Topic: General Studies 2, 3:
- Social empowerment, communalism, regionalism & secularism
- Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
Special Marriages Act (SMA)
Context: The Allahabad High Court in a recent ruling declared that the conversion for the sole purpose of marriage as ”null and void”.
What is Special Marriage Act?
- The Special Marriage Act, 1954 (SMA) was enacted to facilitate the marriage of couples professing different faiths and preferring a civil wedding.
- People from different castes or religions or states get married under SMA in which marriage is solemnized by way of registration.
- The prime purpose of the Act was to address Inter-religious marriages and to establish marriage as a secular institution bereft of all religious formalities, which requires registration alone.
What are the features of the SMA?
- Basic age Criteria: The marriage of any two persons may be solemnised under the SMA, subject to the man having completed 21 years of age and the woman 18.
- Basic Conditions needs to be met: Neither should have a spouse living; both should be capable of giving valid consent, should not suffer from any mental disorder of a kind that renders them unfit for marriage and procreation.
- Restrictions related to Religious laws: They should not be within the degrees of prohibited relationship — that is, they should not be related in such a way that their religion does not permit such marriages.
- Notice Procedure: Parties to an intended marriage should give notice to the ‘marriage officer’ of the district in which one of them had resided for at least 30 days. The notice will have to be entered in a ‘Marriage Notice Book’ and a copy of it displayed at a conspicuous place in the office.
- The marriage has to be solemnised within three months of the notice, and if it is not, a fresh notice will be needed.
- Provision for objections to the marriage: Any person can object to the marriage within 30 days of the publication of the notice on the ground that it contravenes one of the conditions for a valid marriage. The marriage officer has to inquire into the objection and give a decision within 30 days. If he refuses permission for the marriage, an appeal can be made to the district court. The court’s decision will be final.
- Member of Undivided Family: Also, the Act says that when a member of an undivided family who professes Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religions, gets married under SMA, it results in his or her “severance” from the family.
What are the Criticisms of SMA i.e. the hurdles faced by inter-faith couples?
- Practical Difficulties: The provisions relating to notice, publication and objection have rendered it difficult for many people intending to solemnise inter-faith marriages.
- Vulnerable to coercive tactics by family: Publicity in the local registration office may mean that family members objecting to the union may seek to stop it by coercion.
- Danger posed by fringe groups: There have been reports of right-wing groups opposed to inter-faith marriages keeping a watch on the notice boards of marriage offices and taking down the details of the parties so that they can be dissuaded or coerced into abandoning the idea.
- Intrusion of Privacy: The law’s features on prior public notice being given and objections being called from any quarter, places a question mark on the safety and privacy of those intending to marry across religions.
- Violation of Right to Equality: In the case of Hindu and Muslim marriage laws, there is no requirement of prior notice and, therefore, such a requirement in the SMA is considered as violation of the right to equality of those opting for marriage under SMA.
- Pushes for religious conversion: Due to complexities involved in SMA, the intending couple finds it easier to settle for marriage under the personal law of one of them, with the other opting for religious conversion. While conversion to Islam and Christianity has formal means, there is no prescribed ceremony for conversion to Hinduism.
Are there laws against conversion for the sake of marriage?
- The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, and the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, both prohibit conversion by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, inducement, allurement and ‘by marriage’.
- There is a separate section in both laws under which, not conversion for the purpose of marriage, but marriage done solely for the purpose of conversion, may be declared null and void by a family court based on a suit by either party.
Marriage being a personal matter has to be sparingly regulated, unless it leads to social evils. Freedom of choice should be given primacy in a liberal Democratic country like India.
Connecting the dots:
- Minimum age of marriage for women