Love and the law: Hindu-Muslim couple challenges India’s marriage rule

Love and the law: Hindu-Muslim couple challenges India’s marriage rule

Why We Wrote This

Concerns about intolerance in India have been mounting for years. But in the face of fear and prejudice, some interfaith couples are speaking up to celebrate their love and try to smooth the path ahead for others.

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Interfaith couples in India often face harassment. The India Love Project was set up on Instagram to give couples a space to share their story, celebrate their love, and push back against stereotypes.

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December 9, 2020

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After nine years of dating, Nida Rehman and Mohan Lal were ready to wed. But a problem still stood in their way: Ms. Rehman is Muslim, and Mr. Lal Hindu. And today in India, interfaith marriages often draw scrutiny, or worse.

Her parents disapproved, but Ms. Rehman was adamant. If you want to marry a good person, she believed, faith shouldn’t stand in the way. “Religion does not create boundaries like these,” she says.

This fall, they were finally married. Yet she’s also brought a legal challenge to provisions in the law governing interfaith unions, which critics say is both discriminatory and dangerous, given the harassment and violence many couples have faced. It comes at a time of rising tensions over the legal rights of Muslims in this Hindu-majority democracy. 

Officially, India remains a secular country in which a couple like Ms. Rehman and Mr. Lal are free to marry. 

But “the concept of secularism in India is understood as each existing peacefully within their own homes,” says Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, the nonprofit that supported Ms. Rehman. “We are not mentally prepared to exist together within the same home yet.”

New Delhi

In September, as India relaxed its lockdown restrictions, Nida Rehman made the difficult decision to leave her parents’ home. COVID-19 cases were still on the rise. But living with her family, she had come to conclude, posed a bigger risk to the life she wanted to lead. 

For nine years, Ms. Rehman, a Muslim woman, had built a relationship with Mohan Lal, a Hindu man whom she met at university. But her family’s position was clear: She could not marry outside her faith, and they would find her a Muslim match themselves.

Ms. Rehman was adamant. If you want to marry a good person, she believed, faith shouldn’t stand in the way. “Religion does not create boundaries like these,” she says.

So she moved out, with the help of a nonprofit, and registered to marry Mr. Lal. Within days, she had filed an urgent legal petition to the Delhi High Court, challenging provisions of a federal law that she and other petitioners say is both discriminatory and dangerous for interfaith couples in India who face harassment and violence. 

Her challenge to these provisions in the law governing interfaith unions comes at a time of rising tensions over the legal rights of Muslims in this Hindu-majority democracy.


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Last month India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh introduced a controversial law against what right-wing Hindu groups call “love jihad,” an alleged Muslim conspiracy to woo and convert Hindu brides. Police made their first arrest last week under the law, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, of a Muslim man accused of trying to lure a married Hindu woman. Several other states are preparing similar legislation, though a court-ordered probe by India’s National Investigation Agency into dozens of interfaith marriages found no evidence of coercion. Earlier this year, India’s home affairs minister confirmed that no such cases have been registered by central agencies.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India has become increasingly polarized along communal lines. Last February, riots in neighborhoods around Ms. Rehman’s home in northeast Delhi left 53 people dead and thousands displaced, most of them Muslim. Tensions had been building for weeks, as millions across the country protested the passage of an act granting citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from neighboring countries – the first time Indian law has used religion as a basis for citizenship.

Critics say the BJP government’s exclusionary use of citizenship laws and its targeting of interfaith marriages are part of a political scapegoating of India’s estimated 200 million Muslims. 

Officially, India remains a secular country in which a couple like Ms. Rehman and Mr. Lal are free to marry. 

But “the concept of secularism in India is understood as each existing peacefully within their own homes,” says Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, the nonprofit that supported Ms. Rehman. “We are not mentally prepared to exist together within the same home yet.” 

