Three is a crowd

SC decision on polygamy significantly advances Muslim personal law reform.

Written by Faizan Mustafa | Published:March 17, 2015 12:00 am
Indian Muslims, Hindu marriages, Muslim marriages, Muslim personal law Clandestine bigamy among Hindus has a worse effect than open polygamy among Muslims.

In a historic decision last month, the Supreme Court denied a Muslim man the right to have more than one wife and upheld his termination from employment for committing bigamy. The court observed that polygamy was not integral to Islam and the practice was not mandated by religion simply because it was permitted. Similarly, in 2005, the SC had boldly acknowledged that, despite codification and the introduction of monogamy, too many Hindu marriages, like Muslim marriages, continue to be bigamous. This latest SC decision is in line with the reform of Muslim personal law that it initiated three decades ago in the Shah Bano case.

In a catena of cases, the SC has held that the freedom of religion protects only those practices that constitute an “essential and integral part of religion”. Therefore, Muslim personal law can claim the protection of Article 25 only if it is established that marriage, inheritance and the other areas it covers are “essential and integral parts” of Islam. The bench was of the view that a Muslim who wants to take more than one wife is engaged in neither professing and practising nor promoting and propagating his religion. Thus the SC rightly upheld service rules that mandated that an employee can have only one wife. There is substance in the argument that though the basic source of Muslim law is the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet, the relations it regulates are not religious. They are, on the contrary, social relations well within the province of the state. Therefore, Muslim polygamy has no religious motivation.

Whether the amendment or abrogation of Muslim personal law violates the fundamental right to conserve Muslim culture depends on whether the cultural identity of Muslims rests solely on their personal law. One view is that neither polygamy nor unilateral divorce can be fully identified with Muslim culture as most Indian Muslims are monogamists and have not exercised their right to divorce. Moreover, Indian Muslim law on these subjects does not reflect the moral mores of the divine verses. The Quran permits polygamy subject to the impossible condition that the husband is able to deal “justly with his wives”. But the Indian law ignores this precondition. Considered in the context of the global history of polygamy, the precondition is more noteworthy than the permission.

The other view is that Muslim personal law is indeed part of Muslim culture.The law as culture is not a new idea; in fact, the law is both a producer and an object of culture. But prior to Islam, unrestricted polygamy was the norm. Islam limited it to four wives and specifically urged Muslims to practice monogamy.

It is illegal for non-Muslims in India to have more than one wife. In spite of this, many Hindus have multiple wives. Official reports brought out in 1974, almost two decades after the prohibition of Hindu bigamy, highlighted the shocking fact that polygamy among Hindus was higher than among Muslims (Adivasis: 15 per cent, Hindus: 5.8 per cent, Jains: 6.7 per cent, Buddhists: 7.9 per cent, Muslims: 5.6 per cent). Figures for subsequent decades are not available. The difference may appear insignificant but in real terms, it is huge — as many as one crore Hindu men had more than one wife, as opposed to just 12 lakh Muslims. In fact, according to the 2011 Census, 66 lakh women are still in bigamous marriages.

Several Muslim countries, including Egypt and Iran, require a man to get not only the consent of his first wife but also the approval of a court prior to marrying another woman. The Moroccan code has a provision for the court to deny permission for polygamy if injustice between “co-wives” is feared. There is a similar provision in force in Jordan. And Tunisia, in fact, had prohibited polygamy way back in 1957.

If a Hindu man deserts his lawfully wedded wife to live with another woman, the only remedy available to the aggrieved woman is divorce. However, most abandoned women may not view divorce as a viable option because of the sacramental nature of Hindu marriage and social pressures. Clandestine bigamy among Hindus has a worse effect than open polygamy among Muslims. Muslim men who have more than one wife, on the other hand, are legally bound to provide each not only residence but also proper maintenance. Thus, a Muslim woman is better off than the “second Hindu wife”, who has no legal status or rights under the law. The latter cannot even claim maintenance from her husband. In fact, in D. Velusamy (Supreme Court, 2010), the second Hindu wife was denied maintenance and held to be a “mistress”. This matter, too, needs urgent attention and intervention.

