It is a pity that adults need to have sense drummed into their heads. And for that nothing short of the Supreme Court will do. This month the Supreme Court has made clear in writing that once a girl is over 18 years of age, her parents cannot harass or coerce her, or resort to violence, if they do not like the partner she chooses for herself. Having attained majority, every girl is free to live with or marry any partner of her choice. The context of this statement was the harassment of the Muslim husband of a formerly Hindu girl by her parents and brothers in Jammu and Kashmir. The girlís family refused to accept an inter-religious marriage (the family forcefully brought her back and married her off to a Hindu, from which situation she returned to the man she had first married). The court, reportedly, said that in a secular country such as India, there can be no objection to inter-caste or inter-community marriages. If parents do not like their daughterís choice, they can sever their contact with her, but cannot go any further in the effort to stop her.
Nothing in the substance of the courtís pronouncement is new; what is new is the courtís emphasis on the law regarding majority as it relates to a womanís freedom of choice. That the Supreme Court has to speak up with such firmness in order to stop parents from harassing their daughters is merely another side of the coercive streak in Indian social arrangements. Neither law, nor good sense, nor the principle of equality of religions mattered to the family of the girl from Kashmir till the Supreme Courtís rebuke. Why does the court need to speak up on individual cases when the relevant laws are all in place? In spite of the spread of education, the widening circles of discussion about rights, the freedom of women, the meaning and impact of secularism and equality, most of Indian society remains in some sense unevolved, still stuck in an authoritarian structure in which parents force daughters to marry whom they please (even if they have to break the law to achieve that) and will not desist till a greater and more powerful authority, the Supreme Court, tells them they are not allowed to do so. That the Supreme Court has taken the issue so seriously is undoubtedly cause for reassurance and hope. But that does not resolve the imbalance between the premises of the law and the stubbornly regressive habits of society.