With a hollow Special Marriage Act, runaway couples in India are losing the battle of choice

Chandigarh has produced an army of lawyers who thrive in the marriage business of runaway couples. Young men and women from small towns in Punjab and Haryana throng to the city for the anonymity and security the city offers. But, it's hard to find a single lawyer in this 'army' who practices the Special Marriage Act 1954 (SMA), that offers a provision for inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, without asking for conversion. In a society where marriage outside the caste is still considered a taboo, provisions of SMA remain under-utilised.

In Haryana, conjugal relationships between the same gotra (clan) or between the residents of the same village are also prohibited. The suffocating restrictions imposed on the freedom of choices often pushes young men and women to seek freedom in marriage; marrying a person of choice is often a statement of rebellion in these parts.

 With a hollow Special Marriage Act, runaway couples in India are losing the battle of choice

Representational image. Photo courtesy: Freeimages

In the model protection homes, facilitated by the state in 19 districts under an order of Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2010, one can see young runaway couples packed like sardines in small, stuffy rooms, where they lack both privacy and freedom. The demand for a quick marriage against the wishes of their parents has given birth to an exploitative industry – of lawyers, hoteliers, pundits and even police personnel.

Yet, surprisingly, in three years (2013-15), only 18 couples applied for marriage under SMA, in Haryana, whereas for the same period 828 applications were received in Uttar Pradesh and 432 in Jharkhand. The Marriage Registrar's office in Panchkula, Haryana, did not receive any application for marriage under SMA in last many years. Dr Rajesh Puniya, Tehsildar, Kalka says that in his tenure of two years, he has never heard of the Special Marriage Act.

Incidentally, the number of reported cases of honour killings grew phenomenally during these years, by almost 800 percent – in 2014, if 28 cases of honour killing were reported, the numbers rose to 251 in 2015.

Why SMA is not an option

Haryana, the state that earned distinction for killing daughters in the womb or in their bridal attire – when they break the clan's code of honour – still sticks to practices that further kill women's chances to exercise choice and decision-making, under a legal garb. The practice of asking the young couples to publish their intended marriage in the newspapers goes against the very spirit of the Act. The practice kills the secrecy required for such marriages, often opposed by the clan.

The Act demands that the couples give a notice of 30 days to the marriage registrar, who is then supposed to display the notice in DCs office, in the courts and the police post etc., to invite objections if any. For convenience, the registrar asks the couples to publish the notice in newspapers as well.

"It's the marriage registrar's discretion and it's a matter of precedence," says Yogesh Mittal, a leading lawyer of the high court. A retired judge of the high court said that the law is fine but it's a social problem, 'parents don't accept marriages outside their caste and creed'.

A demand for three witnesses for the marriage is another hurdle, apart from multiple declarations. Even though witnesses are 'arranged' for marriage under personal laws, procedures are more demanding for SMA and hence not suitable to the lawyers. "It's just a matter of an affidavit of conversion and the marriage can be registered under Hindu Personal Law. Only yesterday, I arranged for a conversion affidavit for a Manipuri Christian girl marrying a Hindu boy... for inter-caste marriage, we don't even need the affidavit," comments another lawyer.

A young couple said that they paid Rs 5,000 for their marriage at Mansa Devi temple, where the Pandit provided quick photographs as proof. But why didn't they opt for SMA? "We do what our lawyer suggested". They paid the lawyer Rs 10,000.

Crimes in the name of marriage

Forced marriage is a violation of human rights yet, in most societies in India, they enjoy social sanction against choice marriage. Even after elopement, many young women are brought back home and coerced into marriages arranged by the family. The National Crime Records Bureau data shows that, in 2015 alone, 59,277 women were abducted for marriage purposes across the country, and about half of these were in the age group of 18-30.

It reflects the magnitude of the problem. But when women approach the law, they are rebuked for breaking the community honour and are often sent back to their families. The entire machinery supports a patriarchal mindset. No wonder then, of the 8,120 trials of kidnapping for marriage, that concluded in 2015, 75 percent cases were either acquitted or disposed of.

Of the 30,887 cases investigated the same year, in only 52 percent cases the police submitted a chargesheet against the accused – rest of the cases ended at the police level as false, or as 'mistakes'.

Former chairperson of Haryana State Women's Commission, Kamlesh Panchal, blames it on the indifferent attitude of the state machinery. " Office holders don't sympathise with the runaway couples, they too think of them as a blot on the clan."

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Updated Date: Aug 22, 2017 13:53:05 IST