Hindu-Muslim couple in India challenges controversial inter-faith marriage law

In a photo taken on Dec 3, 2018, Indian Muslim brides participate in a mass marriage in Ahmedabad. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Blood flowed on Delhi's streets during the February riots, as Hindus and Muslims attacked each other.

A young inter-faith couple in the city witnessed the events unfold with horror.

But this explosion of violence did not weaken their resolve to marry each other.

This was a decision that Ms Nida Rehman, a 26-year-old Muslim, and Mr Mohan Lal, a 28-year-old Hindu, had made after they met and fell in love in 2011 while they were university students.

Ms Rehman still considers their marriage as a "blooming flower" that could soothe relations between the two communities.

"The child that will come into our house will become familiar with both Hinduism and Islam and grow to respect both religions," she told The Straits Times.

But India, polarised along religious lines, has been a hostile flowerbed for such inter-faith unions that attract censure, not just from the lovers' families, but also society at large.

Ms Rehman walked out of her parent's house in August - they wanted Mr Lal to convert to Islam - and moved into a flat the couple rented. She did so after spending a few days under the protection of Dhanak of Humanity, a not-for-profit organisation that counsels inter-faith, as well as inter-caste, couples and offers them temporary refuge.

The couple has now taken the battle to the Delhi High Court, seeking to overhaul a law they believe discriminates against inter-faith couples.

On Sept 21, they filed a petition against the 1954 Special Marriage Act (SMA) that requires an inter-faith couple seeking to marry to issue a notice to a local government "marriage officer" in a district where at least one of them has lived for 30 days or more prior to issuing their notice.

This notice must contain private details such as names, addresses and photographs of the couple and has to be displayed in a "conspicuous place" in the marriage officer's office.

This is done so that anybody - not just family or relatives - who wishes to object to their marriage can do so.

These objections are then inquired into by the officer and the marriage is not solemnised until the officer is satisfied that the objection lacks merit or unless it is withdrawn.

Even couples who share the same faith but want to have a secular marriage under the SMA must follow the same process.

Ms Rehman believes inter-faith couples face a greater risk of harassment from uncooperative government officials and strangers after their private details are made public through such notices, especially by those who wish to exploit these relationships for political gains.

Her petition calls for Sections 6 and 7 of the SMA, which lay out this process of inviting public objections, to be scrapped. It claims these sections violate an individual's fundamental rights, including the right to privacy. The first hearing is scheduled for Oct 7.

"This law is holding back our society from progress. If a man and a woman are ready to get married, why is the consent of a third person being sought at all," said Ms Rehman. She applied last month to marry under SMA to the local marriage officer but is still waiting to hear when her 30-day notice period to register her marriage begins.

Inter-faith couples have often been victims of harassment across India, even leading to "honour killings" and suicide in many cases. A 23-year-old Hindu man was murdered not far from his house in Delhi in 2018 by the family of the Muslim girl she was dating. In cases where the girl is a Hindu and the boy a Muslim, accusations of "love jihad" further aggravate communal tension.

The term "love jihad" is used by radical Hindu groups to accuse Muslim men of participating in a planned conspiracy to convert Hindu women to Islam by seducing them.

In July, the Kerala government discontinued the practice of uploading application forms filed under the SMA online and now only displays them at sub-registrar office notice boards. This was done after such notices were found to be used by right-wing groups to target inter-faith couples, accusing them of "love jihad".

The SMA, however, lays down specific grounds for objection. Neither party to a proposed marriage should have a living spouse nor should they suffer from any "unsoundness of mind" that renders them incapable of giving valid consent. They should also not suffer from a "mental disorder" that makes them unfit for marriage or "procreation of children".

Mr Utkarsh Singh, the advocate who is representing Ms Rehman, argues that the objection for having a living spouse may also arise in Hindu or Muslim religious marriages but they do not require the publication of a similar public notice.

The objections based on the mental health of the couple, he added, cannot be raised by strangers at all, and must be settled with medical expertise.

"Only a certified medical practitioner can raise them or somebody from the family, backed by necessary medical evidence," he told The Straits Times.

In addition to Ms Rehman's petition, a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court last month by Ms Nandini Praveen, a Kerala-based law student.

The petition also calls for certain portions of the SMA, including Sections 6 and 7, to be impugned as they violate the privacy of an individual. The court has sought a response from the federal government ahead of the next hearing that is yet to be scheduled.

Mr Kaleeswaram Raj, the advocate for the petitioner, described these provisions as an "unprincipled intrusion by the state into the lives of two individuals".

"Marriage, which is essentially a private affair between two consenting adults, is treated and exhibited as a public affair. This goes against the very idea of privacy," he said.

Mr Raj said the practice of issuing a public notice under the SMA is a "remnant of colonial vintage" that India transplanted from the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872, which calls for a similar public notice.

Hindu or Islamic marriage laws in India do not not include such a practice.

There have been growing calls for SMA reform in recent years. In 2018, the Law Commission of India had recommended that the 30-day period be reduced to "bring the procedure in line" with Hindu and Muslim marriage laws that enable couples to register their marriage in a day.

Between January and September last year in New Delhi, 461 marriages were registered under the SMA compared to 13,572 under the Hindu Marriage Act.

Mr Asif Iqbal, who co-founded Dhanak of Humanity in 2005, said the harassment and procedural delays inter-faith couples have to suffer in order to marry under the SMA forces many among them to convert to their partner's faith.

This expedites the marriage and makes it easier under Hindu or Islamic marriage laws. Such an outcome also helps them avoid family pressure or harassment from local police - something that couples living together face at times.

But Ms Rehman and Mr Lal refuse to compromise in such a manner.

"We have been clear right from the start of our relationship that we will not convert. We are what we are; we chose each other for what we are. Why change that?" she said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.