The Madhya Pradesh government has come up with a politically expedient but otherwise meaningless piece of legislation, dubbed the 'Love Jihad' Bill. Ostensibly aimed at curbing forcible inter-faith marriages, it not only runs the risk of being struck down on constitutional grounds, but creates scope for administrative abuse of its provisions.
The proposed law is motivated by a feudal spirit: the protection of “our” hapless girls from being lured into the clutches of predatory males from “other” communities. It is likely to encounter strong opposition from women's groups, who will object to being infantilised by politicians and will counter any attempt to undermine the right to choose a spouse.
BJP president J P Nadda would do well to caution MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan against proceeding with the Bill, for fear that it will make the state government the butt of worldwide opprobrium. A far simpler option would be to make registration of marriages mandatory, thereby ruling out the possibility of coercion or fraud.
Going by statements from the MP CM and home minister, the proposed Bill will declare marriages involving the use of force, fraud and inducement or for the purpose of religious conversion, as null and void. Currently, women of all faiths enjoy protection against coercive marriages and can seek annulment of such unions on the grounds of force or fraud.
In the context of the Bill, fraud presumably refers to misrepresenting religious identity while contracting a marriage. For example, a Muslim man passing himself off as being of another faith in order to marry a non-Muslim. Under personal law, he can only marry a Jew or a Christian or a convert to Islam. Otherwise, the marriage would be 'fasid' or irregular. So, if he wants to get married under personal law, the scope for fraud is limited.
What if a Muslim man declares himself a Hindu and marries a Hindu woman in a temple? If he has lied, he can be penalised under section 420. The Supreme Court last year asked a Muslim man who declared he had converted in order to marry a Hindu girl, to file an affidavit to that effect along with supporting documents. The court added that it was not against inter-faith marriages and only wanted to protect the woman's interests.
The new dimension sought to be introduced by the proposed 'Love Jihad' Bill is inducement and religious conversion. What exactly does “tempting” someone into marriage mean? Defining temptation in legal terms is enormously difficult. Does it involve money, sex, property or some other form of gratification?
An even trickier aspect is criminalising marriage “for religious conversion”. Neither conversion nor marrying outside one's faith is illegal, so proving a convergence of the two is a tough call. Religious conversion is permissible, although in some states, the administration must be informed well in advance of the conversion ceremony and be satisfied that it is entirely voluntary.
The MP home minister would also like inter-faith couples to inform the district magistrate of their intent to marry, a month before the nuptials. Under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, expressly created for inter-faith and court marriages, a month's notice is required in any case.
What's more, says the minister, “those assisting in committing the crime” will also be booked. He will need to narrow it down: alleged accomplices could range from the happy couple's families and friends, to the officiating cleric and the owner of the wedding hall, not to mention the guests. Under the provisions of the proposed law, a contemporary Emperor Akbar would be jailed along with his father-in-law, Raja Bharmal, if the local thana got wind of his marriage to Jodha Bai.
The minimum age of marriage currently stands at 18 for girls and 21 for boys (the former is likely to be revised upwards, going by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement of October 16). The implication that an adult man or woman is incapable of choosing a spouse and must therefore be protected from making a bad choice is in itself obnoxious and amounts to interference by the state in the private lives of its citizens.
Inter-faith marriage is a fuzzy subject, which calls for constant legal interpretation, given the multiplicity of faiths and sects, each with their own customs and personal laws. The proposed Bill will make matters even more confusing. If the real objective is to avoid fraud and coercion and forced religious conversion, marriage registration must be made compulsory, as suggested by the apex court. The Centre must work towards building a consensus among all states and roll out a comprehensive legislation in this regard.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.