The recent Supreme Court verdict making registration of marriages essential is a significant step towards women's welfare. The legal status granted to all marriages will save married women the trouble of running from pillar to post to prove their marital status. Such a law already existed in some parts of the country, including Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, but the absence of a Central legislation was being felt which thankfully will be framed after this judgement.
A lot would have been different had this judgment come earlier. It would have helped those women in getting justice who were deserted by their husbands. As it happens with all legislations, the decision to frame such a law has also evolved gradually. Way back in 1970s, the district administration of Bastar ordered the police to surround the township neighbouring the iron ore project of Bailadila to conduct a mass wedding ceremony at gunpoint of non-tribal engineers who were keeping tribal girls as concubines.
The situation was no different in Gujarat where a system prevailed in which a man and a woman entered into a friendship agreement, a legitimate contract before a magistrate. It had a social and legal sanction and was popularly known as "maitri karar". Later this practice was converted into a "service agreement", according to which the man would keep the woman of his choice in his house as a helper or a maid servant. Not surprisingly, this contract, too, had a legal and social legitimacy. It is well known that this practice was followed by many Ministers and senior bureaucrats.
The recent judgement on registration of marriages is being seen by Hindu fundamentalist as an attack on Hindu sentiments and an instrument to Westernise society. On the other hand, their Muslim counterparts are neither against nor for the judgement because according to them, the practice of registering marriages already exists in their community. The only difference is that Muslim marriages are registered by the local maulvi. The point they perhaps seem to be missing is that this decision of the court will make Islamic divorce laws, which are liberal, more difficult to enforce.
The benefits of marriage registration are endless. It would help in the "prevention of child marriages, deter men from deserting women after marriage, discourage parents and guardians from selling their daughters in the garb of marriage, check bigamy/polygamy, help women exercise their matrimonial rights and enable widows to claim inheritance."
Maintenance of official records of marriages would facilitate quick disposal of litigation between two parties. A number of cases filed by deserted wives, victims of bigamous relationships and hapless widows who were robbed of their share in property because they did not have proof of their marriage, are pending in different courts. Surprisingly, the issue of introduction of legislation for compulsory registration of marriages was under consideration for more than 15 years. If this judgement is properly enforced, it will also help to prevent child marriages from taking place among the economically and socially backward communities.
The question is: Will this judgement only add to the huge backlog in the courts? Or will it really empower women and make them equal partners in marriage? Cases in the coming years concerning marital discord hold the answer to this question.