India, a secular and democratic country with the longest written constitution, guarantees its citizens fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of religion (Articles 25–28) and the right to marry a person of one’s choice (Article 21). Article 12 protects the right to marry, but if the government allows itself to have a say in who citizens can marry, then where is the liberty that the constitution promises? Is it not the highest level of crime in a democratic country when the basic rights of citizens are attacked by the government itself?
Secularism is one of the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution; however, implementing secularism in India has proven to be a contentious issue as there are many challenges and problems with secularism in India. These include the rise of religious intolerance and communal violence, which create a climate of fear and mistrust among different religious communities, undermining the principles of secularism. Another problem is the increasing influence of religion in politics and discrimination against minorities, particularly Muslims, who constitute 14% of India’s population.
All of these factors can create fear and mistrust among different religious and caste communities, making it difficult for people from different backgrounds to come together in marriage. India supports civil, religious, and customary marriages, and the battle for same-sex marriage has even reached the Supreme Court. This shows that the country believes there is nothing wrong with marrying someone you love. However, there is societal pressure on Hindus and Muslims when it comes to marriage, and unlike most countries, divorce is not seen positively in India, although it is a legal option.
In 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government issued an order that allows police to check interfaith marriages to ensure they are voluntary and to prevent forced marriages. The Madhya Pradesh state government also introduced a bill that would make it mandatory for couples planning an interfaith marriage to provide a two-month notice to the government. Such recent actions regarding interfaith marriages can be seen as not secular, as they imply that the government wants to monitor and control citizens’ choices of partners and marriages. These actions can be interpreted as an attempt to limit citizens’ freedom of religion and choice of partners. However, over the years, the implementation of this law has been debated and criticised on different grounds.
The Indian Special Marriage Act of 1952 was designed to help consenting individuals overcome the societal pressure they may face when attempting to marry someone from a different caste or religion. The act provides a legal framework for inter-religious and inter-caste marriages in India, where societal pressure can be high.
The act’s key provisions include:
- requiring parties intending to marry to give notice of their intended marriage to the marriage officer of the district where at least one of them has resided for at least 30 days before giving the notice.
- allowing any person to object within 30 days of the notice being published, and if the marriage officer is satisfied that the marriage would contravene the provisions of the Act or any other law in force, he may prohibit the marriage.
- registering the marriage after the expiration of 30 days from the date of the notice, if no objections are raised or if the objections are overcome.
- Providing the option of a court marriage, where the marriage can be solemnised by a marriage officer in the presence of three witnesses
- Providing the option of converting an existing marriage under any other personal law into a marriage under the Special Marriage Act by registering the marriage under the act.
- Providing the option of divorce and judicial separation, where one party can apply for divorce or judicial separation on certain grounds mentioned in the act
The Special Marriage Act aims to uphold the principle of separating state from religion by providing a legal framework for inter-caste marriages and ensuring that individuals are not denied their rights based on their religion or caste. Additionally, by providing legal recognition to inter-caste marriages, it ensures that couples and their children are not denied their rights because of the marriage being inter-caste or interfaith, which helps build a more inclusive and equal society for its citizens.
However, in practice, the state’s neutrality is often compromised and religious sentiments are used for political gain, leading to discrimination and religious intolerance. It’s crucial to remember that interfaith marriages should not be considered wrong as long as two people are caring, loving, and respecting each other in all aspects; faith should not come between them when it comes to marriage. And it is the duty of the government to respect the policy, principles, and dignity of the constitution, as it is the soul of the nation and should be upheld by all.