Reality Behind A Secular State

Reality Behind A Secular State

Newsletter June 1984

Saheli took up the case of a Hindu (from an Arya Samaji family) woman wanting to marry a Muslim man under the Special Marriage Act (SMA) so that each could retain their faith. However, the woman’s family under the pressure of Arya Samaj filed contradictory objections and various false cases. At each hearing before the Marriage Officer, they brought professional gundas and ultimately the Marriage Officer refused to solemnise the marriage under the SMA and the woman got converted and married under the Muslim Law. It all began with an anonymous voice on the phone which said, ‘my friend is in trouble’· Where? What? How? - a series of questions remained unanswered. We gauged the sense of panic and proceeded to do the needful. The story of how we rescued her is a long and complicated one. But the story of why we helped her out is simple and straight forward. In her own words...

"I joined Jamia Millia in 1977 where I met a Muslim man, who I became very friendly with. With years (I know him since the last 7 years) we became very close to each other and decided to get married. His family accepted our decision but my family refused to agree, though I continued to meet him all these years with the knowledge of my family. We decided to get married under the SMA and gave in an application in the court. This sparked of the conflict forcing me to leave my home.

When Aryasamajis came to know of this decision, they started exerting pressure on me. They saw and interpreted our marriage as a communal issue between Hindus and Muslims. They first pressurised me to convert this man to Hinduism and when we refused to do that, my family members started beating me and locking me up inside the house. My brother was specially cruel to me and used to beat me up most. He used to threaten me by saying that if I married this man, he will not give me my share of property. Aryasamajis’ continued to interfere and ill-treat me. Ultimately it became too much for me and l decided to leave the house. But my mother had already locked the door. When l tried to jump from my room, she pulled me and started strangulating me with my dupatta. In order to save my life, I ran towards the balcony, broke the glass door and shouted for help. Police came. I insisted that my lawyer be sent for. Instead these Aryasamjis were called and a big meeting was held. When I told the police that both of us needed police protection, the Aryasamajis started threatening me that if I gave a statement like this, they will get us thrown into the jail, and that if l acted smart, they will see to it that for the rest of my life I rot in jail (I am a 24 year old woman). Under threat and terror they made me write a statement that there was no conflict between me and my mother.

After this I was sent to different houses where I was kept under total vigil. Then they sent me to my uncle’s house to stay. At that point, I asked my friend to contact Saheli and get me out as I could not take this ill-treatment and harassment any more".

This case focuses attention on the relevance and meaning to women of fundamental rights guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution of India, We, as any other citizen are guaranteed the right to life and personal liberty (Article 21) a right against illegal detention (Article 22) and freedom of speech, expression and movement (Article 19 (1) A.

However, in the case of a woman whose exploitation and oppression takes place within the four walls of the family and has a social sanction, violation of her basic rights of life, liberty and dissent, becomes a matter of grave concern to us. She, who has very little freedom and mobility, is subjected to total censorship and humiliation, if she even slightly challenges the given norms and traditions. The controls get more severe and inhuman. Thus, we women have an aspect unique to our situation namely, that for us, a major source of oppression and violence is the family itself. The task gets very difficult as this ‘invisible violence’ is reinforced and supported by other institutions such as legal, religious, educational etc. Any tight related to these issues whether inside or outside the courts- we see as our struggle to regain our rights of self decision and freedom - struggle to break away from the existing inequality and discrimination within the family and in the society at large. The other issue concerns the question of secularism and state policy. This case brings into focus the relevance of secularism in the lives of common people, specially women. The SMA was introduced primarily to make it possible for people from different communities and religious faiths to marry. This proclaimed state policy of secularism embodied in the SMA has been rendered meaningless by lengthy and arbitrary court procedure. The Act provides that any person can object to the marriage notice. The provision gives unlimited rights to individuals and religious organisations to object to the marriage on the grounds of religious and personal prejudices. This defeats the very purpose and the context of the Act and makes the solemnization of such marriages an impossible task.

It is perhaps worthwhile to elaborate as to how these Aryasamajis stopped this marriage. The tactics that they adopted were quite unscrupulous hiring goondas; threatening and intimidating the couple, Saheli volunteers and the lawyer; resorting to blatant lies and constantly contradicting the facts of the case. In the court of the Marriage Officer, one set of Aryasamajis insisted that the man was already married, while the mother and other family members declared that the woman was already married. In the name of preserving family honour, they went to the extent of filing a false theft case against the daughter, and producing a false marriage certificate (not duly signed by the parties to the marriage) and filing a false case of injunction in the name of a non-existent ‘husband’. In their statement and subsequent cross examination, neither the woman’s mother nor her uncle could state the man’s surname, caste, name his family members or describe his looks. They admitted they had never been to their so called son-in-law’s family. It is a separate issue that none of these people who swore by these lies were asked to produce the set of man and woman that the couple in question were respectively married to.

There are just too many contradictory stories that the objecting Aryasamajis have put forward. What is obvious is that their motivation is communal rather than reflecting a real concern for the woman. And they have the mean - material and other, including political connections to carry on their repressive activities subjecting individuals to harassment and terror. However, they perhaps in their frenzy of fundamentalism do not realise that they have created circumstances for a person of one religion to convert herself to another - In this case to Islam and have directly become responsible for the conversion - which the couple fought till the end. For the woman, it has meant foregoing her special rights and protection within the marriage that SMA would have ensured her.