Sonam Josh| TNN | Updated: Nov 30, 2020,

Mohammed was from Bihar, and Pavitra from Mangalore was his boss at a telecom company. The two fell in love during a training programme in Mumbai, and despite family opposition, wanted to spend their lives together. But since Pavitra’s father wanted to get her married off, the two hit the road, going to Hyderabad, Delhi and then Dehradun. There, they tried getting married under the Special Marriage Act,1954, which allows interfaith couples to marry without converting, but were repeatedly discouraged by district officials who said their marriage wouldn’t work and asked them to apply in their hometowns instead.

Fearing separation, they opted for a nikah. “I had no objection to Pavitra following her religion but we were desperate. How long could we keep running? We were afraid of someone asking us why we were living together,” he recalls. But their ordeal was far from over. A few days later, police showed up at their doorstep and took Pavitra back to Mangalore, where she claims she was forcibly kept for a few months. Finally, she managed to talk to him and travel to Delhi to get married officially. But even then, it took several months for them to get legally married under the Special Marriage Act (SMA) in August 2019 due to the one-month residency requirement in Delhi and official delays in sending notices and verification.
Mohammed and Pavitra’s tumultuous path to wedlock shows why even couples who don’t wish to convert have to opt for religious weddings rather than face the long procedural and bureaucratic hassles of SMA.

One of the main problems with SMA is the notice that is displayed at the marriage registration office for a month. Amrita Garg, an advocate at the High Court of Punjab and Haryana who aids such couples, says that this provision has the unintended effect of alerting vigilante groups and disapproving family members. “Sometimes, such notices have been sent to the families of the couple, often leading to violence and honour killings, defeating the purpose of enacting this legislation,” she says. Then there is the human angle. “To my mind, the greatest problem is the wide power given to marriage officers, the first stop for all couples wishing to marry. They appropriate the role of marriage counsellors and abuse their position to create obstacles.”

Recently, couples in Kerala found their pictures and personal details leaked and circulated on social media with allegations of ‘love jihad’. Athira Sujatha, who was among those whose details were shared on Facebook and WhatsApp before her marriage in December 2019, wrote a Facebook post tagging state legislators which then led to the applications being removed from the government website in July. “They simply didn’t mention that these applications were under SMA,” says Athira, who hasn’t changed her religion.

Renu Mishra of Lucknow-based Association of Advocacy and Legal Initiatives says that couples are often daunted by the Special Marriage Act. “When we tell couples that the notices might be sent to their homes, they get scared and rarely return,” she says.
Garg says that they often come across couples who convert to their partner’s religion to marry under the personal laws of that religion just to avoid the long and cumbersome procedure under SMA. “However, such conversions have become difficult with legislations to pre vent them in states such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand,” she says. “This, effectively, places such couples in a Catch-22 situation.”

Delhi-based NGO Dhanak, which offers legal, financial and psychological support to inter-caste and interreligion couples, often receives requests from such couples who want to travel to the national capital from other states to tie the knot under the SMA. “They want to change their jurisdiction as they lack faith in the local administration of their place,” says co-founder Asif Iqbal. “Moreover, locals in smaller cities tend to inform the families.” But even this requires a mandatory one-month stay in Delhi, which is often difficult and costly for young couples on the run.

Time is often a luxury that interfaith couples don’t have. Fleeing from their families, Anu* and Ashfaq* had a quick Arya Samaj marriage, and then applied for licence under SMA after getting court protection. However, their plans were derailed by the Covid-19 lockdown. After waiting in Delhi for two months, they ran out of money and returned to their home state but hope to save enough to return soon and formalise their union. “In such cases, religious marriage presents an instant solution,” says Dhanak’s Iqbal, adding that they have been getting requests from couples who had a religious marriage a year or two ago but now want to get it registered under SMA because of insecurity over the proposed new laws.
*Names changed on request- TOI