Himachal Pradesh's Reet System: A Historical Perspective on Social Change


In the scenic landscape of Himachal Pradesh, amidst the Shimla Hill States and neighboring regions like Mandi, Kullu, and Kangra, an alarming practice called "Reet" had been prevalent for generations. This vile custom, which has been deeply rooted in society, was difficult to define precisely. Some people considered it as a form of marriage, while others viewed it as a transactional exchange. In essence, Reet could be described as a marriage that lacked any ceremony or ritual and was initiated by paying the "Reet money." This payment effectively nullified the first marriage, transforming it into concubinage, and allowed for the establishment of a new union. 

The Reet System in Detail

Reet, in its essence, was an institution that commodified women. Parents or guardians of unmarried girls, as well as husbands of married women, would pay sums ranging from Rs. 100 to Rs. 2,000 to enter into a Reet arrangement. 

In the past, unmarried girls were often traded by their parents or guardians, while married women were traded by their husbands. This transaction, called "Reet money," signified the end of the first marriage and turned it into a form of concubinage. Shockingly, there were no restrictions on how many times one could engage in Reet, and dissolving the contract was as easy as forming it. This degrading practice reduced women to mere objects that were bought and sold repeatedly.

Forms of REET

Reet was practiced in various forms across different hill regions and played a crucial role in shaping conjugal relationships, regardless of whether it was through marriage, remarriage, or divorce. These practices stood in contrast to the Brahmanical principles of ritual purity and chastity. In Kullu, cohabitation was viewed on par with marriage. A woman who had been welcomed into a household and treated as a wife saw her son regarded as an equal heir, just like legitimate children. In Sirmaur, marriages followed a different path from the Brahmanical concept of marriage as a sacred rite. Marriage was viewed as a civil contract, subject to termination by the mutual consent of both parties. The conventional Hindu notion that a wife is half of her husband's body held little significance here. Consequently, this custom painted the women of Shimla hills as 'liberal and susceptible to temptation.'

Reet's Prevalence and Social Stratification

The Reet system was widely used by marginalized communities in Himachal Pradesh, such as the Kolis, Chanals, Chamars, and some Kanets. However, it was noticeably absent among the  caste like Brahmins and Rajputs. This clear division in acceptance highlighted the system's discriminatory nature.

Evil Results of the Reet Custom

The Reet custom wreaked havoc on both individuals and society. It weakened domestic bonds and eroded the sanctity of marriage. Women's indiscriminate relationships often led to the spread of diseases like syphilis, infecting numerous individuals. The consequences were so severe that the "Bombay Chronicle" decried the devastating effects of such loose relationships on the character of sexual relationships and racial progress.

Intriguingly, individuals in dire need of money regarded their wives as disposable assets. They could raise funds by arranging for someone to take their wives off their hands in exchange for the fixed Reet amount. This practice was facilitated by the high demand for females in the hill regions, where women, until they lost their charm due to age or illness, remained valuable and marketable commodities.

Efforts to Eradicate the Atrocity

Due to the complexity of British administration during the latter half of the 19th century, no specific rules were established against the practice of Reet. Initial attempts to eliminate this social issue were unsuccessful, allowing the Reet system to continue in various regions.

In 1927, the custom of Reet was formally prohibited on paper in Baghat, Bushahr, and Jubbal. Nalagarh, Mahlog, and Kuthar had agreed to adopt the regulations set by the Sub-Committee of chiefs.

However, Baghal and Bhajji, governed by minority management, had also agreed to introduce the draft rules, but the Governor in Council hesitated to enforce them in those regions. The decision regarding these states' adoption of rules was postponed until their rulers reached maturity and assumed full governing powers. In summary, by 1927, the Reet custom had become illegal in eight out of the twenty-seven Shimla Hill States or was on the path to becoming so, at least in theory.

After 1928, the government lost interest in the matter, and the hill chiefs did not actively enforce the proposed regulations. Nevertheless, members of organizations like the Himalaya Vidiya Parbandhani Sabha and religious groups like the Arya Samaj continued to advocate against the Reet custom. Despite these efforts, the harmful Reet custom, along with the associated spread of venereal diseases, continued without interruption. In order to discourage the custom, some states imposed a tax on Reet marriage. Sirmaur, for example, levied a 5% tax on the Reet money in 1855. The complexity of the Reet custom is evident from the fact that it persisted among some backward tribes for several years even after Himachal was granted full statehood on January 25, 1971.

In conclusion, the Reet system in Himachal Pradesh stands as a testament to the complexities of tradition, commerce, and societal norms. This historical analysis has unveiled a disconcerting narrative of how the custom, though obnoxious, endured through centuries, affecting the lives of countless women and weakening the foundations of marriage and family bonds.

The Reet system's eradication marked a significant step towards a more equitable and just society in Himachal Pradesh. However, its persistence among some backward tribes even after full statehood demonstrates the deep-rooted nature of such customs.

Read more about art and culture of Himachal Pradesh


Views of British Officials on Reet

W. Edwards' Call for Legislative Action

Recognizing the Need for Change

W. Edwards, a prominent British official during the colonial era in Himachal Pradesh, acknowledged the pressing need for reform when it came to the Reet system. His efforts significantly increased awareness within the British administration about the harmful consequences of Reet marriages.

Edwards' Impact

Edwards' advocacy paved the way for future actions against the entrenched Reet custom.

J. Lawrence's Opinion on Enforcing Existing Laws

Assessing the Legal Framework

In contrast to Edwards, J. Lawrence, another influential figure, believed that existing legal provisions could be effectively utilized to suppress Reet marriages.

The Debate and Challenges

Lawrence's perspective ignited a debate within the British administration. The difficulties of enforcing these existing laws and the resistance from certain communities posed formidable challenges.

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