Practical problems with the Special Marriages Act

Coomi Kapoor has a column in today’s Indian Express which draws on her experiences to highlight serious problems with the implementation machinery of the Special Marriages Act, as well as the mindset of those who are charged with enforcing it. Her arguments are compelling and the entire piece makes a convincing case for reform. Here are extracts from the piece:
“In a conservative society like ours mixed marriages generally raise hackles and bring out society’s bestial side. Primeval passions are aroused when people are led to believe that one religion is asserting hegemony over another. Every now and then one reads about eloping couples who opt for conversion in order get married, leading to heightened communal tensions. The way it works in our country is that if a marriage has to be solemnised speedily and without red tape, both bride and groom have to be of the same religion. Conversion is an easy way out. At times, for convenience, both even convert to a third religion. So why don’t couples from different religions apply to get married under the Special Marriage Act 1954, which was specifically drafted with people like them in mind? I am something of an expert on the way the legislation works, having gone through the cumbersome procedure twice for my two daughters, who chose partners from different faiths. Even in the national capital, the act is administered in a manner so that as many obstacles as possible are placed in the way. You either end up hiring a lawyer familiar with the working of the marriage office or muster enough determination, time and patience to go through the lengthy rigmarole. … … … At the marriage offices in Delhi it is usually the clerks who interpret the law since they have been at the desk much longer than the young IAS officers who are additional district magistrates and burdened with numerous other duties, from riot control to elections. The trick in getting your way is not to be intimidated by the clerk, but to out-shout and out-reason him, quoting the relevant law. … ….
When applying for permission to get married under the act, you have to work against a deadline, so that the considerable paper work is completed in at least a month, and not more than three months, before the scheduled date of the wedding. Be prepared to be scrutinised and sneered at by sceptical clerks and marriage officers who believe that there has to be something dubious about your intentions or you would not be in their office in the first place. A colleague recalls how minutes before her wedding the marriage officer called her aside, bolted the door and told her she was making a terrible mistake. He laboured under the delusion that his role was that of a marriage counselor, not a marriage officer. When I presented my daughter’s fiancé’s documents with the column for religion left blank, the marriage officer took great offence and snapped that he had never heard of anyone doing such a thing in all his years. One of the most retrograde provisions of the act is the column enquiring about religious affiliation. Since the entire form — with addresses, photographs and religious affiliation of the couple — is pinned on the notice board for a month, couples from different religions become easy prey for fundamentalist outfits who demonstrate outside their homes shouting slogans. The need for publicising the details a month in advance is so that anyone can voice objection to the marriage. In contrast, for a religious ceremony no notice whatsoever is required. And no elementary verification is considered necessary of the pundits, maulvis and granthis who officiate. The provision (19) in the Special Marriage Act, which states that those who marry under it, whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain, will effectively be severed from their families, implies that they are to be penalised for marrying outside their religion. Bigotry and religious prejudice can be eradicated from society only when the government leads the way. But when the guardians of the law themselves have ambivalent feelings on the subject, is it any wonder that eloping couples almost invariably keep their distance from the marriage office and the Special Marriage Act?”

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  • welcome to the club.. the service-level of the public offices in our country India, is deplorable… laws only on paper will not cleanse us of our appallingly parochial mindsets, esp. caste and religious exclusivity… these are nothing but pseudo-identities created in the consciousness of millions of us by the so called “hindu religion”. What does the law do to compensate one who has lost the right to succeed/inherit property just because that one is a hindu and has married under the special marriage act? 1,000/- Rs. as incentive for inter-caste/inter-faith marriage…? how can right to property be affected by a person’s inter-faith marriage? maybe this law worked wonders in the “India” of the first millenium but certainly not now & here…

  • Without meaning to take the side of any political party, it is my view that a common law for right to marriage, succession, property and guardianship with related issues like divorce, alimony, settlements, etc. should be made. This can be done by consulting all religious groups. It must be simple to make and administer and can recognize all marriages of all castes, communities, etc. This will effectively reduce 30% of the burden of the Government, Courts and Society.

  • Do both have to be present before Adm.for special marriage act… my would be is out of country and can't get leave twice