Swara’s Wedding Highlights Vulnerability Of Couples Marrying Under Special Marriage Act

The SMA needs a notice of marriage that is in a book available to the public, but is commonly interpreted as putting up the details of the couple on a public notice board; this can become dangerous.

Actor Swara Bhasker got married to political activist Fahad Zirar Ahmad earlier this month, and after the court marriage, put out an appreciation post on Twitter for the Special Marriage Act, which applies to interfaith marriages.

“Three cheers for the #SpecialMarriageAct (despite notice period etc.) At least it exists and gives love a chance… The right to love, the right to choose your life partner, the right to marry, the right to agency, these should not be a privilege,” Swara Bhasker tweeted, tagging her new husband.

Soon after, he posted a photograph of the couple dancing outside the Registrar’s Office, and wrote, “Thank you everyone for the love & support. The process was anxious but the result can be read from our faces.”

Special Marriage Act and the ‘love jihad’ brigade on both sides

Reading between the lines, particularly the use of the word “anxious” and the fact that they chose to keep it private till after the papers were signed, it was clear that despite being sure of their feelings for each other, they were apprehensive about the process going through without a hitch. If two people who are both moderately famous and reasonably well connected, and where they had the approval of both sets of parents (who also turned up at the Registrar’s Office) were apprehensive about all the things that might go wrong, what hope is there for regular interfaith couples?

Within moments of the news being announced, it was clear that their apprehension was not without basis. Like all inter-faith relationships, this attracted hate from fundamentalists from both religions. One side claimed it was ‘Love Jihad”, and wondered aloud about how to keep Hindu women “safe” from Muslim men. The other side was quick to declare that their religion did not recognise the marriage of a man, unless it is to a woman “of the book” (Muslim, Christian or Jewish).

It did not, however, stop at that.

Public notice of marriage under SMA can lead to invasion of privacy and even real danger

There were many (presumably of the majority faith) who openly spoke about how the couple used their political and social connections to ensure that the notice of the intent to marry was not put up at the Register’s Office for a month as required by law. They hinted that had they been aware of the proposed marriage, they would have done something to prevent it. This is exactly what every interfaith couple fears.

The Special Marriage Act, 1954 (SMA) was enacted to enable people to get married irrespective of the faith or religion followed by either party. Under the provisions of the Act, the couple which intends to get married under the Act will have to give notice to the marriage officer of the district where either party has resided for a period of at least 30 days before the date.

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This notice of ‘intent” to marriage is written in a book which is open to inspection by the public for a period of 30 days, after which the couple can get married. This provision is commonly interpreted by the marriage officer as putting up the details of the couple on a public notice board, and this not only a gross invasion of privacy, it leaves the couple vulnerable to emotional and physical violence.

This distorts the purpose behind this provision

The intent behind this provision is to ensure that people have a process whereby they can raise valid objections if either person was previously married and has a spouse still living, or if either is of unsound mind. However, in reality, it is used by family and the larger community to intimidate the couple and force them to break off the relationship. Hate crimes against inter-faith couples are on the rise, and publishing their details, including addresses, makes it much easier for mobs to threaten them. Anecdotally, we hear of cases where details of the intent to marriage is sent to one or both sets of parents- this empowers them with the information required to break up the match.

This provision has been challenged, because it is not applicable in case the couple is getting married under the Hindu or Muslim Personal Law- it is only interfaith couples that either partner would be previously married?

In a landmark judgement, the Allahabad High Court ruled that “the requirement of notice under the Act only arises when couple requests such notice to be published”, and went on to add that “there is no mandatory requirement of open notice under the Act.” However, a similar petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court, and anyone wanting to get married under the SMA continues to suffer an invasion of privacy, and remains vulnerable to potential emotional and physical violence.

While the fact that Swara Bhaskar and Fahad Zirar Ahmad managed to fall in love and get married under SMA has given hope to other inter-faith couples who are under immense pressure from the family, their community and society as a large, their anxiety underscores the vulnerability of inter-faith couples.

While, we watch while Swara Bhaskar, in her words “prep(s) for shehnaii-wala shaadi”, we should also use this to remind ourselves that we should continue to raise our voice against the invasion of privacy of any couple that plans to get married under SMA.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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