JOSH Malihabadi had a word for the pervasive suffocation that Indians are swamped by of late. “Ab boo-i-gul na baad-i-saba maangtay hain log/ Woh habs hai ke loo ki dua maangtay hain log” (The scent of flowers, the morning breeze, look distant if nice/ In this suffocating stillness a blast of scalding heat would suffice).
In this stillness, both political and cultural, came natural elation over the Allahabad High Court’s ruling recently on civil marriages. The court deleted the waiting time and notice period of 30 days before a civil marriage could take place in Uttar Pradesh. The wait was a needless imposition, the court felt. And the requirement of a public notice impinged on the privacy of those who wanted to marry sans fanfare.
The pause clause is, however, not the issue it is made out to be. If anything, it’s like the amber light before the green and seems to have been lifted from a not so disagreeable church practice. “If anyone has any objection to the marriage they should speak up now or hold their peace forever,” says the priest to the gathering without mostly inviting any trouble.
The court’s order, albeit handy in some ways, has been projected as protection from harassment of marrying couples by social vigilantes, particularly if they were crossing religious or caste barriers that continue to mock the nation’s egalitarian promise.
The Special Marriage Act in India was meant to circumvent the crisis not to add to it.
A more worrying reality is the fact that vigilantes enjoy unprecedented powers under the current set-up governing the country. The courts appear helpless before the daunting reality of majoritarian assertions in India, the same way as they are often known to yield to mobs in Pakistan. What stops the mobs from coming for anyone before their marriage or after?
The essential problem with the Special Marriage Act of 1954 — a handy piece of legislation on its own — comes with couples who change religion or are made to convert in the bargain. This changing of beliefs in order to marry is a problematic practice for a secular country that India is. Conversion is not the issue here, which nobody should object to between consenting adults. A woman or a man who wants to become a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian should marry according to the rites prescribed in the chosen religion while leaving the Special Marriage Act alone. Religious conversion in a marriage denotes an illiberal spirit. One loves or likes the would-be partner but disapproves of his or her religion. The idea smacks of masked violence, as J. Krishnamurthy would say, violence not as much from any mob but from the individuals who see the other’s religion as inferior. The Special Marriage Act was meant to circumvent the crisis not to add to it.
There’s a larger issue at stake, however. In their study of the institution of marriage, Marx and Engels had no hesitation in seeing its evolution as an adjunct of the bourgeois props. A ‘handmaiden of capitalism’ is how they saw marriage. In 1846, they argued in The German Ideology that with the abolition of private property, “the abolition of the family is self-evident”.
Engels noted subsequently, that the original meaning of the word ‘family’ (familia) “is not the compound of sentimentality and domestic strife which forms the ideal of the present-day philistine; among the Romans it did not at first even refer to the married pair and their children but only to the slaves. ‘Famulus’ means domestic slave, and ‘familia’ is the total number of slaves belonging to one man. … The term was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them all.”
Indian objection to marriage presents itself in a less intellectual format. ‘Ye shaadi nahi ho sakti’. This marriage cannot happen. On most counts the issue doesn’t concern the Capulet-Montague problem. Usually, the hero objects to the marriage for his advantage over a trapped woman about to be forcibly married off to the villain of the same religion. In popular Indian cinema, women are usually stripped of their agency in most matters concerning their lives. There are times when the villain pretends to rescue the heroine citing an uncertain future with the hero!
In some stories, stolen from more liberal ancient traditions, couples married quietly by skirting the presence of a third person such as the priest. Citing a pile of burning wood as witness was enough. Aradhana in 1969 became a blockbuster built around one such secret wedding, rooted in an ancient tradition called gandharva vivah. The ancient story of King Dushyant and Shakuntala is recast in countless modern narratives.
Aradhana made Rajesh Khanna a superstar, and gave Sharmila Tagore a money-spinner role, never mind that it would make her legendary mentor Satyajit Ray wince somewhat. Off screen, Tagore a Brahmo-Bengali woman married a cricket legend, Tiger Pataudi, and took a Muslim title as per tradition in her husband’s erstwhile royal family. While the Hindu-Muslim couple appeared to be happily married, Rajesh Khanna struggled with his marriage to Dimple Kapadia. Success or failure in marriage is scarcely related to religion.
Thus there’s little special about the way Hindus or Muslims marry though they may claim an edge in their respective matrimonial systems. For example, consider the marriage records of the current prime ministers of India and Pakistan, one an avowed Hindu, the other a Muslim of pious hue. Observe the hash they have made of their marriages. The first president of India said in his memoirs he didn’t see his wife’s face as they only met in the dark for years; such was the custom in his household. Before daybreak, Babu Rajendra Prasad would slip back into the men’s quarters, quietly, in keeping with tradition.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2021