The writer is vice chancellor, NALSAR, Hyderabad.

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  1. D
    Dr. Aayush
    Mar 17, 2015 at 6:28 pm
    reports quoting 71.. that's a joke.
    1. M
      Mv V
      Mar 17, 2015 at 11:56 pm
      It is interesting to see the myopic vision of the author and many of the commenters. Polygamy is a regressive practice that makes women second cl citizens and destroys the lives of children. India cannot consider itself a progressive democracy without destroying this vile practice. It is a shame that a top educator defends this practice in the name of religion. The fact is in a democracy we cannot cannot retain a regressive practice in the name of an archaic religious practice for one group of people because it contaminates society. The fact is many Hindus conveniently convert to Islam for the purpose of marrying more wives. What is even more degenerate is the fact that women marry previously married men by conversion. Hema Malini and Dharmendra are examples. When a prominent woman in society who is independently wealthy and educated does this, it puts women's rights into the dark ages. Men and women should stand up against this and other regressive practices. Nice to see that the law is at least taking a stand.
    2. A
      abhishek rawat
      Mar 17, 2015 at 9:30 am
      I have a serious issue with this article. Why indeed does the writer try to make this a case of Hindus vs Muslims, sucbing to the same vices that a lot of Hindu extremists these days do, despite his apparent education? Is this an article on law, or plain retribution? Also, since we are at it, let it be clear that although the statistics quoted by the author may well be true, the fundamental difference is that polygamy is allowed by the holy text of the Quran(although it is rightly denied legal sanction in all progressive societies with even the slightest care for gender equality), while no such provision is provided in the Gita. If the Hindus indeed do profess Polygamy more than Muslims in India, it is laxity on part of law and order, that is to be dealt firmly with by the state. The author irresponsibly pits one religion against the other, adding further fuel to the simmering communal fire in the country. Disgraceful.
      1. A
        Mar 18, 2015 at 2:05 am
        If a Hindu man has a "second wife" which is not permissible under the law - there is no second wife - its an illicit relationship. The lawfully wedded wife can seek divorce with punitive damages for adultery. Therefore a mans illicit relationships cannot be considered equivalent to the second or third wife of a muslim. The prof is off his rocker or just a bad and biased prof
      2. A
        Anil Maheshwari
        Mar 18, 2015 at 9:16 am
        Polygamy/ bigamy has to do nothing with religion. The practice of having more than one wife is the byproduct of affluence. Among the persons with whom I am in friendly relations, about half are Muslims but I have yet to find anyone having the second wife while among the Hindu friends, I am aware of at least two persons having two wives.
        1. D
          Mar 17, 2015 at 10:18 am
          o Gita is not for "Hindus" but only for the Vaishnavaites. Do not confuse others. Polygamy has to be coned as it denies right of women. Both "Hindus" and Muslims prictise this. Can a woman have many husbands... as in epic Mahabharat ?
          1. H
            Mar 17, 2015 at 5:58 pm
            It’s a case of legal conversion that goes out of word, sprit and practice of the prescribed law under which a case was filed. The conversion has to be left to individual and not to the court. Polygamy cannot be considered as exploitation or crime as it falls under natural behavior or necessity that varies from individual to individual and it has also social and economical implications. Unless and until polygamy not violating any body’s natural rights, it cannot be termed as unnatural or illegal.
            1. S
              Srimanta Kalas
              Jul 8, 2017 at 11:33 pm
              I agree
            2. A
              A. Haque
              Mar 18, 2015 at 11:29 am
              i do agree that Muslim personal law is a part of its culture not a modern thinking... the most important aspect has been highlighted that clandestine polygamy in Hindus is more dangerous as the second wife is just a mistress... so it needs to get more heeds than this in Muslims...
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