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Editorial of the Day (17th June): High Court’s Take On Marriage Act

Context: A recent order from the Madhya Pradesh High Court has sparked concerns over potential misinterpretations of the law regarding inter-faith marriages and the scope of the Special Marriage Act, 1954.

Background of the Issue

  • The controversy arose from a petition filed by an unmarried Hindu-Muslim couple seeking protection for their inter-faith marriage.
  • The Madhya Pradesh High Court questioned the validity of such a marriage under the Act and denied police protection to the couple on the grounds that their marriage would be invalid.
  • This decision is seen as a reversal of the jurisprudence on the right to choose a partner and the well-established objectives of the Special Marriage Act.

Erroneous Considerations

  • Typically, when a petition for police protection is filed under Article 226 of the Constitution, the High Court assesses the violation of the petitioners’ rights and the threats they face.
  • High Courts have extended protection to unmarried individuals facing societal threats, as seen in cases of same-sex couples and live-in couples.
  • Contrarily, the Madhya Pradesh High Court focused on the merits of the impending marriage rather than the threat assessment, ignoring the protection provided under Article 21 of the Constitution, which safeguards the right to life and liberty.
  • Comparison with Other Courts:
    • Madras High Court granted protection to a lesbian couple.
    • Punjab and Haryana High Court protected a live-in couple, focusing on their fundamental rights.

Dilution of the Special Marriage Act

  • The Madhya Pradesh High Court’s order undermines the Special Marriage Act’s objectives, erroneously referencing a Supreme Court precedent (Mohammed Salim vs. Shamsudeen, 2019) which dealt with property succession under Mohammedan Laws, not the validity of inter-faith marriages.
  • The court misinterpreted Section 4 of the Special Marriage Act, which excludes marriages between persons within prohibited degrees of relationship, failing to recognize that the Act facilitates marriages between any two Indian nationals regardless of their faith.

Social and Political Context

  • The order is significant in today’s social and political climate where inter-faith and inter-caste marriages face vigilantism and right-wing propaganda, such as the “love jihad” conspiracy.
  • There are ongoing challenges to unconstitutional provisions within the Special Marriage Act, like prior notice requirements, pending before the Supreme Court.
  • The Supreme Court’s ruling in Shafin Jahan vs. Asokan K.M. (2018) emphasised that marriage intimacies lie within a core zone of privacy, inviolable by social disapprova The Constitution protects personal liberty from societal scrutiny.

Key Judicial Precedents and Principles

  • The Shafin Jahan case prioritises an individual’s right to choose a life partner over faith or caste-based restrictions, reinforcing the principles of autonomy, privacy, and liberty.
  • Constitutional courts must remember that jurisprudence favours these values, ensuring protection of individual choices in personal matters.
Special Marriage Act 1954
  • The Special Marriage Act (SMA), 1954 is an Indian law that provides a legal framework for the marriage of individuals from different religions or castes.
  • It governs civil marriages where the state sanctions the marriage rather than religious institutions.
  • The Indian system, recognizing both civil and religious marriages, is similar to the UK’s Marriage Act of 1949.

Basic Provisions

  • Applicability:
    • The Act applies to people of all faiths, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, and Buddhists across India.
    • Recognition of Marriage:
    • The Act allows for the registration of marriages, giving legal recognition and providing benefits such as inheritance rights, succession rights, and social security benefits.
    • Polygamy is forbidden under the Act.
    • A marriage is declared null and void if either party had a living spouse at the time of the marriage or if either party is incapable of giving valid consent due to unsoundness of mind.
  • Key Sections Under the Act:
    • Section 4:  At the time of marriage, “neither party has a spouse living” or is “incapable of giving a valid consent to it in consequence of unsoundness of mind”.
    • Section 5: It requires the parties to give written notice to the Marriage Officer of the District, with at least one party having lived in the district for at least 30 days before the notification date.
    • Section 6: A true copy of the notice given by the parties will be kept under the “Marriage Notice Book” which will be open for inspection at all reasonable times, without a fee.
    • Section 7: It allows any person to object to the marriage within 30 days from the date of the notice’s publication.

Age Limit: The minimum age for marriage under the SMA is 21 years for males and 18 years for females.

Differentiation from Personal Laws:

  • Personal laws like the Muslim Marriage Act, 1954, and the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, require one spouse to convert to the other’s religion for marriage.
  • The SMA allows inter-faith or inter-caste couples to marry without converting, maintaining their religious identity.
  • However, once married under the SMA, an individual is considered severed from their family concerning rights like inheritance.

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