The Hindu Marriage Act is a piece of legislation enacted in India to codify the marriage laws for Hindus. This act aimed to provide uniformity and protection for all Hindus, regardless of their different customs or beliefs. This act includes provisions such as making marriages monogamous, preventing child marriage, and protecting women’s property rights, among other things. It also provides remedies, such as providing grounds on which couples can legally dissolve their marriage if they want to do so. Since its enactment almost 66 years ago, it has been instrumental in reforming family law by granting equal status and rights to spouses within Hindu marriages.
The Act was a significant step towards modernizing the Hindu marriage system and promoting gender equality and women's rights. It has had a profound impact on Indian society, influencing the way Hindu marriages are conducted and legally recognized. In this article, we will explore the key provisions of the Hindu Marriage Act and examine its significance for the future of Indian family law.
Before the Act, the law governing Hindu marriages in India was primarily based on the Hindu law texts written centuries ago and did not reflect modern India's changing social and economic conditions.
In the early 20th century, various social reformers and women's rights activists began advocating for the codification of Hindu law to address the injustices and inequalities faced by Hindu women in matters of marriage and inheritance. This led to the formation of the Hindu Law Committee in 1941, which was tasked with drafting a new law for Hindu marriages.
The Hindu Marriage Act, of 1955 was the culmination of this effort, and it came into force on May 18, 1955. The Act was a significant departure from the traditional Hindu law, which had given men almost absolute control over women's lives and property. The Act introduced new provisions to protect women's rights, such as the right to divorce, maintenance, and custody of children. It also set conditions for a valid marriage and established procedures for the registration of marriages.
Section 2 of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 stipulates that the Act applies to individuals who practice Hinduism in any form, including Virashaivas, Lingayats, and adherents of the Brahmo, Prarthana, or Arya Samaj religions. Additionally, the Act applies to individuals who follow Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism as their religion.
Furthermore, unless it can be proven that such individuals would not have been subject to Hindu law or to any customs or usages that form a part of such law about any of the matters dealt with in the Act had it not been passed, the Act applies to any other person who resides in the territories to which the Act extends and who does not practice the Muslim, Christian, Parsi, or Jewish faith.
Key Features of the Act
- Conditions of a Valid Hindu Marriage: To constitute a valid Hindu marriage, the Hindu Marriage Act lays down certain conditions that must be fulfilled t be legally valid such as:
- Both parties must be Hindu
- The parties should not be within prohibited degrees of relationship
- The parties should be of marriageable age (18 years for the bride and 21 years for the groom)
- The marriage must be solemnized by Hindu customs and rites
- The parties should be of sound mind and capable of giving their consent to the marriage
- Grounds for divorce: The Hindu Marriage Act provides for both fault-based and no-fault divorce. Some of the grounds for divorce under the Act include:
- Desertion for a continuous period of two years or more
- Conversion to another religion
- Mental or physical incapacity
- Irretrievable breakdown of marriage
- Maintenance and Alimony: Under the Hindu Marriage Act, both spouses have a right to claim maintenance and alimony from each other in case of separation or divorce. The amount of maintenance is determined based on factors such as the financial position of the parties, their respective incomes, and the standard of living they were accustomed to during the marriage.
- Judicial separation: Under the Hindu Marriage Act, a decree for judicial separation can be obtained by either spouse in case of a breakdown of the marriage. This legal separation does not dissolve the marriage but provides for separate living arrangements and maintenance. After a decree of judicial separation, either party can approach the court for a decree of divorce if the separation continues for a specified period.
Registration of Marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act
Section 8 of the Hindu Marriage Act says that when you get married, you need to register the marriage with the Registrar of Marriage. They check all your documents on the same day and if everything's okay, they register your marriage on the next working day. Then they give you a marriage certificate.
This registration is to make it easier to prove that you're married. The government can make rules for how this registration is done. The Hindu Marriage Register is the evidence that you got married and can be checked anytime.
When can a marriage be declared null?
