The story so far: Affirming the fundamental right to choose one’s life partner, the Supreme Court on August 28 held that ‘self-respect’ marriages or ‘suyamariyathai’ under Section 7(A) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, do not need public solemnisation or declarations, setting aside a May 2023 Madras High Court judgement.
The Court also observed that advocates, as officers of the court, should abstain from undertaking or volunteering to solemnise such ‘self-respect marriages’ in their professional capacities— however, they are free to stand as witnesses for marriages in their personal capacity as friends or relatives.
In doing so, a Bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar overruled the 2014 judgment of the Madras High Court in S. Balakrishnan Pandiyan v. Inspector of Police, which held that marriages performed by advocates are not valid and that such self-respect marriages cannot be solemnised in secrecy.
What is a ‘self-respect’ marriage?
In 1968, the Hindu Marriage (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 1967, was passed, modifying the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 by inserting Section 7-A. This special provision legalised self-respect and secular marriages between two Hindus who meet the minimum age requirement for marriage. Such marriages are also required to be registered as per the law.
These marriages are generally solemnised in the presence of relatives, friends, or other persons, in the absence of a priest and without following any quintessential wedding rituals such as a holy fire or a mangalsutra. The idea behind such marriages is to do away with caste practices.
They trace their origin back to the 1920s. In 1925, Tamil social reformer Periyar spearheaded the self-respect movement, which aimed to end caste endogamy and encourage people from marginalised castes to live with dignity. Self-respect marriages were formulated as part of the larger self-respect movement. The first self-respect marriage took place in 1928 and was officiated by Periyar himself. Conventional marriages in India are often facilitated among members of the same caste in a bid to maintain ‘caste purity’ Periyar sought to encourage inter-caste marriages built on a promise of respect and equality.
Such marriages also challenge patriarchal norms and ideals of ownership, and over time people have turned to self-respect marriages to reclaim control and build companionship based on dignity and equality.
However, the idea of such reformed marriages has failed to gain momentum, as its applicability is limited to only Hindu ceremonies— as part of the Hindu Marriage Act— and is only legal in the State of Tamil Nadu.
What was the impugned Madras High Court verdict?
In May 2023, the Madras High Court ordered the Tamil Nadu State Bar Council to initiate disciplinary proceedings against lawyers who preside over secret marriages in their offices or trade union offices and issue marriage certificates. A Bench of Justices M. Dhandapani and R. Vijayakumar of the Madurai Bench of the High Court said that all marriages including self-respect marriages must be registered under the Tamil Nadu Registration of Marriages Act, 2009, and the parties must physically appear before the Registrar.
The High Court also relied on its 2014 decision in S. Balakrishnan Pandiyan, which held that marriages performed in secrecy in the offices of advocates and bar association rooms cannot amount to a valid marriage under law.
The Court was adjudicating a habeas corpus petition filed by one Ilavarasan claiming that his 20-year-old wife was forcibly kept under detention by her parents although they had married in the presence of advocates and office bearers of the Trade Union, under Section 7-A of the Hindu Marriage Act, following which a self-respect marriage certificate was also issued. It was further stated that the woman had been forcibly married off to her maternal uncle when she was a minor. The petition was filed before the High Court after the maternal uncle and his henchmen took away the petitioner’s wife.
The Court however dismissed the petition by ruling that such a marriage was invalid and even directed the Bar Council to take disciplinary action against the concerned lawyers after issuing them notices.
What did the Supreme Court say?
Public solemnisation violates Article 21
A Bench comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Aravind Kumar overruled the Madras High Court’s ruling in S. Balakrishnan Pandiyan and observed that self-respect marriages do not require any public solemnisation or declaration. It also placed reliance on its 2001 ruling in S. Nagalingam v. Sivagami where the Court upheld Section 7-A of the Hindu Marriage Act (Tamil Nadu State Amendment) while observing that the petitioner’s marriage with his wife was a valid one despite the ceremony of ‘saptapadi’, or seven steps around the sacred fire, not taking place.
Underscoring the lived realities of couples who resort to self-respect marriages, the court Cbserved —”The view expressed by the Madras High Court in Balakrishnan Pandiyan is erroneous. It is premised on the assumption that each marriage requires a public solemnization or declaration. Such a view is rather simplistic because often due to parental pressure, couples intending to enter into matrimony may not enter into it for the reason of such opposition, hold or give such public declaration, as doing so would imperil their lives and could very likely result to threat of bodily integrity, or forcible or coerced separation.”
It also noted that the High Court’s observations violate the fundamental right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution as it creates an impediment for two adult individuals exercising their free will.
Advocates are free to solemise marriages in their personal capacities
The Bench ruled that the observations made by the High Court with regard to advocates may not have been warranted; however, it acknowledged that some of the concerns raised were not entirely unfounded. It observed that advocates, being officers of the court, should not undertake or volunteer to solemnise such marriages— but in their private capacity as friends or as relatives, their roles as witnesses cannot be ruled out.
The Court had earlier instructed the Ramanathapuram District Legal Services Authority to record a statement by the wife, to ascertain whether she was being forced to live with someone else. Subsequently, the statement was filed in the Court; it said that she was currently being forced to live with her parents who had tried to marry her off at the age of sixteen, and that she wished to live with Ilavarasan. Accordingly, the Court allowed the habeas corpus petition filed by Ilavarasan and set aside the High Court verdict.
What other law governs secular marriages?
Another legislation that permits secular marriages is the Special Marriage Act. The legislation was enacted in 1872 by the British government to permit inter-faith marriages where neither party had to renounce their respective religion and could enter into a secular marriage after complying with due formalities under the Act. It was later re-enacted by the Parliament on October 9, 1954, with provisions for divorce and other matters.
The Act applies to people of all faiths across India including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, and Buddhists. Some customary restrictions such as parties not being within degrees of a prohibited relationship still apply under this law. Parties intending to get married are required to give a notice, in writing, to a Marriage Officer of a district in which at least one party has resided for at least 30 days immediately preceding the notice. Before the solemnisation of the marriage, the parties and three witnesses are required to sign a declaration form before the Marriage Officer, following which the parties are provided with a certificate of marriage.
One of the most criticised provisions under this law is Section 7, under which any person can object to the marriage before thirty days from the date of the notice’s publication, on the ground that it would contravene the conditions specified in Section 4 of the Act.
If an objection has been made, the concerned Marriage Officer cannot solemnise the marriage until an inquiry isconducted into the matter and he is satisfied that the objection will not prevent the marriage from taking place or unless the person making the objection withdraws it. This provision is often used to harass consenting inter-religious couples and has been challenged several times for endangering the lives of such couples.
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