The handmaiden of capitalism
In this stillness, both political and
cultural, came natural elation over the Allahabad High Court’s ruling recently
on civil marriages. The court deleted the waiting time and notice period of 30
days before a civil marriage could take place in Uttar Pradesh. The wait was a
needless imposition, the court felt. And the requirement of a public notice
impinged on the privacy of those who wanted to marry sans fanfare.
The pause clause is, however, not the
issue it is made out to be. If anything, it’s like the amber light before the
green and seems to have been lifted from a not so disagreeable church practice.
“If anyone has any objection to the marriage they should speak up now or hold
their peace forever,” says the priest to the gathering without mostly inviting
The court’s order, albeit handy in
some ways, has been projected as protection from harassment of marrying couples
by social vigilantes, particularly if they were crossing religious or caste
barriers that continue to mock the nation’s egalitarian promise.
The Special Marriage Act in India was
meant to circumvent the crisis not to add to it.
A more worrying reality is the fact
that vigilantes enjoy unprecedented powers under the current set-up governing
the country. The courts appear helpless before the daunting reality of
majoritarian assertions in India, the same way as they are often known to yield
to mobs in Pakistan. What stops the mobs from coming for anyone before their
marriage or after?
The essential problem with the
Special Marriage Act of 1954 — a handy piece of legislation on its own — comes
with couples who change religion or are made to convert in the bargain. This
changing of beliefs in order to marry is a problematic practice for a secular
country that India is. Conversion is not the issue here, which nobody should
object to between consenting adults. A woman or a man who wants to become a
Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian should marry according to the rites prescribed
in the chosen religion while leaving the Special Marriage Act alone. Religious
conversion in a marriage denotes an illiberal spirit. One loves or likes the
would-be partner but disapproves of his or her religion. The idea smacks of
masked violence, as J. Krishnamurthy would say, violence not as much from any
mob but from the individuals who see the other’s religion as inferior. The
Special Marriage Act was meant to circumvent the crisis not to add to it.
There’s a larger issue at stake,
however. In their study of the institution of marriage, Marx and Engels had no
hesitation in seeing its evolution as an adjunct of the bourgeois props. A
‘handmaiden of capitalism’ is how they saw marriage. In 1846, they argued in
The German Ideology that with the abolition of private property, “the abolition
of the family is self-evident”.
Engels noted subsequently, that the
original meaning of the word ‘family’ (familia) “is not the compound of
sentimentality and domestic strife which forms the ideal of the present-day
philistine; among the Romans it did not at first even refer to the married pair
and their children but only to the slaves. ‘Famulus’ means domestic slave, and
‘familia’ is the total number of slaves belonging to one man. … The term was
invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism whose head ruled over
wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal
power with rights of life and death over them all.”
Indian objection to marriage presents
itself in a less intellectual format. ‘Ye shaadi nahi ho sakti’. This marriage
cannot happen. On most counts the issue doesn’t concern the Capulet-Montague
problem. Usually, the hero objects to the marriage for his advantage over a
trapped woman about to be forcibly married off to the villain of the same
religion. In popular Indian cinema, women are usually stripped of their agency
in most matters concerning their lives. There are times when the villain
pretends to rescue the heroine citing an uncertain future with the hero!
In some stories, stolen from more
liberal ancient traditions, couples married quietly by skirting the presence of
a third person such as the priest. Citing a pile of burning wood as witness was
enough. Aradhana in 1969 became a blockbuster built around one such secret
wedding, rooted in an ancient tradition called gandharva vivah. The ancient
story of King Dushyant and Shakuntala is recast in countless modern narratives.
Aradhana made Rajesh Khanna a
superstar, and gave Sharmila Tagore a money-spinner role, never mind that it
would make her legendary mentor Satyajit Ray wince somewhat. Off screen, Tagore
a Brahmo-Bengali woman married a cricket legend, Tiger Pataudi, and took a
Muslim title as per tradition in her husband’s erstwhile royal family. While the
Hindu-Muslim couple appeared to be happily married, Rajesh Khanna struggled
with his marriage to Dimple Kapadia. Success or failure in marriage is scarcely
related to religion.
Thus there’s little special about the
way Hindus or Muslims marry though they may claim an edge in their respective
matrimonial systems. For example, consider the marriage records of the current
prime ministers of India and Pakistan, one an avowed Hindu, the other a Muslim
of pious hue. Observe the hash they have made of their marriages. The first
president of India said in his memoirs he didn’t see his wife’s face as they
only met in the dark for years; such was the custom in his household. Before
daybreak, Babu Rajendra Prasad would slip back into the men’s quarters,
quietly, in keeping with tradition.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in