Under the Hindu Marriage Act, a marriage can be declared null and void if it meets the following conditions:
- Bigamy: If one or both parties had a spouse who was still alive at the time of the marriage, the marriage is null and void; a bigamous marriage is therefore invalid. The second marriage can be consummated after the first has ended due to death or divorce.
- Consent: If either party did not give their free consent to the marriage, it could be considered null and void.
- Age: As per section 5 of the act, the legal age for a girl to get married is 18 years, and for a boy, it is 21 years. Any marriage performed in violation of these standards shall not be null or void. Any person who solemnizes such a marriage could also be sentenced to up to two years in prison, a fine of up to one lakh rupees, or both under Section 18 of this Act.
- No Sapindas: The act states that if two people who are related to Sapindas get married, the marriage is considered void. Being Sapindas means that the husband and wife share the same ancestry. To explain this further, Section 3 (f) of the Act defines a Sapinda relationship as one that extends up to the third generation (inclusive) through the mother's line and up to the fifth generation (inclusive) through the father's line starting from the individual in question who is considered the first generation.
- Unsoundness of mind: When one or both parties cannot be legally bound by the union because of mental incapacity, the other party can declare the marriage null and void. Even if one of the partners has multiple episodes of insanity, the other party can choose to get the marriage annulled.
- Physical incapacity: If either party is unable to consummate the marriage due to physical incapacity, the marriage can be considered null and void.
If any of these conditions are met, the marriage can be declared null and void by a court of law upon a petition presented by either party to the marriage. The court can declare the marriage null and void and can also make orders regarding the custody of any children born from the marriage, property division, and maintenance.
Restitution of Conjugal Rights
One of the provisions in this Act is Section 9, which deals with the "restitution of conjugal rights." This provision enables a spouse who has been deserted by their partner without any reasonable cause to file a lawsuit in court to enforce their right to cohabit with their partner. In other words, if one spouse abandoned the other without any legitimate reason, the deserted spouse can seek legal assistance to return the other spouse to the matrimonial home.
Conjugal rights refer to the right to have sexual intercourse and cohabit with one's spouse. The restitution of conjugal rights provision allows a court to order a spouse who has deserted their partner to return to the matrimonial home and resume the marital relationship. However, this provision has faced criticism and challenges from various quarters, including women's rights activists, who argue that it violates a woman's right to bodily autonomy and privacy.
In 1983, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ruled that Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act violated fundamental rights protected by Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Court felt that forcing a woman to cohabit with her husband against her will was an invasion of her privacy and autonomy. The Court held that sexual cohabitation is a private decision between a husband and wife, and the State should not interfere in such matters.
Live-In Relationships under the Hindu Marriage Act
Live-in relationships have become a current issue among the younger generation in Indian Hindu marriages. The traditional belief that "Marriages are formed in heaven" implies that the divine decide who marries whom and when. However, live-in relationships are gaining popularity as a way of living free from the liabilities that come with the institution of marriage, which is deeply rooted in Indian culture. Unfortunately, the legal and institutional obligations to address this issue falls short, and there have been no reforms to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 to recognize this system.
The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 recognizes the circumambulation around the Agni and the seven-step ceremony as the essential elements of Hindu weddings in India. These rituals represent the core of the wife's role in the traditional Brahma culture. India is widely recognized as a nation where marriage holds a sacramental status on both a philosophical and practical level.
Maintenance under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955
Spousal maintenance is a complex matter under the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955. There is a common perception that seeking lifetime alimony is a way for the wife to take advantage of the husband. Section 24 of the Act allows either the husband or the wife to request maintenance, or support while legal proceedings are ongoing. Section 25 outlines the requirements for permanent alimony, which is a payment that a husband must make to his wife under certain circumstances. Maintenance may be required during the marriage and after its dissolution. The primary factor in determining maintenance is whether the receiving party has a separate source of income to support themselves. Unlike the Divorce Act, none of the Indian matrimonial laws specify the amount of maintenance or the associated costs.