How Hindu vigilantes are exploiting a Special Marriage Act clause to target interfaith couples

The law requires couples wanting to have a ‘secular’ marriage to file an advance notice, which is then publicly displayed with all their personal information.

ByTanishka Sodhi
How Hindu vigilantes are exploiting a Special Marriage Act clause to target interfaith couples
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In September last year, Abdul and Rishika filed a notice of intended marriage with the marriage registrar in Pune, as required by the Special Marriage Act, 1954. It took less than 15 days for Hindu vigilante groups to “activate” their network and send their men to Rishika’s home in Nasik. The men threatened to beat up her family and warned that since Abdul was Muslim he had “wrong intentions” about their daughter and, thus, the marriage would be a mistake.

That wasn’t all. Over the next few weeks, despite Rishika’s family filing a police complaint, the vigilantes continued to harass the couple, who had been together for four years by then, and their families so much they were forced to cancel their wedding. Rishika was made to return home, her parents were so spooked they didn’t leave their house for weeks. Determined to get wed, however, Abdul and Rishika sent another notice to the marriage registrar in February 2021.

This time, they were hounded with so many calls that they had to turn off their mobile phones and move homes because their addresses had been made public. They finally managed to get married in March, but fear has taken over their lives. Rishika’s cellphone is still turned off and Abdul rarely uses his primary number. Their personal details, they said, had been harvested from the publicly displayed intended marriage notice.

“Those four months were hell,” said Abdul, 31, who works in the information technology industry. “People take advantage of the notice period. This is against our right to privacy.”

Abdul was echoing the concerns of many Indian couples and activists regarding the Special Marriage Act. The law is a civil contract meant to help interfaith and intercaste couples get married but it requires them to file a notice with the marriage registrar expressing their intention to wed 30 days prior. Anyone can object to the solemnization of the marriage during this “objection period” on such grounds as the couple have not attained the age of marriage, have a living spouse or are of unsound mind.

But the notice, which carries the couple’s personal details, is publicly displayed at the district marriage office and, in Maharashtra, published online as well. It, thus, provides an easy way for vigilantes, and disapproving relatives, to target interfaith couples.

That a good number of Indians are against interfaith unions isn’t unknown. A recent Pew survey found that 67 percent Hindus feel it is necessary to stop women from marrying outside the religion, and 65 percent believe the same for Hindu men. For Muslims, as per the survey, the corresponding figures are 80 percent and 76 percent.

The Special Marriage Act was meant to overcome this social hostility and enable couples who wanted to have a “secular” marriage to do so, without having to convert to their partner’s religion. But its requirement to file an advance notice and put it up for public display is a loophole that has been weaponized by vigilante groups which oppose interfaith unions.

Several activists Newslaundry spoke with said while there are cases of the loophole being used by Muslim groups, it is most commonly abused by Hindu vigilantes in cases where the man is Muslim and the woman Hindu. In the last few years, with a Hindu supremacist party taking power and the “love jihad” conspiracy theory gaining currency, the targeting of interfaith couples has escalated.

Hearing a habeas corpus petition of a woman facing such an issue, the Allahabad High Court said early this year that the mandatory publication of such notices violated the Right to Privacy and that couples could choose not to have their advance notice published. The ruling, however, hasn’t been implemented yet.

In 2004, the Supreme Court expanded the territorial jurisdiction of high courts when dealing with the constitutionality of central laws raised in writ petitions. So, lawyers and activists argue, the Allahabad High Court’s ruling applies all over the country, unless and until another high court passes a contradictory order.

In February, the union government told the Delhi High Court that the procedures laid down by the law, including the 30-day notice period, were “fair and reasonable”, and contended that fundamental rights weren’t absolute.

Intentional hurdles

“The notice is a completely violative provision. Why should adults go through such scrutiny for their personal choices?” asked Lara Jesani, lawyer and a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. “It is not an accident that the provision is being misused. When couples have to disclose the fact that they’re getting married one month prior it’s giving the right wing one month to separate them.”

Abdul and Rishika are now contemplating moving abroad. “If they can get our addresses, go to our houses, trace our phones, it means they have a properly organised system,” said Abdul, who has not been able to meet his parents for months. “The motto of these groups is that such marriages shouldn’t take place, no matter what. But it is my right.”

