Mixed Marriages in India: A Status Report

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Uttar Pradesh has a law that makes it a crime if anyone can prove an element of forced conversion in mixed marriages. The punishment could be up to 10 years in jail. More BJP-controlled states are planning similar rules. Plural, multi-cultural society India has a lot at stake in this scenario.    

India got the Special Marriage Act in 1954. Many consider this a watershed moment in the history of inter-faith or mixed marriages in India. The act made non-religious or inter-religious marriages a hassle-free affair while making it legit and safeguarded by the Constitution. The founders of the Republic who imagined India as a secular nation believed inter-faith marriages were a necessity for national integration. The lawmakers then wanted to offer a unique venue for couples who choose to marry out of the community. 

Ever since, millions of young men and women inked their wedlocks under the Special Marriages Act. In the initial decades of post-Independence India, many states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, encouraged and incentivised interfaith, inter-caste marriages. It was hence a new anti-conversion law from Uttar Pradesh, which targets inter-faith marriages, raised eyebrows across the country, triggering a debate on the future of mixed marriages in India. 

Who’s afraid of mixed marriages?

The UP law, say legal scholars, looks pretty dicey. News reports say it aims to tackle what some bill acts of ‘Love Jihad’. For curious starters, this is a highly contentious and illegal term used by right-wing Hindu groups to classify inter-faith marriages between, say, Hindu women and Muslim men. The piece of law has already sparked a debate across the country, and even abroad. 

Lamenting such moves, journalist and commentator Sagarika Ghose says the right-wing Hindu nationalists see Muslim men as the “perpetual Mahmud of Ghazni- stereotypical marauding ‘enemy” and deny agency and freedom of women to choose in the name of religion, making misogynistic and anti-woman. But countering her, right-wing propagandists and pro-government media stay the law just aims to tackle forced conversions.

Apparently, the UP police recently arrested a man, Owais Ahmad, under the provisions of the new law, on December 2. This was days after UP approved the law, which makes forced religious conversions through marriage an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The man in question repeatedly claimed he was innocent. If proven, he will spend a good slice of his life in prison. 

Similar Bills are coming from other BJP-controlled states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Assam.

Not many takers in this part of the world

Right-wing groups and States that back them may seem riled over the ‘growth’ of inter-faith marriages in India. But several studies show mixed marriages have remained a taboo in the country. Large-scale mixed-marriages are yet to be a trend in the Indian society. 

Or we don’t know, for sure. India’s Census does not record interfaith marriages in the country. No large-scale data is available for us to ascertain the extent (or lack of it) of inter-faith marriages in India. The government hasn’t conducted any nationally representative survey to find out about such marriages. The only proper study occurred so far was a survey conducted by students and faculty of the Central Government-run International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS). 

The IIPS presented a paper on interfaith marriages in India in 2013. It analysed data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2005 to explore the extent of mixed marriages in India. The IHDS ran a national survey of over 41,000 households in more than 1500 villages and nearly 1,000 urban neighbourhoods. Researchers from the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Delhi, joined the IIPS to conduct the research. 

That said, the research hasn’t conducted a direct study on inter-religious marriage. The paper has taken the religious affiliation of husband and wife to find the number of interfaith marriages. Still, the study threw up some interesting numbers. It showed “2.21 per cent of all married women between the age of 15-49 had married outside their religion.” The proportion of inter-religious marriages was highest at 2.8 per cent among the women of the young age group (15-19); 2.3 per cent for age 20-24; 2 per cent for 25-29 and 1.9 per cent for those above 30. Inter-religious marriages are greater among the women living in urban areas at 2.9 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent for rural areas, found the study.

The mixed marriage mix 

Among Christians, the IIPS study found, 3.5 per cent of the women entered into mixed marriages. Next stood Sikhs, at 3.2 per cent; Hindu’s 1.5 per cent and Muslims 0.6 per cent. The data, however, show little information about the religion which the women are marrying into.

Punjab had recorded highest mixed marriages at 7.8 per cent, mostly to Hinduism and Sikhism (some customs and practices are similar in both religions). Jharkhand stood a second with 5.7 per cent. Andhra Pradesh also had a high proportion of mixed marriages (4.9 per cent). The lowest percentages of mixed marriages are in West Bengal at 0.3 per cent, Chhattisgarh 0.6 per cent and Rajasthan 0.7 per cent.

In Delhi, official data show that of the 19,250 marriages registered during January-September 2019, 589 were interfaith. During 2016-18, 1,063 marriages were registered  every year and 355 marriages fell under the Special Marriage Act. There has been an increase in interfaith marriages in the city in 2019 comparison to the last three years, according to reports and some surveys.

Researchers at the Indian Statistical Institute recently found the rate of inter-caste marriage in 2011 was merely 5.82 per cent in India. Shockingly, there has been no upward trend over the past four decades. The analysis also showed how decision-making when it comes to marriages primarily lies in the family. Individual choices are skimpy.

States and their provisions

To promote inter-caste marriages, the Centre offers Rs 2.5 lakh to every inter-caste marriage involving a Dalit under the Dr Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration. Kerala started Safe Homes, which provide temporary shelters (up to a year) for interfaith couples after their marriage. 

To ensure financial stability, the couple will get an aid of Rs 75,000 if the husband or wife belongs to Schedule Castes or Scheduled Tribes categories. Couples from the general category with an annual income of less than Rs 1 lakh will get Rs 30,000. Recently Telangana raised the incentive for inter-caste marriages from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh. Although the new provision comes with strict rules, many say it benefits mixed marriage couples disowned by their parents.  

These measures matter, given that interfaith couples face huge social backlash in India. Data from the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) show honour killings are on the rise in India. Most victims of such caste-sponsored honour murders are women (95 per cent, according to some estimates). Maharashtra, which introduced a law to protect interfaith marriages, stand fourth in terms of honour killings. Maharashtra’s social justice minister Rajkumar Badole said the new law would help fill the gaps of the existing Special Marriage Act for inter-religious couples. Media reported that in 2015, as many as 251 people died in honour killings in India. Madhya Pradesh recorded the highest (18) followed by Uttar Pradesh(16). In the last five years, according to the NGO Evidence, there were 195 known cases of honour killings in Tamil Nadu alone. 

Mixed marriages, elsewhere 

In the US, the number of interracial and inter-ethnic marriages has increased from 3 per cent in 1967 to 17 per cent in 2015. According to a Pew analysis of the Census Bureau’s figures, intermarriages are higher in metropolitan areas (18 per cent) than rural places (11 per cent). The most common type of intermarriage is between a partner who is white and one who is Hispanic of any race which accounted for 38 per cent of all intermarriages in 2010. White-Asian couples accounted for another 14 per cent of intermarriages, and white-black couples made up 8 per cent. Pew analysis also showed that education plays an important role in inter-marriages. People with a higher educational background are more likely to intermarry.

In advanced societies, mixed marriages are seen as a healthy sign. Sociologists believe it integrates societies better and helps build plural societies. Many feel that’s a model India, which sees high degrees of polarization today, emulate for the greater common good. Researchers Deepti Singh and Srinivas Goli in their study, Exploring the Concept of Mixed Marriages in India and the Selected States note that intermarriages are necessary to improve the socio-economic status of the people and reduce religious and caste barriers that hinder the progress of Indian society.  Hence acceptance, provisions and an unbiased law that respects an individual’s choice are essential to celebrate mixed marriages in India.

Also Read: Divorce during Covid: A Checklist for Women

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