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Saturday, December 04, 2021

The trials of ‘court marriages’ in India

A Delhi HC judge recently took the very progressive step of scolding marriage officers for sending prior notices of weddings to the couples' residences.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | New Delhi |
May 25, 2009 4:36:56 pm

A Delhi High Court judge recently took the very progressive step of scolding marriage officers for sending prior notices of weddings to be performed under the Special Marriage Act to the couples’ residences. The judge pointed out that the whole purpose of couples getting married quietly under the Special Marriages Act 1954 was to avoid being thwarted by parents. So it hardly makes sense for the marriage officer to alert the parents of the impending nuptials. “Unwarranted disclosure of matrimonial plans may in many situations jeopardize the marriage itself,” Justice Raindrop S Bhat pointed out.

The judge was responding to a petition from a 24-year-old engineer who wanted to marry his companion in secrecy since his parents were strongly opposed to his marrying a woman with a ‘manglik’ astrology chart. The son wanted to spare his parents the shock,and forestall likely emotional blackmail.

The judge has raised a question that I am sure many couples marrying under this antiquated act have long wanted to ask. Why,for instance,should it be necessary for the entire application form of the couple intending to get married be put up for a month on the Marriage Office notice board,along with addresses,mug shots of the couple and religious affiliations? It means in effect that not just the disapproving parents,but the whole world,is alerted.

Couples from different religions become easy prey for outfits like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal who demonstrate outside their homes shouting slogans or threatening parents. In rural areas,the entire village gets to hear about the proposed wedding and primeval passions involving antiquated ideas of caste honour are stoked if the unfortunate couple belongs to different castes. Unnecessary advance warning of such marriages have in the past triggered off honour killings and terrible vendetta feuds.

The ostensible need for publicizing the details of the marriage a month in advance is that anyone with an objection can,if they want to,protest. But the strange part is that in India,if you get married through a religious ceremony,there is no check whatsoever of anyone’s background. Most pandits do not bother to verify the antecedents of the couple. The groom could well be a bigamist several times over,which has in fact been the case with many NRI bridegrooms. For that matter,even a verification of the bona fides of the pandits,maulvis and granthis who officiate,is not required. And yet,ironically,if you present a certificate of a religious ceremony,whether fake or real,you are automatically issued a marriage certificate from the very same Marriage Office without any questions asked.

On the other hand,if you want to get married under the Special Marriages Act,you are given the run-around. Anyone who has any dealing with the Marriage Office soon realises that the mindset of the staff running the office is not to facilitate the procedure,but rather to put up as many obstacles as possible in the way. I am something of an expert on the way the act works,having gone through the cumbersome procedure twice for my two daughters,who chose partners from different faiths. You either end up hiring a lawyer familiar with the working of the Marriage Office or have enough determination,time and patience to go through the entire lengthy rigmarole.

Be prepared to be scrutinized and sneered at by sceptical clerks and marriage officers who believe that there has to be something dubious about your intentions or you would not be in their office in the first place. A colleague recalls how minutes before her wedding,the marriage officer called her aside,bolted the door,and told her she was making a terrible mistake. He suffered from the delusion that his role was that of a marriage counsellor,not of a marriage officer.

Bigotry and religious prejudice can be eradicated from society only when the government leads the way. But when the guardians of the law,in a supposedly secular society,have themselves ambivalent feelings on the subject,it is small wonder that eloping couples almost invariably keep their distance from the Marriage Office and the Special Marriages Act. They prefer to convert to another religion to get married speedily and without fuss.

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