In Maharashtra, the problem is multifold. Besides the notice being put up on a display board, personal information of the couple intending to marry under the Special Marriage Act is uploaded on a government web portal, making it easier for vigilante groups to identify interfaith couples.

Kerala was the only other state which put up the notices online but stopped doing so after a campaign led by an interfaith couple who were harassed. Right to Love, a social group in Maharashtra, hopes to achieve the same. They have written to the state’s inspector general of registration, Shravan Hardikar, urging him to stop publishing notices online.

“Now that the notices are online, you can sit at home and find out how many inter-religious marriages are happening,” noted Abhijeet K, co-founder of Right to Love. “The right to privacy is lost as anyone can access people’s information.”

Hardikar, meanwhile, told Newslaundry that he had received the memorandum and his department was examining the matter. “The recurpersions are being studied. We will verify the legal position soon,” he said.

Asked about the Allahabad High Court’s ruling, he said the government has to make an amendment in the registration procedure under the Special Marriage Act.

Activating networks

At the marriage registrar’s office in Mumbai, couples pose for photos and admire their newly fitted rings. Inside, people spill out of packed waiting rooms. Here, unlike outside, there are more grim than smiling faces. It is a long, tedious process to have a “secular” marriage.

The notices of intended marriage are tied to a window grill. They have the names, ages, occupations, addresses and photos of the couple.

It is easy to flip through the notices and identify Hindu-Muslim couples.

Hindu vigilantes pass on personal details and photos from the notices to their “networks”, which send members to the Hindu woman’s house or to confront the couple. Sometimes they are supplied such information, it’s been reported, by people working in marriage offices, including agents, who act as informers for the vigilante groups.

The agents are mostly advocates whom couples hire to navigate the marriage bureaucracy.

“This mostly happens to Hindu-Muslim couples,” said an agent at Mumbai’s marriage registrar’s office. “Extremist groups find the notice and spread it around to people. They go to people’s houses and discourage them from pursuing the marriage.”

The agent, who has been working at the marriage office for over 20 years, said the harassment of interfaith couples has increased in the last half a decade, particularly after the notice started to be put up online. Before taking on Hindu-Muslim cases, he said, he always confirms whether their parents were aware to avoid problems with the vigilantes.

According to Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, an NGO that has assisted over 4,000 interfaith couples across the country since 2012, religion makes it easy to “activate” the vigilante networks. “People think it’s a religious calling and take responsibility for their community,” he said. “For them, it is like working for a common cause to prevent something they think is wrong.”

Vigilante targeting of interfaith couples has become so common that many of them, anticipating extreme reactions, are forced to take extra precautions.

Fearful of what might happen if the notice of his intended marriage to Prerna, filed in January 2019, appeared online, Rehan, 30, asked his agent to remove it as soon as it was put up on the notice board as he didn’t want to take any risks.

“We had to be prepared. There had been many such instances where notices put up on the display board went viral,” he said. “There’s always fear. Some extremist groups spread a lot of negativity, they click pictures of notices and circulate them through WhatsApp because they oppose such marriages.”

Rehan’s plan worked. But others were not so lucky. There have been recent cases of interfaith couples being targeted in Pune, Nashik and Mumbai.

On Facebook, there are groups with names such as “Love Jihad Bulletin” and “Girls, Beware of Love Jihad” which are dedicated to stopping interfaith marriages. A screenshot posted on a group called “Vedas, The eternal Spiritual Truth” has a post about a helpline launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for Hindus which can be used if “a Muslim boy is harassing a Hindu girl”.

Meanwhile, Dhanak of Humanity’s Facebook page is filled with posts that declare “You have the right to love” and “Do not be confused. To love someone does not mean that you disrespect your parents. There’s nothing wrong in seeking a happy life for yourself”.

According to Asif, while Muslim groups do sometimes oppose interfaith marriages they lack the power to escalate the matter and garner as much support as extremist Hindu groups do. “The fear has increased over the past few years. People even refuse to be witnesses, because they do not want to get involved in a potentially serious matter,” said Asif, adding that the police defer to vigilantes when they march into the station in huge numbers.

Newslaundry sent a set of questions to the Maharashtra chief secretary's office, including whether they have taken steps to stop the targeting of interfaith couples who seek to get married under the Special Marriage Act. The report will be updated if we get a response.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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