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Letters from India
Banning Polygamy with Consensus
By Nava Thakuria
Special Correspondent
The Assam government in India decides to go ahead with a law banning the practice of polygamy.

When India is debating over the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), Assam government decides to go ahead with a law banning the practice of polygamy. State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, in a recent public discourse, revealed that his government was planning to introduce a bill in the upcoming state legislative assembly session scheduled for September with an aim to ban the practice. If not done in the September session, it is expected to be introduced in the January 2024 assembly session.

Insisting on prohibiting polygamy (bigamy) in Assam so that a male irrespective of his religion can be prevented from marrying more than one spouse at the same time Sarma opined that the polygamy incidences are high in three districts of Barak valley along with some areas in Brahmaputra valley. Among the educated families, the prevalence of polygamy is almost zero and it’s very low among indigenous Muslim families in the state, he added.

Aiming to ban polygamy, which is considered as an important component of the UCC, the saffron leader disclosed a few weeks back that he was in favor of constituting a committee to examine whether the state legislature had the authority to ban polygamy. The committee was aimed to engage in extensive discussions with various stakeholders before arriving at a logical conclusion. Sarma reiterated that the initiative is not intended to target any community, and the government will implement the law with the consensus of people only.

Men having multiple wives (definitely not vice versa) was a common practice in ancient India. From the emperors to kings to landlords, the practice of polygamy was enjoyed (though with guidelines that all wives should be treated equally) as it was not prohibited in earlier days. But after independence in 1947, voices were raised against the practice in the largest democracy (of the globe) and soon came the Special Marriage Act 1954 and the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which outlawed the practice for the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs (with exceptions to many tribal communities and residents of Goa). But the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937 allows a Muslim man to marry up to four women at a time. Even the conversion to Islam (from other religions) permitted a man to have more than one wife. However, the Supreme Court of India in 1995 declared this kind of religious conversion as unconstitutional.

The UCC debates gained momentum after Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated for the ‘one nation one rule’ policy in a meeting held at Bhopal in central India. He strongly argued that two laws in one house should not be accepted and even linked it with the rights of Muslim women. Prime Minister Modi’s argument was denounced by the opposition parties questioning the government’s intention. The opposition leaders belonging to the Congress, DMK, AIMIM, Janata Dal (United), Rastriya Janata Dal, Bharat Rashtra Samity, Trinamool Congress, etc criticised the ruling alliance for using the UCC for undue electoral benefits. All India Muslim Personal Law Board strongly opposed the UCC claiming that it was planned only to target the Muslim population of the country.

Even though the UCC remains a preferred issue for BJP leaders, many politicians from Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya (who are even allies to the saffron party) expressed dissatisfaction over the development. The center is assumed to bring the bill in the ongoing monsoon session of the Parliament. Once implemented, the law will be applicable to every Indian citizen irrespective of his/her religion, community and gender. Thus it will overpower the religion centric personal laws.

Months back, Assam government cracked down on child marriages and thousands of individuals were arrested. It also came to notice that many elderly men married young girls taking advantage of their economic status. Sarma asserted that a large section of Indian society believes that polygamy has no place in a modern (read gender-sensitive) society. He also stated that the drive against child marriages will continue as the centuries old practice adversely impacts on the mother and infant’s health. Sarma also rightly emphasised on banning polygamy with consensus among the people of Assam.



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Nava Thakuria, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is based in Guwahati of Northeast India. He also contributes articles for many media outlets based in different parts of the glove, and can be contacted at navathakuria@gmail.com

 

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