Tuesday, October 30, 2007

India Marriage Registration Call

The Times of India has endorsed a demand by the Supreme Court of India that all marriages in India be registered. In an editorial the newspaper states that:

Marriage law is a touchy issue in India, especially for leaders of the Muslim community. The shadow of common civil code looms over any prospective legislation on the subject. That explains the resistance on the part of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) towards the Supreme Court’s call to make registration of marriages mandatory for all Indians. The AIMPLB doesn’t want the law to be made mandatory for Muslims. A few states have obliged the AIMPLB and exempted Muslims from the purview of the law. The SC wants the exemption removed and for valid reasons.

Registration of birth, death and marriage with state authorities is an essential feature of a modern society. The first two have been institutionalised in India, while the third hasn’t. Most marriages are conducted under personal laws or according to religious rites. The Supreme Court has not asked for a common marriage law but wants all marriages to be registered with state authorities. The apex court’s order is based on the reading that the voluntary option regarding registration makes it difficult to enforce laws prohibiting under-age marriage and polygamy. In the absence of proper records, unscrupulous husbands can deny marriage and leave spouses in the lurch on matters of inheritance of property and maintenance.

The opposition to marriage registration is misplaced.

Organisations like the AIMPLB argue that records of marriages are available with clerics and so it is unnecessary to insist on state registration. They fear that a registration law could undermine the importance of religious institutions in the conduct of marriages. But will it trump personal laws concerning marriage and divorce? That may not be the case, though civil authorities could hereafter have a more influential role in these matters, especially in the event of a dispute. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Issues like marriage and divorce can’t be discussed purely in the framework of religious injunctions. They concern civil rights and common laws that codify them are necessary in a modern society. But uniform civil code has always been a contentious issue in India. Ideally, the legislature should take the lead and create a consensus in the society towards a uniform civil code. Its failure to do so has allowed courts to step in and direct the executive to have laws that reduce the influence of social and religious institutions in matters of civil rights. The legislature should take a cue from the Supreme Court.