In July, a man, namely Sandeep Uike from in Madhya Pradesh, married two women in the same mandap in the presence of their three families and the villagers, following all the traditional customs and rituals. One woman was his lover hailing from Hoshangabad, whom he had been seeing since his college days in Bhopal; and the other was a woman his parents choose for his marriage. When the families came to know about Sandeep’s relationship, it led to a dispute, and the three families went to take help from the Panchayat. The panchayat, exhibiting zero knowledge of the laws, suggested that if the two girls were ready to live with each other, they could marry the same man and thus the ceremony happened. You might be wondering where the problem is, considering how this was radically different from how certain panchayats react to love affairs and relationships.
In India, we have certain laws which all the citizens of India are expected to abide by and which were ignored in this case, especially the Section 5, Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, which states neither party should have a spouse living at the time of the second marriage; which means that any man or woman cannot marry another person if they are already legally married. If anyone wants a second marriage, they need to divorce their current partner. Another criteria is that a person can remarry, if their spouse/partner has died. In the above-mentioned case, even though the marriage is solemnised, it cannot be legalised. Not only does this give us a picture of the lack of understanding of law of the panchayat members, it also is a situation where the second wife has little to no rights or protection of the law under a legal marriage. There needs to be a systemic overhaul of traditional family structures as well as greater awareness of laws to ensure that there is something in-between ‘honour’ killings and the relegation to the precarious status of a second wife for a woman who has exercised her right to choose a partner for herself.
According to a Scroll.in report, the 1991 census indicated that 5.7 percent Muslims, 5.8 percent Hindus, 6.7 percent Jains and 7.9 percent Buddhists practised polygamy. The National Family Health Survey of 2006 revealed that a polygamous Hindu could have 1.77 wives, a polygamous Muslim 2.55, Buddhist 3.41 and Christian 2.35.
The rights of the second wife in a bigamous marriage, especially when it comes to establishing the legitimacy of a child born out of such an arrangement are invalidated. Added to this is the social stigma associated with being in a second marriage, which is, unsurprisingly, a character assassination only the woman has to go through and not the man. Though the Supreme Court had validated the second marriage even if divorce pleas for the first were pending in court, that still requires a divorce from the first marriage to be initiated in the first place.
On one hand, though it could be seen as an attempt to reach a “peaceful” settlement by the panchayat, it indicates towards a long due system overhaul – both in familial as well as political structures. In cases where people in villages largely look up to the decisions taken by the panchayat leaders, it is important that they should have taken a judicially viable as well as a progressive one. The conservative familial structures, especially in India, that chooses the life-partners for their younger generations, without even taking their consent and understanding what they’d prefer, need to be critiqued here. The panchayat, as a representative of law and order in this case, failed to do so.
Another factor is how women are considered no less than a materialistic good, considering how a woman who would have wanted to marry two men at the same time would have been vilified and certainly not have got a “happy” ending like we saw in this case. In this incident the women were nothing more than mere trophies – one could take as many as they could win; such that if the two women were ready for this arrangement. then the man was allowed to get married to both of them, without considering the laws. It is time our society stopped treating a woman like a trophy and more as the human with equal rights that they are.
It is important that the leaders who are looked up to are chosen wisely and that there are timely sensitisation programs and awareness mechanisms set in place to prepare them for their roles. Panchayat elections need to be more systemic. More women should be empowered to become panchayat leaders (and not mere proxies) so that other women find it easier to seek redressal for their problems. Instead of blindly choosing the most popular or the oldest person, anyone who passes the criteria should be given the chance, and proper training should be arranged for the sarpanch and the members of the panchayat, along with period evaluations.
Anushka Chaturvedi is a Master of Social Work student at Amity University, Lucknow; and a Psychology Graduate from Isabella Thoburn College. She was also the Changelooms Fellow in 2019 and was Research Assistant for Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the Maharashtra State Child Rights Commission’s Child Protection Research Study Project. Anushka has a deep vested interest in Gender Studies and Public Policy; accompanied by a wide experience of grass-root level program implementation and facilitation in the mentioned areas. The author can be found on LinkedIn.
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