Ever heard of a Hindu religious leader or politician protesting against the practice of married men within their community deceitfully becoming “Muslims” to be able to wed again? Those raising the bogey of “love jihad” should put their own house in order before raising a hue and cry at Cupid-stricken unmarried girls and boys who dare go for inter-religious marriages that are absolutely valid under the country’s Constitution and law.
On February 27, 1978, Jitender Mathur married Meena Kumari and over the next decade, she bore him three children. Then, in January 1988, Jitender secretly married one Sunita Narula. To facilitate the second marriage, both he and Sunita quietly “converted” to Islam under the mistaken belief, wholly unwarranted under true Islamic law, that this would give him a licence to indulge in bigamy and escape the anti-bigamy provisions of the Indian Penal Code. Within four months, Jitender “reconverted” to Hinduism and returned to his first wife. Sunita later bore him a child and had to turn to the court to secure subsistence for her newborn.
In a second case, in November 1988, Pradeep Kumar married Geeta Rani. Three years later, he eloped with Deepa. Both he and Deepa “converted” to Islam and instantaneously became husband and wife through nikah. In a third case, one G.C. Ghosh married Sushmita in May 1984. Eight years later, he decided to marry Vanita Gupta. To avoid prosecution for bigamy, he too announced conversion to Islam.
These are not fairy tales or hearsay but legally proven facts recorded in Sarla Mudgal vs Union of India, decided by the Supreme Court in May 1995. All three women involved in these cases had approached various lower courts for relief. Meena and Geeta had discovered the facts after their husbands’ second marriages and wanted them to be declared null and void. Sushmita, on the other hand, had learned of her husband’s intentions beforehand and sought a court order restraining him from marrying again. Unsatisfied by the judicial verdicts up to the high court level, all three, along with a social welfare organisation, appealed for justice to the apex court.
The SC decided that Jitender’s marriage to Sunita and Pradeep’s to Deepa were illegal and constituted an offence punishable under the provisions of the IPC. On Sushmita’s plea, the court’s verdict was that, despite his pretend “conversion” to Islam, her husband could not marry again without legally dissolving his marriage to her, and that if he did, the second marriage would be void and penal. The ruling conformed to Islamic teachings. Embracing Islam for the sake of marriage is the worst form of munafiqat (hypocrisy) and violates the Prophet’s edict that “intention is decisive for judging the validity of every action.”
Ghosh then mustered the support of some Muslim religious bodies by assuring them that his conversion was “genuine” and truly for the love of Islam. With them, he approached the SC for a revision of its Sarla Mudgal ruling on the ground that it adversely affected the citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of religion. The court only reaffirmed, in Lily Thomas vs Union of India, that the Sarla Mudgal judgment held and that all cases of bigamy through the conversion route would entail penal consequences.
Meena, Geeta and Sushmita were not the first to be treated badly by their husbands. The Hindu Marriage Act prohibited bigamy in 1955, which Hindu religious law did not, and made the IPC provision on anti-bigamy applicable to Hindus. Ever since, married men covered by the act have been fraudulently “converting” to Islam under a mistaken belief that this would rescue them from the penalties prescribed by law.
The SC rulings in Sarla Mudgal and Lily Thomas have not stopped the horrendous practice of married men committing fraud. Cases of bigamy under the shelter of false “conversion” continue unabated. The law laid down by the court continues to be shamelessly violated even by lawyers and state dignitaries. The 2008 case of a deputy chief minister of Haryana, Chander Mohan, duping his Hindu wife to marry his assistant advocate general, Anuradha Bali — with both “converting” to Islam and becoming “Chand Mohammad” and “Fiza” — is still in the public consciousness. In this case, while Chand Mohammad soon returned to being Chander Mohan and to his first wife, Anuradha alias Fiza apparently committed suicide.
While the practice of married men wedding again under the camouflage of conversion is punishable under Indian law, conversion is legally quite unnecessary for unmarried boys and girls of different faiths wishing to inter-marry. We do have a law for civil marriage, under which two persons following different religions can become husband and wife without hindrance. Conversion must be discouraged in cases when a person converts not voluntarily but to satisfy religious-minded and tradition-bound parents.
The writer is a former chair of the National Minorities Commission and ex-member, Law Commission of India