THIS Sunday, they will complete a month of living together. It’s a relationship sanctioned by court, upholding a rare live-in practice called “maitri karar (friendship agreement)” that originated among Hindu, upper-caste people in Gujarat in the 1970s. But that’s not the only thing about the bond between a 19-year-old girl and her 20-year-old companion that defies convention in this state. She is Hindu, he is Muslim; in Gujarat, they don’t know of any previous instance of maitri karar between people of the two communities.
Sitting in the living room of a two-storey house, the largest in the locality in this small, Hindu-majority town in Banaskantha district, bordering Rajasthan, she keeps checking the dupatta covering her head. Every time it slips, she puts it back in place.
The couple, who don’t want to be identified, live with his parents, and his elder brother’s family. Her mother-in-law approves that she is “learning our culture”.
However, that is how far she will go, the couple have decided. Neither of them will be changing their religion. This is the reason for the maitri karar. As practitioners of different religions, they can only wed under the Special Marriage Act, which requires him to be at least 21 and her to be 18. They must wait another year to marry.
“We realised that our son would be happy with her, so now we do not have any objection. We do not have reservations about her religion too. She is learning our culture and we are hopeful she will be a good daughter-in-law,” his mother says.
She admits his parents have made her feel a part of the family, but the pain of being rejected by her own rankles. “I wish my parents could also understand my feelings,” she says, her eyes welling up.
They were just children, she 13, he a year older, when they fell in love, she says. Her father, a government primary school teacher, had got transferred to the town, and she joined Class IX in the school where he studied. She is the second eldest among her four siblings, he the third child among four.
A tall and lean boy, he was a class senior, but they noticed each other. “We started meeting at our common maths and science coaching classes after school. Our friendship grew,” he says. Letting him do most of the talking, she says they realised they also lived in neighbouring housing societies. “Five months after we had met, he said he loved me.”
It was the school principal who first alerted her parents, and who in turn complained to his; the fact that they belonged to different religions didn’t help matters.
He had already finished Class X so his family sent him to a boarding school in Gandhinagar. She was moved to another school. “My father who never stopped me or any of my two sisters from going out restricted my movements,” she says. When she went to school, her father accompanied her.
For two years, till he returned from boarding, their only contact was the calls she managed to make to him. When he was home during vacations, his family kept as close a watch on him. “But I trusted her and knew she was with me,” he says, looking at her.
In 2015, he enrolled for B.Com, and also started running a readymade garments shop owned by his father. His family owns several other shops and a guest house in the town. Meanwhile, her family told her she did not need to study further after Class XII.
Desperate to stay in touch, he smuggled a phone to her. Their families believed they had snapped the relationship, and the two went unnoticed for five months.
Then, one night, the time they would usually talk, she was a little too loud. “We were arguing. The noise woke up my mother,” she says. The phone was confiscated.
While he managed to get another phone to her in two months, her angry parents went to his house demanding that he be “stopped”. That was around a year ago.
“That was the only time the two families met, and it was not a meeting we would like to remember,” his mother says, adding they were equally bewildered at what was happening. “This kind of a relationship had never happened in our family or even among distant relatives.”
Afraid to take chances, her parents next shifted her to her uncle’s house in a town nearly 80 km away.
It was then that they began looking at legal options. He says he approached a lawyer friend, who consulted other legal experts, who advised them to opt for maitri karar as they could not legally marry.
Says his counsel Jigar Gadhvi, “We were confident of winning as the law says that if an adult is willing to stay with someone of free will, no one can stop him or her.”
In July this year, the 20-year-old got the paperwork done, and waited for an opportunity to get her signature on the document. He got that chance on July 12 when she was travelling with her elder sister. They met for around two hours enroute and decided to elope. Her sister knew about the meeting but not that they were planning to run away.
A few days later, both left their homes. Before leaving, he couriered a copy of the agreement to their families.
The couple stayed first at a friend’s farmhouse in Viramgam. His family traced them there within two days, got him back and sent her to her parents. On September 5, he filed a habeas corpus petition in the Gujarat High Court. While this court battle lasted, he refused to talk to his family members, the only way he says he could express his dissent.
On November 25, the high court upheld the maitri karar, adding that the girl had the right “to exercise her free choice of movement and personal liberty and… to go wherever she desires… Our society puts considerable stress on the institution of marriage and its sanctity… Despite this, we must recognise our legal limitation in forcing an adult person of sound mind to stay at a place she does not want.”
It noted that the 20-year-old had “assured us that he would initiate steps for marrying the girl as soon as he turns 21… and agreed to file an affidavit”.
Underlining the importance of the court order, Gadhvi says, “Though there are instances of maitri karar between couples and at times they even approach courts… this is certainly a rare case between a couple of different religions and either of the parties filing a habeous corpus on the basis of this agreement.”
Sociologist Gaurang Jani says maitri karar, a notarised document, took shape during the 1970s as a legal way for urban middle-class Gujarati men to stay with women other than their wives. However, he says, under societal mores, the practice fizzled out within a decade.
“However, I have never heard of an inter-religion maitri karar. I did not think it was possible in a state where even educated upper-class society has a mentality of never getting married to a Muslim and even, for instance, not allowing non-vegetarians into their societies,” says Jani.
Over at his house, the girl says she hasn’t heard from her parents since the court order. She hopes to join college and finish her graduation once things have quietened.
He says they may shift to Ahmedabad, to be anonymous together in a big city.