When the law is reluctant to play Cupid

The process of civil marriage – once a simple affair – has become cumbersome; even challenging


Sakshi Kuchroo | March 30, 2016 | New Delhi

#Special Marriage Act   #Civil Marriage   #Hindu Marriage Act  
Nikhil Thiyyar and Shrinkhla Sahai at their RK Puram residence
Nikhil Thiyyar and Shrinkhla Sahai at their RK Puram residence

Thirty-two years ago, Geeta Sahai, unlike other girls of her age, didn’t want to waste time and money in planning her wedding down to fine detail. For Geeta, then Geeta Lal – a journalist, documentary filmmaker and radio professional, marriage did not mean splurging her savings on a lavish wedding.

“I did not believe in the concept of Kanyadaan, since women are not objects to be donated, and I wanted to get married in a simple fashion. So, I went for a court marriage where the process was quite simple and without any hullaballoo,” she says.

Geeta and her fiancé had gone to the Tis Hazari court in Delhi; filled up a form and were asked to come back in a month. “Nobody asked me for either money or a photograph of the religious ceremony of our marriage. Within three months we had got married in the court of law,” she recalls.

The law played cupid for Geeta to get hitched to her life partner even as it was a revolutionary step for the society then.

The times seem to have changed, but the change is for worse. So felt Geeta, when it came to her daughter Shrinkhla’s choice to follow in her mother’s steps and have a simple marriage. Shrinkhla, an academic and radio professional, too was never fond of taking ‘saat pheras’ and being offered in ‘kanyadaan’. After falling in love with Nikhil Thiyyar, a journalist, the couple had decided to have a civil marriage.

However, law officials at the court house were not as helpful and courteous as her parents had told Shrinkhla that they would be.

“The first time I went with my husband to the Karkardooma court, we just wanted to get the necessary application form and finish the formalities. But as soon as we reached the court, we got surrounded by a bunch of lawyers who started asking us deceitful questions like whether we were a runaway couple and we belonged to different religions,” says Shrinkhla.

“When they realised that religion was not a problem for us, they asked why we had come for a civil marriage. Their behaviour was so absurd and their questions were meant to corner us. We were taken aback and felt disheartened. We ultimately left without getting the form,” Shrinkhla says.

Hindu Marriage Act, 1955

  • A religious ceremony has to be performed and a certificate signed by the priest who performed it is required for registering the marriage.
  • The Act applies to all Hindus as well as Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.
  • No notice required to register marriage under this Act. It can be done on the same day of the filing of application or a few days later.
Special Marriage Act, 1954
  • No religious ceremony is required.
  • Any citizen of India irrespective of his/her religion can marry under it. The Act also covers marriages between an Indian and a foreigner.
  • The Act provides for solemnisation and also registration of a marriage by a marriage officer/registrar.
  • One-month notice period is required.
Tatkal Marriage Registration Scheme
  • Any couple can get their marriage registered within 24 hours. However, the scheme is applicable only in Delhi.
  • Earlier one had to pay '10,000 for registration under the scheme; however the AAP government has slashed it to Rs.1,000.


The second time she went to the court, she was again besieged by the lawyers, who even offered to arrange a religious ceremony with ‘saat pheras’ at an Arya Samaj temple.

“I told the lawyers that the whole point of my preference for a civil marriage is to avoid the religious ceremony, but they seemed to have a problem with that. They asked me to come only for the pheras and all the formalities will be over within a day. I was aghast as it is nowhere mentioned in the Special Marriage Act that I need to have the ceremony done!” she says.

After repeated visits to even get the necessary form had failed, Shrinkhla went to the general inquiry counter. On the other side were two women sitting in chairs with their feet on the desk; sipping tea and apparently little interested in entertaining any inquiries. Shrinkhla asked for the form. One of them replied, “Dilli me kahin bhi mil jayega form. Jao, kahin se bhi le lo (You will get the form anywhere in Delhi. Go and get it from wherever).”

Finally, she had to settle for a regular, conventional temple wedding – something her mother didn’t have to do.

Three months after her marriage, Shrinkhla is still angry when she narrates her ordeal at the court. “My husband and I got really upset with their lackadaisical attitude. We were so disappointed,” she says.

Geeta says she had never imagined her daughter would have to face such a mess. “Everything went so smoothly at my time. I thought this time it would be even easier.”

Why is the law of the land, in practice, so hostile to the idea of court marriage?

Shrinkhla says though she did not mind paying lawyers for their services but she was appalled at the ethics and attitude of some of them. “I thought if I had to face so much trouble even when I had my parents’ go-ahead, how much pressure must those couples be facing who want to get married despite family opposition? They are supposed to be protected, not harassed.”

Of course, inter-faith couple Nishant Ahuja and Isha Jain had to face much worse ordeal. They had been in love for seven years. Finally when they wanted to get married and told their families about it, Isha’s parents were dead against a ‘Punjabi boy’ marrying their Jain girl. They were now frantically looking for a suitable match for their daughter from within their community. The couple then decided to take recourse to court marriage.

