished the concept of any governing caste, sect or sex, i.e. discriminations of various sports in public appointments were removed. By Act V of 1843 slavery was abolished in India.
The proclamation of British Crown (1858) brought all the Indian subjects on equal footing irrespective of caste, sect or sex.
The principles of the rule of law and the equality before law, as introduced by the British, gave a jolt o various divisions and sub-divisions in the society.
This led to the formation of larger social solidarity and people began to feel as a nation. Obviously, the practice of caste got mitigated, to an extent.
Besides, various laws were passed that improved the conditions of women in December 1829 the practice of sati was declared illegal and punishable by criminals court as culpable homicide.
This helped to wipe out the evil practice of sati, though stray cases might have occurred here and there.
The Bengal Regulations XXI of 1795 and ill of 1804 declared infanticide illegal and equivalent to committing a murder, and an Act of 1870 made it compulsory for parents to register the birth of all babies and provided for verification of female babies as practiced among the Bengalis and the Rajputs.
‘The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Ac (1856) legalised the marriage of widows and declared issues from such marriages as legitimate.
In the long run, Act profoundly improved the status of women, changed the sacramental nature of the institution of marriage and the structure of family in Hindu society.
The shared Act (1930) provided for penal action in marriage of boys under 18 and of girls under14. This provided legal protection to those individuals who resented early marriages.
To begin with, its impact on the society remained limited. But later on, some examples by their success in educational and career avenues, and Indian society, at least urban areas followed the law.
The permanent settlement of Bengal (1793) eventually created a new class of zamindars in the Indian society and consolidated the position of the money-lenders.
The revenue system of the British Government impoverished the Indian peasantry and craftsmen, and consequently their position in the social hierarchy declined-from land- owners and entrepreneurs to the agrarian and industrial labourers.
Later, that the rule that only the English educated people could find place appointments led to the emergence of a new middle class in Indian society.
Similarly, there was much other legislation in the British period that influenced the society.
In the post-independence era the Indian Government has taken numerous measures that concern the society.
The Constitution refuses to recognise the distinctions of religions, sect, caste, sex etc. in the matter of the opportunities of civil life. It has largely mitigated a number of evils resulting from the pluralistic nature of India society with regard to religion and caste.
Freedom of belief as a Fundamental Rights has made religion a personal choice rather than its earlier compulsive and all-pervasive nature for a family or a group. Untouchability has been rendered a criminal offence.
Endogamous nature of casteism is now on the wane as inter-marriages, even inter religious ones (The Special Marriage Act. 1954) have been legalised.
Reservations in jobs and freedom in the choice of vocations have encouraged vertical mobility of many families, irrespective of their caste of class affiliations.
The Hindu Marriage Act (1955) has given a jolt to the traditional nature of the institution of marriage i.e. marriage being indissoluble by containing the provision for divorce.
The remarkable features of the Hindu Succession Act (1956) are recognition of the right of women to inherit property of an intestate equally with men and abolition of the life estate of female heirs.
This has also changed the family composition as daughters and sons have been made equal even in the matter of in heritance. The extension of maternity benefits to unmarried women is also gradually changing the meaning of family.
Various labour legislations like the Factories Act (1948) the Industrial Disputes Act (1947) the Trade Unions At(1928) etc. improved the status of the working class and brought them at par with the bourgeois class of capitalists.
The critics opine that merely the enactment of laws and even their enforcement, has limited impact on the society. They say that the rural areas are hardly affected by such legislations, and even in the urban areas these laws are not successful on any substantial scale.
According to them, the transformation of society is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one. So, law may lose its sanctity and graces because of the non-compliance on the part of the society.
What they emphasise on more is that unless and until a law gets the sanction of the society as a whole it may have no effect. And logically, if the collective psyche is ready for a change there is no need for a law.
During the Muryan and Mughal periods many laws were promulgated to effect changes in the society. But once the individual ruler or dynasty left the scene all the laws in respect of society lost their strength.
Authoritarian government are supposed to enforce laws more doggedly, but they also have been seen to have failed in bringing about social changes.
That extend, even the revolutionary laws brought in by the British India Government were made possible only when enlightened Indians felt a need and campaigned for social reforms.
Society always seeks to protect its interest. So, whenever anything is done in its favour, it cheerfully accepts the offer. Unless the law therefore reflects the hopes, aspirations and progress of the society it can never take effect.
Hence the law as per the choice of a small group of ruling individual, without winning the confidence of the masses, is bound to fail in its objective.
We even examples of laws meant to do good to the society having failed. But this happens only when there is a wide gap between the governing authorities and the people especially in regard to communication.
If there is enough political will progressive laws can effect social changes. The European society today greatly owes its form and colour to the law.
Very recently a British court granted two children the right to leave their parents and live on their own. In the Third World, Turkey is the most revealing example.
The modernisation of the Turkish society was the result of the will of Mustafa Kamal Pasha who took hundreds of measures in the very first year of his rule. The rule of Castro in Cuba is another such example.
And in a previous era, didn’t the laws compiled in Shariat change the society from Zaniliya to the Islamic era? However it may be pointed out that the leaders of such movements were very popular and could carry their people with them.
Even if laws themselves cannot effect social changes they can provide protection to those who endeavour to make positive changes in society or provide legality and validity to those beneficial changes having already taken place.
The utility of law in reforming society depends on the machinery to implement it. Furthermore, a traditionally diehard society cannot accept change easily. No law can push diehard society cannot accept change easily.
No law can push it into accepting change even if we take the laws against child marriage and female infanticide; we notice that these obnoxious practices have been wiped out.
In such cases, we cannot wait for the impulse for change o come from society at larger. The enlightened must seek to educate and spread awareness among the masses.
Unless ignorance is dispelled, law will remain in the statute books and no change worth its name will take place.