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Why are judges and officials hostile to love marriages in secular India?

23 December 2011

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Communalism Combat, December 2011

Thwarting a union

Judges of the Rajasthan high court frown on love marriage

BY ASIF IQBAL

A bench comprising Justices Dalip Singh and Sajjan Singh Kothari of the Rajasthan high court has stated that marriages based on the right to choose, more generally known as love marriages, are examples of “lust and greed”! The remark was one of a few abhorrent statements of the bench on October 21, 2011 during its ruling in a habeas corpus petition filed by Buddha Ram Meena, 34, whose 18-year-old wife, Maina Bhatt, was forcibly taken back by her parents after they heard about the marriage. The man was forced to file a habeas corpus petition after his wife was taken away.

The division bench hearing habeas corpus petition No. 151/2011 (Buddha Ram Meena vs State of Rajasthan & Ors) rejected the petition on the grounds that the marriage performed according to Arya Samaj rites between the petitioner and his wife had sidestepped a few essential rules titled ‘Arya Samajon Mein Vivah Ke Niyam’ issued by the Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha in Delhi. But it is the observations of the bench delivering the verdict that I find especially disturbing.

The judges’ remarks, reported by PTI and published in various newspapers on October 23, 2011, are worthy of closer examination. The reports quoted the court as saying among other things that: “The pious purpose of the Arya Samaj mission has been lost sight at (sic) by local units in the state and they are becoming tool (sic) for pacification of ‘greed and lust’ for girl and boy, and once it is over the marriage lands in courts resulting in irreversible breakdowns”. And that: “It takes them one hour to solemnise a marriage between an 18-year-old girl and a 38 or 40-year-old gentleman, which leaves scars forever in the life of parents who bring up their children with great passion and aspirations. Such marriages in lust and greed by young blood cannot be said to be correct”.

Such insensitive statements by the distinguished judges can only reinforce the prevailing mindset of those who wish to confine society in its strong caste-based compartments.

Being a member of Dhanak, a group that has been working on issues concerning couples in interfaith and inter-caste relationships, for the past eight years, I would like to put forth the reasons why most aspiring couples opt for religious solemnisation of marriages rather than areligious solemnisation of marriages under the Special Marriage Act 1954. It is important to mention that any unmarried, sane, consenting adults (where the bridegroom is over 21 years of age and the bride is over 18 and who are unrelated within the degrees of prohibited relationship), irrespective of faith or caste, can get married under the Special Marriage Act. The couple from Rajasthan, who come from an inter-caste background, could have done so too. So why did they decide to have a religious marriage ceremony? It was almost certainly because they wanted to make sure their parents did not receive any intimation about their marriage through the official notice – as would any couple who anticipated threats to their life and liberty.

When a couple belonging to different faiths or castes decides to get married in the face of stiff sociopolitical opposition, their first choice is invariably to exercise their constitutional rights to marriage. However, in the majority of such cases, they are discouraged from doing so and misled by the advocates and officials in the marriage officer’s office. If the couple belongs to different castes, they are never ever advised by the advocates to opt for marriage under the Special Marriage Act. This is also true for couples of different faiths, as they are also urged towards a religious solemnisation of marriage based on their faith or religious beliefs, and subsequent registration of the marriage on the basis of a marriage certificate received from the officiating priest. There are two main reasons for such advice. One is the personal faith- and caste-based biases of the advocates and the concerned officials and the other is the discouraging rules and practices associated with the implementation of the Special Marriage Act.

Barring Delhi, all other states follow the dangerous practice of sending a copy of the notice of intended marriage to the permanent addresses of the marrying couples. Thanks to the initiatives of the Delhi government and a landmark judgement by Justice S. Ravindra Bhat of the Delhi high court in April 2009, the practice of sending notices to the homes of couples desirous of solemnising their marriage under the Special Marriage Act was curbed. However, it has not been completely discontinued, as the officials fear the wrath of the parents of marrying couples.

The administrations in Ghaziabad, Noida and Gurgaon in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are not even willing to bear the expenses of dispatching notices and they insist that couples provide pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes beforehand. Couples also have to publish an advertisement of their proposed marriage in a leading newspaper and submit a copy of the published advertisement to the marriage officer’s office. In Gurgaon, the concerned deputy commissioner’s office has taken the pains to add a column for specifying the applicants’ religion in the ‘Intent to Marry’ form and an additional point about the citizenship of the applicants in the declaration form. I wonder why religion should be mentioned at all in the one legally recognised marriage procedure intended to be outside the realms of faith or caste.

The Gurgaon office also requires that couples provide envelopes bearing the names and designations of the marriage officers in districts where the applicants permanently reside. I can only speculate on the amount of homework a couple has to do before they file their application. A marriage cannot be solemnised under the Special Marriage Act without receipt of a verification report from the concerned tehsildar; and the report will not, of course, be issued as a matter of routine. The couple has to take great pains to ensure that the report is in fact released by the tehsildar’s office.

Looking at just a few of the requirements essential for marriage under the Special Marriage Act, one can safely say that no couple would choose to go through the traumatic experience on its own. So those couples who are still determined to get married under the Special Marriage Act are forced to engage an advocate and shell out a large sum of money for his/her fees. Unfortunately, the majority of couples cannot afford the services of an advocate and thus, confronted by various hostile and complex sociopolitical pressures, they are forced to opt for a religious form of marriage. Here too they are misguided and cheated by the concerned persons for economic or faith-based gains, as it happened in the case of the aforementioned couple from Rajasthan.

The judges’ presumption that all such marriages end in divorce reveals a limited understanding of the complexities of married life for couples who challenge the conventional form of marriage. By branding these marriages as “tools for pacification of greed and lust”, the judges have literally abused the essential emotional component in any form of love marriage – the love itself. Surprisingly, the judges have been sympathetic towards the emotions and the suffering of the parents but have completely overlooked the similar feelings of the children vis-a-vis their parents. Here I would like to state that no couple willingly seeks the absence of blessings from their dear parents and respectable elders at the time of their marriage. They all wish to cherish the love, care and support they have received from their parents throughout their lives – those marrying for love (under the Special Marriage Act or otherwise) do so just as much as couples who marry under any other form of marriage.

I believe the court should also have taken cognisance of the existing hostility of officials in the administrative bodies responsible for the solemnisation and registration of areligious marriages. I sincerely hope that the administrations responsible for solemnisation/registration of such marriages take serious note of this situation and consider it an absolute failure of their performance. Unless the various governments and groups working on religious/caste coexistence take the initiative in easing the process of marriage solemnisation/registration, we cannot build a society free from religious and casteist hegemonic stereotypes.

(Asif Iqbal is a founder member of Dhanak, a group working on issues concerning couples in interfaith and inter-caste relationships.)