In India, people are in the habit of interfering in the personal affairs of others. Marriage is a social custom but also a personal affair of an individual. But, in India, marriage becomes a way to exert ‘social pressure’. As soon as you turn 24 or 22-years-old (for boys and girls respectively), every uncle-aunty in your colony looks at you as ‘marriage material’ and then “beta shadi kab kar rhe ho” (When are you getting married) becomes a typical everyday question.
In simple terms, you and your family’s decisions about YOUR marriage end up being largely dictated by society. Common caste, common religion, common gotra, uncommon surname (this is common in many parts of Maharashtra) and whatnot. This match-making list goes on, filtering your choices. But when people fall in love with each other, society becomes (George Orwell’s) ‘Big Brother’ and indulge in ‘moral policing’.
This becomes more complex if the couple belongs to different religions. The situation becomes worse when one of them is Hindu, Muslim, or Christian as there is much propaganda being spread on ‘forced religious conversion’ around the country, and nowadays, it is being furthered across Indian society.
One example of the strength of this propaganda is the taking down of the ad by Tanishq jewellers. Now the question is, who is giving a free hand to this unnecessary policing? and if the state should interfere in the institution of marriage.
Recently, the Uttar Pradesh Government passed an ordinance for Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion on 24 November 2020. The law has been facing backlash from various sections of the Indian society while many people have also welcomed it.
The ordinance says that “no person shall convert, either directly or indirectly from one religion to another by use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage nor shall any person abet, convince or conspire such conversion.”
Now, this act along with the special marriage act spells trouble for interfaith marriages which are still not accepted by many parents and also by society as a whole. Now let’s assume that you belong to religion ‘A’ and your partner belongs to religion ‘B’, both residing in the same district of Uttar Pradesh, and are willing to marry each other. ‘Hopefully’ your parents are supporting this marriage.
The reason behind trouble is that from now onwards, to register under the Special Marriage Act in Uttar Pradesh, you will be required to “give notice thereof in writing in the form specified in the Second Schedule to the Marriage Officer of the district in which at least one of the parties to the marriage has resided for a period of not less than thirty days immediately preceding the date on which such notice is given. The Marriage Officer shall keep all notices given under section 5 with the records of his office and shall also forthwith enter a true copy of every such notice in a book prescribed for that purpose, to be called the Marriage Notice Book. Such book shall be open for inspection at all reasonable times, without fee, by any person desirous of inspecting the same. The Marriage Officer shall cause every such notice to be published by affixing a copy thereof to some conspicuous place in his office.”
I guess you have read the highlighted part carefully. Now comes the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion ordinance. Under this ordinance, the bride/groom/converter has to give, in writing, to the prescribed officer (DM or ADM) if they want to convert and that they are not forced to do so by any means.
The punishment under the new law is a jail term from one to five years and a fine of Rs 15,000. But, if the woman involved is a minor or belongs to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, the jail term would range from three to 10 years. The fine would increase to Rs 25,000. These provisions do not apply to marriages in the same religion and castes. Many people don’t even register their marriage for years and still continue to be husband and wife.
It is already difficult for interfaith couples to get married. The religious radicals are always present for so-called ‘moral policing’. Now, the state is becoming a ‘moral police’. Women in India, sometimes, change their surnames after marriage by will, not by force. It is very much plausible that when a woman from the SC/ST community marries a boy from a different religion, she will have to give it in writing to the DM/ADM that she is not converting due to force. Why does the state suddenly care about women from the SC/ST community? Where was all this care at the time of the Hathras incident?
Why is a 60-day-long notice period required in such cases, when according to the Special Marriage Act (SMA) the notice period is just 30 days? In Hadiya’s case, some people alleged that she was forcefully converted to Islam by her husband. She went to the Supreme Court SC to get relief. The Court emphasized the principles of individual autonomy and dignity.
The important point here is not the SC judgement but the need to go to the top court in the first place for such a personal issue. If a notice of inter-faith marriage under the SMA is given to the ADM/DM and it is pasted in some conspicuous place, and the parents, who I assume are against the marriage forcing the couple to flee their home, will the state authority protect such consenting, adult couples? What if the state authority ends up harassing the couple?
Look at an example here. A couple was harassed at a passport office just because one of them was from the Muslim community. The woman was asked to change her name and religion at the Lucknow passport office just because she was married to a Muslim man. The couple wrote to the then-EAM, late Sushma Swaraj, and the issue was resolved.
The act says that the “onus to prove that the conversion has not been done forcibly will lie on the person accused of the act and the one convert.” In many cases, the families of the couples allege that the girl has been converted forcefully or kidnapped, or a false case is registered. Why should anyone have to prove that they have not been forcefully converted?
One interesting thing to note is the reply of the Minister of Home Affairs for State, G.Kishan Reddy, said in the Lok Sabha, in an answer to the question that whether any of the Central Agencies have reported any case of ‘Love Jihad‘ from Kerala during the last two years (2018-2020). His answer was “Article 25 of the Constitution provides for the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health. Various courts have upheld this view including the Kerala High Court. The term ‘Love Jihad’ is not defined under the extant laws. No such case of ‘Love Jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies. However, two points from Kerala involving inter-faith marriages have been investigated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). NIA has found no evidence of Love Jihad.”
If a woman is forcefully harassed into converting, she will approach the police. Why such a patriarchal mindset that ‘we have to safeguard our sisters from THEM‘ or ‘it is our duty‘? What do the government think of women? Are they dimwitted that they’ll easily get carried away by anyone?
Why are we dividing an already divided society? The state government needs a law for the protection of interfaith and inter-caste married couples, while strengthening the SMA, 1954, not on the conversion. The more the state encourages the inter-caste and interfaith marriages, the more we will move towards the goals of equality and fraternity that’s been written in our Constitution.
This article was originally published here.