The right to marry a person of one’s choice is integral to Article 21 of the Indian constitution, guaranteeing the right to life for Indian citizens. But the country has time and again chosen to bypass that, especially for women.
Earlier this week, the alleged abduction, forced marriage and conversion to Islam of a young Sikh woman named Manmeet Kaur from Srinagar sparked local protests and raised concerns about the security of minorities. Led by members of the Shiromani Akali Dal, they claimed that Kaur was forcibly converted and demanded that she be married off in her own community, said media reports.
Many fell prey to the rumours that Kaur was 18 and the man was 60. However, reports revealed that they were 26 and 29 respectively and that they desired to be together. With conflicting information emanating from different sources, the chaos resulted in the woman being ‘handed’ back to her family. Her partner is currently in police custody.
The crime of being in love
This case is one among the lakhs of similar situations occurring in India each year. The popularization of the phrase ‘Love Jihad’ stands testament to people’s reaction to it. The threat against interfaith and inter-caste couples is so high that the Delhi government recently ordered round-the-clock security for a safe house meant to protect such pairs.
The law also does not make the process of marriage easier for such couples. People who choose to get married under the Special Marriages Act must file a notice with the district’s Marriage Registrar stating their intention to marry each other. They can only marry 30 days after this notice is published. In the past, we’ve seen that the publication of such sensitive data is used by people from different communities to locate lovers who may have fled from home. In Kerala, after many were put in direct danger, the government ceased to publish Special Marriage Applications online.
It is truly unfathomable that in a country touted as the ‘world’s largest democracy’, two consenting adults cannot enter a marriage without being hoarded and harassed.
As outrage over the incident swept the internet, social media stood divided over Kaur’s case. Many Sikh people expressed that they were elated to see her being ‘restored’ to the community. This kind of language completely ignores the agency of a woman and exposes her as an inanimate object who needed to be ‘returned to its original owner’.
Other Sikhs were of the opinion that the scenario exposed the less than subtle Islamophobia that exists within the community. The strengthening of this attitude can be attributed to many factors. Perhaps the most crucial would be a strong anti-Muslim sentiment being propagated by the ruling party. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the ordinance for ‘Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion Bill 2020’ was approved by chief minister Yogi Adityanath to deal with cases of ‘love jihad’ and make them punishable offences.
These kinds of legal provisions provide easy armour for those who fall on the extreme end of the spectrum that wish to restrict people from leaving communities for whatever reason or voluntarily converting for personal reasons.
Perhaps the most controversial comments came from Amaan Bali — who claims to be an author and entrepreneur — who first stated that Kaur was mentally unstable and hence needed rescuing. He later went on to say that the woman agreed to marry Sardar Sukhbir Singh “in the presence of police as well as family.”
Surrounded by powerful male members of her family, the community and the police, one need not think too much to guess what the mental state of the woman would have been. As always, most Indians would rather have their children forced into a marriage that reflects well on their family rather than one of their own choosing.
Women as pawns of patriarchy
If indeed it was a case of ‘abduction’, perhaps the woman’s body language would’ve been far different from what was seen from recent images. The family claims they 'rescued' her out of concern and could’ve still allowed her to choose a partner of her choice from the community. Instead, a wedding was conducted in a matter of days just to appease the sentiment of the larger society that was worked up over a personal matter.
“Girls will not marry Muslims. Live with it. Deal with it. This is the line we have drawn at the community level,” Bali wrote on Twitter. With that statement, he has laid bare the attitude that has pervaded the Indian society from time immemorial — that we can eat and do business with other communities, but we will never mix as families.
At the end of the day, marriage continues to be a tool to propagate caste and faith endogamy. In a country that seems to take a step forward and multiple steps back, the separation of state and faith continues to blur, overstepping secular rights promised by the original nation builders.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)