A risky choice

Only 5% of Indian marriages are between people of different castes, according to the Indian Human Development Survey from 2011-12; estimates from the 2005-06 survey suggest that an additional 2.2% are interfaith. Moreover, in a culture where arranged marriages are the norm, only 5% of women said they had sole control over choosing their husbands.

“In the Indian perspective, the right to choose is itself a big question. Religion and caste are just alibis to stop them,” says Mr. Iqbal.

Any couple can register under the Special Marriage Act as an alternative to religion-specific laws. The pair must first provide a district marriage registrar with names, home addresses, and photographs, which are then displayed in the registrar’s office for 30 days. Anybody who wants to file an objection can do so, though the grounds are specific: For example, neither partner should have a living spouse, be underage, or be incapable of consent due to “unsoundness of mind.”

This may sound innocuous. But the publishing of personal details puts interfaith couples at risk of public opprobrium, family arm-twisting, or worse. 

Women who defy their family and community are often the victims of honor-based violence. India recorded 288 cases of honor killings between 2014, when it start to track the practice, and 2016. In some cases, men are victims: In 2018, Ankit Saxena, a Hindu man, was stabbed to death in New Delhi, allegedly by the relatives of his Muslim girlfriend.

This summer, the government in the southern state of Kerala decided to stop publishing applications online after vigilante groups spread more than 100 registered couples’ details on social media, warning of “love jihad.” Some other states continue to post interfaith marriage applications online. 

Facing such risks, many couples choose to convert and marry instead under religious law. 

Ms. Rehman’s petition describes the 30-day notice as “a breach of privacy” that “jeopardizes [couples’] life and liberty.” A separate petition to the Supreme Court, filed in August by a law student, challenges the same provisions in the 1954 law. Two years ago, the Law Commission of India urged reforms, including to the practice of publicizing couple’s personal information and of registrars contacting their parents. “It is important to ensure that at least, willing couples can access the law to exercise their right to marry when social attitudes are against them,” it wrote. 

Utkarsh Singh, a lawyer representing Ms. Rehman, notes that couples who marry within a faith don’t face a 30-day notice period. “You don’t put religious marriages to such tests but only interfaith marriages,” he says, arguing that once couples file the necessary paperwork they should be allowed to marry whenever they choose.

“This narrative is not new,” says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, a founding member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, which advocates for Muslim Indian women’s rights, in reference to increasing prejudice. What is new, she says, is that “with the political climate being conducive that they [Hindu nationalists] are so open and blatant about it.” 

Sharing their story

Some Indians are coming forward to counter these narratives – and not just in court. Three editors recently started the India Love Project, an Instagram feed of portraits of “love outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity, and gender.” 

The idea was to create space for couples to “share their stories, inspire others like them, and simply make all of us feel good about love,” says co-founder Samar Halarnkar. “What better way to counter something that is fake than with something that is real.”

Nonprofits like Dhanak of Humanity continue to offer support, such as safe houses. In 2018, the Supreme Court ordered that special police units be formed in every district to assist couples who feared for their lives, but they are not yet a reality in most parts of the country.

On Oct. 28, Ms. Rehman and Mr. Lal were finally married. Celebrations kicked off with a small gathering of couples Dhanak of Humanity has supported. The next morning, the bride’s friend hosted a Hindu haldi ceremony, when turmeric paste is applied to the bride and groom.

That afternoon, witnessed by five friends, the couple were officially wed at a marriage office, and celebrated over lunch at a mall – the kind of simple, intimate wedding Ms. Rehman had always wanted. 

Their legal fight continues. The Delhi high court has asked the federal and Delhi governments to file a response to Ms. Rehman’s petition; the next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 15. The goal, she says, is to smooth the way for couples after them. 

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Meanwhile, she’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education, while preparing for the civil service exam. Mr. Lal works as a pharmacist. “Every night he returns home from work and asks what I studied that day, eager to discuss it with me,” Ms. Rehman says. 

Now that they live together, they enjoy cooking and reading together. “In fact,” she adds, “we enjoy doing everything together.”

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