What’s the next step after getting married? If the Supreme Court has its way, it will be a visit to the marriage registrar’s office. It has hauled up states that have been tardy in framing rules for compulsory registration of marriages. The censure follows a judgment last year where the apex court said that all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion, must register their marriages.
At present, only the Special Marriage Act makes it mandatory for a couple to register their marriage with a government registrar. The Hindu Marriage Act has provisions for registration but it is left to the discretion of the couple. The Act also directs state governments to frame rules with regard to registration if they so desire.
The Indian Christian Marriage Act too has provisions for registration, but it is only recorded in the church where the marriage takes place. Under Muslim Personal Law, there is no necessity to register marriages.
It is evident that there is no uniformity with regard to registration of marriages. The court’s decision to step in was mainly prompted by arguments made by the National Commission for Women. The commission said in an affidavit that compulsory registration would help prevent child marriages, check bigamy, ensure the rights of divorced women and deter men from deserting their wives. Whether registration of marriages itself would check all these evils is doubtful. Those who want to evade the law might simply choose not to register.
However, registration, if strictly enforced, would at least act as a deterrent to those involved in illegal activities such as child marriage.
The court’s judgment is well intentioned but it opens up a can of worms for those inclined to be suspicious. Compulsory registration of marriages, regardless of religion, could be interpreted as a small step towards uniformity of marriage laws.
The sensitivity of the issue is apparent from the fact that most states have framed registration laws for Hindus alone, ignoring minority religions. State governments are particularly wary of annoying Muslims who might view compulsory registration as an encroachment on their personal law. Only two states, West Bengal and Orissa, claim to have followed the Supreme Court’s order.
Such apprehensions, however, are unjustified. Compulsory registration doesn’t infringe on any of the current laws governing marriage. If registration is enforced, Muslims or Christians, who have married under their personal laws, will still follow the same rules for divorce or the number of marriages permitted. Community representatives ought to cooperate in ensuring compulsory registration of marriages.