When they tied the knot in an Arya Samaj temple, little did they know that it would be not the end but the beginning of their troubles. “As we had to get our marriage registered under the Special Marriage Act, we were asked to produce a wedding card. The lawyer knew well that we had got married secretly without participation or approval of our parents. Although it’s not needed under the law, the lawyers won’t let you have that easy,” says Nishant.

“My wife couldn’t have a relative or friend as a witness since we wanted to keep it a secret. So I asked one of my friends to be a witness from her side. The office of the municipal corporation, where we went to register the marriage, had a problem with that too. They said a girl from the Jain community cannot have a Punjabi brother as witness and then they started passing lewd comments. They scared Isha and made her so uncomfortable that we just wanted to get out of it at the soonest,” he says.

Sanjoy Sachdev, chairman, Love Commandos, a Delhi-based organisation that provides shelter and legal services to runaway couples from all over the country, says young couples indeed face severe legal hassles at the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) offices. The due process for court marriage is so complicated that his organisation had to file an RTI query to get a clear idea of it. “It gets easy for these officials to build pressure on couples who intend to marry against their parents’ wishes. This way they can make money easily. Harassing them has become their habit,” says Sachdev. 

Even the tatkal marriage registration scheme introduced in Delhi in 2014, which allows marriage registration in a day, now takes at least a week. “Tatkal is the best option for inter-caste or runaway couples but the SDM officials never let them have it that easy. They take their own sweet time and tell them to come after three or four days,” adds Sachdev, who is also an advocate. 

Things get tougher for inter-caste couples who are at war with their own families or communities. SDM offices simply reject their marriage pleas. Sachdev says that in Delhi, Mehrauli has the highest number of Muslim residents but the SDM office there had registered just 247 marriages between April 2014 and February 2016 – all of them Hindu marriages. “There is a bias towards such couples. They are always asked absurd questions, like why are you betraying your parents? It is just wrong. The whole concept of going for a civil marriage is to make it easy for people and not harass them,” says Sachdev.

In fact, explains Sachdev, it’s the rules of the marriage laws that create threat for the inter-faith couples. For example, as per rules, an inter-faith or inter-caste couple is asked to furnish their respective addresses and age proofs; it becomes difficult for them to furnish the documents as some of them are hiding and fear violence including ‘honour’ killing.

“An affidavit should suffice in cases of runaway couples facing hostility from their family or society. We have asked for this in the RTI,” Sachdev says.

Advocate SC Joshi has a similar story to share. “There is harassment at every level for the couples who want a simple court marriage, be it in the name of verification or witnesses. A couple once came to me saying that the SDM officials were asking them to get witnesses who are residents of Delhi. They are just making it more difficult for them,” Joshi says.

Ali (name changed on request), an engineer, had to relocate from Gurgaon to Delhi to get his marriage registered. He had fallen in love with a Hindu girl, Rekha (name changed), in his hometown Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. As he didn’t want the SDM to send a notice to his house informing his family of his marriage, they decided to shift to Delhi. Here again he faced legal hurdles in taking Rekha as his bride. “First, they would not accept my rent agreement as residence proof. Then, they were not cordial at the time of pre-verification. I am scared thinking what if my family comes to know about the notice,” says Ali in a shaky voice.

Since Ali and Rekha’s marriage has been registered in the national capital, a notice will be sent to the SDM office in their hometown. They have apparently taken a risk; they know that once their families know, they will be hounded.

One wonders why the law requires parents to be conveyed the decision of two adults who have chosen to get married.

Dhanak of Humanity, an organisation helping mixed marriage couples, has also been working on fixing loopholes in the law and procedures on the issue. Its co-founder, Asif Iqbal, says these problems are discouraging young couples from opting for civil marriages. “The rules and guidelines for implementation of these SMA (Special Marriage Act) and HMA (Hindu Marriage Act) are daunting. The prevalence and practice of these so-called rules by the administrative officials while implementing the Act, reflect their mistrust, bias and reservation against civil marriages,” he said in reply to questions sent through email.

Asif feels the requirement of furnishing documents for the marrying couples and the overall uncertainty about the date of solemnisation and marriage registration adds to the overall hostility and hassle for them.

The present scenario reflects how a legal system that was built to help young couples take their own decisions has become so tedious that they have to think twice before knocking on the door of law. “Couples have no issue in bribing the officials as they just want the process to get over as soon as possible, since some of them are also under a lot of pressure from their families. I wonder how the problem can be sorted out without speaking out on the issue,” Asif says.

Geeta and Shrinkhala also feel that there is a need for raising voice against this issue since it’s slowly taking away the common man’s trust in this law. “There should be a campaign against a mind-numbing practice like this. This has to stop,” Geeta says.


(The story appears in the April 1-15, 2016 issue)




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