Ten years ago, having gone through one set of arcane rituals to prove that we wished to live together as man and wife, my husband and I performed the second part of the marriage rites at the registrar’s office. The registration of the marriage was, to me, a far more exotic ritual than the ceremony, and with the waiting around at Tees Hazari thrown in, it took far longer.
This week, the Supreme Court decreed that the registration of marriages will now be compulsory, not optional as it was in our time. But a decade down the line, my husband and I face niggling doubts about the importance of the ritual we went through in the courts. We have no children whose rights need to be safeguarded; my husband is not a wife-beater, nor has he been subjected to extreme mental cruelty. We have no property issues to settle, no alimony issues to sort out, no need for the courts to step into our lives and either dissolve the marriage or tell us to behave better towards our spouse. Like many of our friends, we are, at least at this stage, the kind of people for whom both the ceremony and the registration of the marriage was actually irrelevant.
The move to have all marriages registered is based on very sensible thinking. In the absence of registration, many Indian men have ducked their responsibilities towards their wives and children by denying that a marriage ever took place. If the religious ceremony performed was a matter of a few prayers and no official witnesses, they have often got away with denial.
To make marriage an institution that is recognized primarily by the state is also a welcome step towards bringing in a uniform civil code. As activists have argued over the years, religions do not have the same interest in protecting the rights of women as the state and the courts do. And making the registration of marriages, past, present and future, compulsory underlines the absolute illegality of child marriages.
But here’s the thing about registering marriages: are the people who really need the protection of the state going to benefit? And is this actually going to translate into reforms within the institute of marriage, or is this just going to be another exercise in generating paperwork?
The stage at which women really need the protection of marriage registration is the stage at which the marriage itself has broken down. Many of the women who stand in need of legal protection made bad marriages for various reasons. The social pressure to get married, as though marriage is the only possible future for women, has encouraged women to remain dependent or to make bad choices. Many of the warning signs of trouble show up before the ceremony: demands for dowry from the groom’s side, the in-laws’ insistence that the bride quit working or studying, evidence that one of the spouses might be cruel or unreasonable.
Making the registration of marriages compulsory will help protect those whom the institution of marriage has failed, often in very painful ways. It will do nothing for us who have relationships strong enough to have flourished without the benefit of state certification. And it will do nothing for the many men and women who stumble into bad marriages for all the wrong reasons. Until we start looking at marriage as an enriching experience optionally undertaken by two consenting adults, and not as a compulsory fence to be cleared as a kind of social and familial obligation, nothing’s going to change.
(Published in the Kolkata Telegraph, February 2006)