Dr. B R Ambedkar, in his lecture “Castes in India” in 1916 –
“One of the most intrinsic characteristics of the caste system is endogamy, which prohibits marriage outside of caste and the maintenance of caste in India is premised on the enforcement of strict endogamy.“
Discourse on interfaith marriages in India at present involves diverse narratives ranging from opposition and resistance to acceptance.
Forced religious conversions for interfaith marriages cases are widely seen in news these days. And many states are attempting to ban religious conversion for the sole purpose of marriage. The state of Uttar Pradesh has seen its first arrest under the new ordinance so passed.
What is Inter-faith Marriage?
- Interfaith marriage, sometimes called a “mixed marriage”, is marriage between spouses professing different religions.
- For individuals who choose interfaith marriage, love is their sole motivation and relationship is generally viewed in terms of individual compatibility.
Interfaith Marriages in India
- The right to marry is a part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
- It is a universal right and it is available to everyone irrespective of their gender.
- A forced marriage is illegal and is invalidated in different personal laws on marriage in India, with the right to marry recognized under various religious laws.
Provisions for such marriages
- The Special Marriage Act, 1954 (SMA) was enacted to facilitate the marriage of couples professing different faiths, and preferring a civil wedding.
- However, some practical problems arise in registering such marriages.
- The law’s features on prior public notice being given and objections for the safety and privacy of those intending to marry across religions.
- To overcome this, many settle for marriage under the personal law of one of them, with the other opting for religious conversion.
Core Issue: Religious Conversions
Religious conversion is one of the most heated issues under interfaith marriage. There are various reasons for which people do convert their religion like:
- Voluntary Conversions i.e. conversions by free choice or because of change of beliefs
- Forceful Conversions i.e. conversions by coercion, undue influence or inducement
- Marital Conversions i.e. conversions due to marriage
- Conversion for convenience
The larger Constitutional issue
(A) Article 21
- Many high courts across India have ruled that- an individual’s right to marry a person of his or her choice is a fundamental right that cannot be denied on the basis of caste or religion by anybody.
- In the Hadiya Case (2016), the Supreme Court had ruled that the right to marry a person of one’s choice is integral to Article 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution.
(B) Article 25
- Article 25 talks about the term “propagate” which means to promote or transmit or merely freedom of expression.
- The question of whether ‘right to convert’ comes under the ambit of ‘right to propagate any religion’ holds fundamental importance to determine the constitutionality of anti-conversion laws.
- There is no expressed provision for ‘conversion’ in the Indian Constitution but there are proponents whose contention is in the favour that right to conversion is implicit under Article 25 which emerges from freedom of conscience.
(C) Rights of women
- Any individual has the absolute right to choose a life partner and this cannot be affected by matters of faith.
- Again, the perception of such marriages is considered okay for males but not for females.
- This indicates gendered responses of the society towards such marriages.
Furore over interfaith marriage
Religious conversion has emerged as the practical way to cohabit as a couple, in a country where neither the inter-faith, inter-caste nor the live-in couples can earn societal approval.
- As per some Personal laws, in order to get married conversion of religion to get equalized is the only way.
- There are cases of being allegedly lured and honey-trapped by men and those girls now seeking their help to free themselves.
- Interfaith marriages these days are believed to be a forced conversion of the women spouses.
- Fundamentalists’ claims that men of a particular religion are trained on the intricacies of religious doctrine to allure other religion women for marriage in an attempt to finish off her religion.
States narrative against interfaith marriages
- Uttar Pradesh is the latest state to implement a law against forceful inter-faith conversions for marriage, amid similar steps by other states. Its proposed law defines punishment and fine for three different cases.
- Conversion is done though “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means” would face a jail term of one to 5 years, and a minimum fine of Rs 15,000.
- Conversion of a minor, a woman from the SC or ST would have to face a jail term from three to 10 years, with a minimum fine of Rs 25,000.
- If such conversion is found at the mass level, then those guilty would face a jail term from three to 10 years, with a minimum fine of Rs 50,000.
- It proposes among other things that a marriage will be declared “shunya” (null and void) if the “sole intention” of the same is to “change a girl’s religion”.
Such legislations are archaic because,
- In the K.S. Puttuswamy or ‘privacy’ judgment, the Supreme Court had already clarified that any interference by the State in an adult’s right to love and marry has a “chilling effect” on freedoms.
- The choice of a life partner, whether by marriage or outside it, is part of an individual’s “personhood and identity”, the apex court has held.
- In the Lata Singh case, the top court recognised the country is going through a “crucial transformational period”.
- It said the “Constitution will remain strong only if we accept the plurality and diversity of our culture”.
Arguements by the States
- It is accused that interfaith marriages often induce “undue influence”, “allurement” and “coercion” for religious conversions.
- Often, negotiations and accommodation post-marriage involve the issue of identity and its expression in the family.
- The recent murder of 20-year-old college girl by her stalker is a case in point. She was shot in the head from point-blank range. Matters came to head after she had filed a molestation complaint against the stalker month’s back, who was pressuring her to convert and marry him.
- It translates as violence against women’s autonomy.
Societal Response and Threats
- The couple faces societal norms against their alliances that are sometimes labelled as immoral, unholy or acts based on lust.
- It brings up the aspect of women as symbols of honour and ‘honour killings’ as one of the societal responses to interfaith marriages.
- Response to such alliances may also go to the extent of killings and ex-communication of individuals (by Khap Panchayats) who attempt to cross their community’s boundaries.
- Interfaith marriages also pose an ideological dilemma to different religious groups.
- On the one hand, different religions promote the philosophy of acceptance and concern for fellow human beings, and on the other hand, there is rigidity in the process of marriage.
Arguments in favour of such marriages
- Interfaith marriages have the potential to build a strong base for community-level changes towards greater sensitivity and acceptance among different faiths/religions.
- These marriages reflect the ‘genuine extent of heterogeneity’ in society, promote pluralism and diminish ‘ideological monopoly’ of different religions.
A sole matter of individual rights
- Ironically, interfaith marriages themselves are fairly common in India.
- The freedom of decision of his/ her marriage shall lie with the person only. The need is to accept the fact.
- Prohibition deprives a woman of her agency and, in effect, controls female sexuality.
- There are many high profile examples in fields such as the arts, sports, journalism, and business as well as politics.
- Marriage is an extremely personal affair. The right to marry a person of one’s choice or to choose one’s partner is an aspect of constitutional liberty as well as privacy.
- The issue of conversion can be resolved by actually agreeing to not convert.
- Marriage done solely for the purpose of conversion and conversion by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, inducement, allurement should be discouraged.
- In short, we should be focusing on dismantling the barriers of religion, caste and other divisions rather than bring up more barriers in these endeavours as is the attempt now.