How a law has turned the tables on interfaith couples - Hindustan Times

How a law has turned the tables on interfaith couples

Feb 02, 2024 10:10 PM IST

When the judiciary colludes with the State in denying adult citizens the right to choose their partner, you know that there can be no happily ever after here.

Shortly after Uttar Pradesh passed the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion ordinance, aka the ‘love jihad’ law, in November 2020, the Allahabad high court decided to make its position clear.

The eight interfaith couples had approached the Allahabad HC seeking directions for their protection. (HT Archive)
The eight interfaith couples had approached the Allahabad HC seeking directions for their protection. (HT Archive)

As with other BJP-ruled states where it has been passed, the law had been brought ostensibly to prevent religious conversion through fraudulent means, including marriage. Under the new law, you have to inform the district magistrate of any intention to convert and they must then conduct their own inquiries to make sure there is no coercion or inducement.

The Special Marriage Act (SMA) of 1954, which allows for interfaith marriage, also requires couples to publicly post 30-day notice. This isn’t always feasible. If you’re running away from home in order to get married, you don’t always have the luxury of waiting. Then, there are other problems. Police visiting homes for interviews. Or vigilante groups scouring marriage registry offices for interfaith marriage notices.

And, so, often what happens, as noted by a 2018 Law Commission report, is that one-half of the couple converts since religious marriage requires no notice period.

The anti-conversion law took away that expedience too.

In less than a month after it was passed, there were as many as 34 arrests in UP. In nearly all cases, the complainant was an irate parent who now had the backing of the state to bring to heel an errant adult child.

Given these circumstances, a judgement of the Allahabad high court in January 2021, just months after the ordinance, was extraordinary and brave. The case involved a Muslim woman who had fallen in love with a Hindu man. To circumvent SMA, she converted and got married under Hindu rites. But even after marriage, she was being kept at home against her will and, so, her husband had gone to court.

Justice Vivek Chaudhury agreed that the 30-day notice was “an invasion of their privacy and would have definitely caused unnecessary social pressure/interference in their free choice.” The notice period was not mandatory, he ruled.

In November 2021, in a separate case, the Allahabad high court once again ruled in favour of the right to choose a partner. Registrars could not withhold registration of marriage simply because the couple had not obtained approval of conversion, justice Suneet Kumar ruled while hearing a batch of 17 petitions of interfaith marriage after conversion.

It’s in other courts too. In June last year, the Gujarat high court told a petitioner that she could not have custody of her adult daughter who had willingly entered into a marriage with a Muslim man.

In 2018, hearing a petition concerning so-called honour killings, a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by justice Dipak Misra stated clearly that two consenting adults did not require permission from their parents or community in order to marry.

Given this background, the more recent conservative turn of the same Allahabad high court is cause for concern. Hearing petitions filed by eight different interfaith couples—five of them are Muslim men married to Hindu women and three are Hindu men who married Muslim women—the court last week turned down their plea for protection on the ground that their marriage was not in compliance with the anti-conversion law.

In a country where so-called honour killings continue unabated, the insistence on procedural compliance over life and limb goes against the grain of more liberal interpretations in the past. The anti-conversion law is already under legal challenge in the Supreme Court and the insistence on compliance at this stage is inexplicable.

“It’s very clear that what you are not allowing is interfaith relationships,” says Asif Iqbal, co-founder, Dhanak of Humanity, an organization set up to counsel interfaith couples. “Now even the courts are declining protection.”

An analysis of a 2018 Lok Foundation-Oxford University survey found that 93% of young Indians still have marriages arranged in line with caste and faith.

For those who’ve set their hearts on a person born into a different faith, the courts are the last hope. But when the judiciary colludes with the state in denying adult citizens the right to choose their own partner, indeed the right to fall in love, you know that there can be no happily ever after to this story.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal

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