The Maharashtra Government’s decision to constitute a 13-member committee to monitor interfaith and inter-caste marriages can only be described as overkill. What provoked the decision is the murder of Shraddha Walkar, a 27-year-old from Mumbai, and dismemberment of her body by her live-in partner, 28-year-old Aaftab Amin Poonawala, in Delhi in May 2022. Gruesome though the incident was, it is wrong to see it through the prism of religion just because theirs was a love affair and they belonged to different faiths. Maharashtra Minister for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Mangal Prabhat Lodha lamented that the young woman’s family learnt what had happened only six months after the murder and vowed that such a fate would not befall any other young woman in Maharashtra.
What the Government ignores is that for every murder of a woman who lived in with a man from another community, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of women who were murdered by their husbands despite sharing the same caste and religion. How will the committee save such women? Also, is it the Government’s job to check how married couples lead their lives? There are no statistics to prove that women who choose their partners outside of their caste or religion face a greater risk to their lives than those who choose from within their community. All over the world, love marriage is the norm while arranged marriage is becoming a rarity. Even in India, the young, especially the educated, prefer to find their own spouses rather than wait for their parents to choose for them.
The law is clear on this. Any man or woman who has attained a certain age can marry, subject to their mental and physical health, any person of the opposite sex, irrespective of caste or creed. This being the case, the committee’s work is contrary to what the law provides for. It is wrong to presume that an adult is unable to choose a life partner on her own and her parents are better qualified to do so. True, parents have a duty to bring up their children in the manner they like, giving them values that should guide them forever. Once they reach adulthood, they can only advise, not enforce their views on them. No sensible parents would like their children to be their carbon copies in thought and deed.
In the instant case, if the woman’s family did not know about her murder for six months in these days of instant communication, it is a measure of their own alienation from her. The woman herself had complained to the police against her partner, but they did not take any action worth the name. The point is that both the family and the state cannot escape blame for what happened. Though emphasis is often laid on family values, the fact is that a lot of ugly things happen in the family. Sexual harassment of children happens mostly in the family. In fact, most molestation incidents are perpetrated by persons related or known to the victims. It is a different matter that for familial reasons, such incidents are hushed up and not reported to the police. Also, some of the worst crimes are committed in the name of upholding what is touted as the family honour.
The way khap panchayats function in states like Haryana is a pointer to the kind of human rights violations couples who fall in love and marry of their own volition have to undergo. At one time, intercaste marriages, especially with lower castes, were promoted by the state and by social reformers. There are innumerable cases of happy marriages between couples belonging to different faiths. In fact, they promote the democratic and secular ideals of the state. Seen against this backdrop, Maharashtra’s attempt is to turn the clock back by presuming that interfaith and inter-caste marriages are suspect and need to be checked. It is a frontal attack on the adult citizen’s right to choose a spouse of his or her choice. The state must enforce the law, not break it in the name of ‘love jihad’!
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