The storm sparked by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin’s film India’s Daughter evokes comparison to the reactions stirred up to American historian Katherine Mayo’s Mother India in 1927. Udwin’s documentary throws light on a brutal society, focussing specially on the unrepentant reactions of one of the perpetrators of the horrific 2012 Delhi gang-rape. Mother India, according to Mayo, showed up the social evils sanctioned by Indian culture and the Hindu religion. (Read the book here.)

That book was written, as evidence suggests, with covert support from the British authorities. Its publication was followed by street protests across India, and even in New York, where the book was burnt, along with the author in effigy. There was widespread opposition, most notably by Mahatma Gandhi who called it a “drain inspector’s report”, and many books and pamphlets were published to refute Mayo’s claims. Ironically, the anger, awakening and awareness sparked by Mayo’s book had a positive effect: they led to the Child Marriage Restraint Act being reformed in 1929.

Mayo claimed her aim in writing the 400-odd page book, following a three-month tour of India in 1925-'26, was to pen “an impartial book on India for the average American”. Mother India was written in the wider political context of India’s demands for self-governance, the rise of the US, and the greater demand in the “colonised” world for self-determination. It spoke of the ill treatment of India’s women and the “untouchables”, among other things.

Mayo, before her interest lighted on India, had been a strong critic of the Philippines’s demand for independence from the US. She had also been staunchly opposed to immigration (by the Irish Catholics, for example) to the US and to increased emancipation of African-Americans.

Graphic details

Mother India, though sensational in style, relied totally on official records. All its graphic details relating to maternal deaths, disease and ill-health were obtained from hospital statistics, census data, police files and other official reports. Mayo’s aim was to show up the harmful traditions, such as child marriage and early motherhood, sanctioned by society and the Hindu religion. It became an argument in support of the British rule of India.

For all the controversy, the book went into many reprints and saw many international editions. An American survey in the 1950s listed Mother India as well as Kipling’s works set in India as being among those most read by Americans. Mayo’s book was even compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852.

But the book drew ire in India from people outraged at Mayo’s generalisations. Her critics insisted that it was the colonial state that had failed and so argued for urgent legal reform. In addition to street protests, there was fervid opposition in print. More than 50 books and pamphlets were written to critique Mother India. These varied from the passionately patriotic to the downright sarcastic. A couple were more tu quoque in form, reiterating America’s own hypocrisies with regard to women, African-Americans, other immigrants and those it colonised, such as the Filipinos.

Indian journalist and reformer CS Iyer Ranga wrote a parody, Father India, in which he reinforced the opposition to Mayo’s claims by citing a book published in the US, called the Revolt of Modern Youth, by American judge Ben Lindsey. A work based on his study of public schools in New York State over 25 years, Lindsey talked of the widespread immorality and promiscuity that he had noted. While making references to the Revolt of Modern Youth, Ranga defended Lindsey, for his intentions were to reform and not, as with Mayo, to malign.

A variety of responses

There was also Dalip Singh Saund’s My Mother India published in 1930. Saund, the first Indian- American to serve in the US Congress (1957-1963) had campaigned for people of South Asian descent to become naturalised American citizens. Dhan Gopal Mukherji, writer and winner of America’s Newberry Award, wrote A Son of Mother India in 1930; he included in it letters received from Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in protest at the contents of Mother India. Almost on a spoofy note, there was Kanhaiya Lal Gauba’s Uncle Sham: the Strange Tale of a Civilization Run Amok, that earned reviews more as a cut and paste exercise, since it cited from Judge Lindsey (again), the suffragette Edith Hooker and the journalist and travel writer Stephen Graham.

India’s first woman legislator, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, spoke against the book in a speech to the Women’s Indian Association, probably in the 1930s. Reddi admitted that child marriage was prevalent among a certain section of high-caste Hindus, but a majority of “non-Brahmins and untouchables” were unaffected by it. She criticised Mayo for discounting the many initiatives for reform waged by women reformers, and their agitation since the 1890s to raise the “age of consent” that had met some success. The American missionary Jabez Sunderland, who had been critical of the British rule earlier, also published his critical India in Bondage in 1929, which was immediately suppressed by British India.

All this controversy and opposition generated by the book fostered, unintentionally, an informal alliance between the nationalist movement and the nascent women’s movement in India. Most importantly, the sustained agitation led to the Child Marriage Restraint Act in 1929, raising the age of marriage to 14 for girls and 18 for boys.

In other ways, the episode led to a final parting between Gandhi and EV Ramaswami "Periyar", who spearheaded the anti-caste Self-Respect Movement in the south. As Gandhi toured the south during this time, he agreed to the demand from several women’s groups to speak against child marriage and temple prostitution (the Devadasi system). However, despite Periyar’s persistence, he did not rescind his views on varnashramadharma, Gandhi’s “idealised interpretation of the caste system”, leading to an irrevocable split between the two.