The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is important to reiterate the fact that marriages in temples, with the deities as the sole witnesses, are not legally valid. According to a recent ruling by the Calcutta high court, a man may have to face rape charges if he deserts the woman he has so married, should she file a rape case against him. There is an obvious problem in this. A case of rape can be proven or broken on the issue of consent. In the case of cohabitation under false pretences, which is what many temple marriages would amount to, the issue would be of gaining consent by deception. That is in itself a punishable crime, even in the case of a marriage otherwise made to appear legally valid. The court, of course, is fully aware of these issues, and has decided to put in a strong ruling in a case where a pregnant woman has lodged a case against a man who has deserted her after marrying her in a temple. It is a peculiar bind. Laws against the various forms of exploitation of women abound in the code books, although a number of them could do with changes and updating. But the most effective laws have not helped to deter some of the commonest social evils, such as marriages in temples and bigamy. A strong ruling can act as a form of deterrence, as long as such rulings do not confuse perceptions of other crimes, like rape.

In spite of the forward-looking role of the judiciary in crimes against women in recent times, the picture remains bleak, simply because laws cannot change society. Attitudes towards women in India, if they are changing at all, are changing too slowly to yet have any marked impact on the less educated sections. Women are caught in a vicious cycle: they are exploitable because they are less educated and their lack of education is a manifestation of the exploitation. Social attitudes are unlikely to alter unless the women themselves force the change. From this point of view, the ruling of the high court is significant because it is encouraging women to come forward. The reality is harsher, though. Few people can go to court with their complaints, or pursue their cases as far as necessary. Even fewer are aware of the possibility of succour. But every little drop helps. Each such judgment, therefore, should be welcomed and discussed.

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