The 1891 Age of Consent Act was legislation introduced in British India to raise the age of consent of consummation from ten to twelve years. While an 1880 case in a Bombay high court by a child-bride, Rukhmabai, renewed discussion of such a law, the death of an eleven-year-old Bengali girl, Phulomnee, due to forceful intercourse by her 35 year old husband in 1889, necessitated intervention by the British. The act was passed in 1891. It received support from Indian reformers such as Behramji Malabari and women social organisations and was opposed by Hindu nationalists including Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The law was never seriously implemented and it is argued that the real effect of the law was reassertion of Hindu patriarchal control over domestic issues as a nationalistic cause.
In 1880, Rukhmabai, a 22-year-old woman was taken to Bombay high court by her husband Dadaji as she refused to recognise their marriage rights. She was married as a child to him and argued that their marriage is not binding after 11 years of separate living. She eventually lost the case. This trial is believed to be one of the precursors for the passage of this legislation. The death of an 11-year-old Bengali girl Phulomnee after being brutally raped by her 35-year-old husband Hari Mohan Maitee in 1889 served as a catalyst for its legislation
While Hindu law permitted intercourse with minors, colonial law considered sex with wives only under ten as rape. Therefore, Hari Mohan Maitee was acquitted on charges of rape, but found guilty on causing death inadvertently by a rash and negligent act.
A committee comprising of influential British and Anglo-Indian statesmen established in London had submitted recommendations to the colonial government including the change in age of consent. The law was signed on 19 March 1891 by the government of Lord Lansdowne raising the age of consent for consummation from ten to twelve years.
Behramji Malabari, a Parsi reformer and a journalist from Bombay advocated for this legislation. He published his messages in "Notes on Infant marriage and enforced widowhood" in 1884. Although a Parsi, he claimed to be as critical of Hindu customs and domestic practices as the British.
Though women were not consulted for determining the effect of child-marriage, women in Bombay presidency including Rukhmabai and Pandita Ramabai made a cogent case for the ban on child-marriage in their magazines and social reform organisations. Anandi Gopal Joshi, a Maharashtrian woman who also happened to be the first female medical doctor in India advocated interference of the British Government in child marriage.
The bill however provoked a powerful Hindu orthodox backlash. Opposition to the bill in Maharashtra was led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Poona Sarvajanik Sabha in alliance with Poona revivalists who often invoked Hindu, Brahman and Maratha glory. Tilak opposed the bill on the grounds that this was not an issue for the British but Hindus to decide. It was strongly opposed in Bengal as well and it is believed that the bill radicalised the nationalist movement in Bengal.
Orthodox Hindus argued that it violated Hindu rite "garbadhan," which obligated Hindu girls to have intercourse with her husband within sixteen days of her first period.