Child marriage row in Kerala

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  • Published 24.06.13

Thiruvananthapuram, June 23: Parliament had enacted a law in 2006 to weed out child marriage. The Kerala government, however, doesn’t seem to agree.

In a controversial circular on June 14, the state’s local self-government department has given the go-ahead to marriage registrars to register Muslim marriages even if the parties have not attained the age fixed by the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (21 years for the groom and 18 years for the bride).

The circular issued by principal secretary James Varghese offers two grounds to justify the decision. First, the Muslim Marriage Act of 1957 does not prohibit marriages under 21 (boys) or 18 (girls) and second, the 2006 act does not hold child marriages “void”.

The law indeed does not declare child marriages void automatically. But it says: “Every child marriage, whether solemnised before or after the commencement of this act, shall be voidable at the option of the contracting party (bride or groom) who was a child at the time of the marriage.”

Either party can get the marriage annulled by filing a petition in a district court.

The minister for panchayats and social welfare, M.K. Muneer of the Indian Union Muslim League, who also holds charge of the local self-government department, told The Telegraph the circular had only clarified an earlier order.

“In October 2012, the Kerala Institute of Local Administration had sought a clarification about the registration of Muslim marriages that were conducted with parental consent but where the boy was under 21 or the girl under 18,” Muneer said.

“This was because such marriages were still being solemnised in the community but panchayat registrars were unwilling to register them. The matter was referred to the law department, which maintained that such marriages could be registered on the basis of a letter from a religious authority. However, there was still some confusion with registrars refusing to follow the recommendation, so the circular was necessary.”

Muneer added that a 1970 Kerala High Court judgment had discounted the age factor in Muslim marriages, and that the 2006 Supreme Court order making it mandatory to register all marriages did not mention the marriageable age.

These arguments have failed to cut ice with rights groups and Opposition parties.

“It is fallacious to say that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, does not hold child marriages void,” said Justice K.T. Thomas, a former Supreme Court judge.

He cited how the act prescribes two years’ jail and a fine of Rs 1 lakh for whoever knowingly performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage. “This makes it amply clear that the act prohibits child marriages.”

The CPM has slammed the circular. But V.P. Suhara, who heads the Kozhikode-based NISA Progressive Muslim Women’s Forum, accused the party of hypocrisy.

“The Supreme Court judgment on registration of marriages was a welcome gesture for women, but orthodox sections of the community would not agree. This forced several couples — like those who required a passport or voter ID — to resort to the Special Marriage Act (to register their marriages),” she said.

“But the hardliners realised this would bring Muslim women out of the embrace of Muslim personal law and pressured the then Left government into coming up with a set of registration rules in 2008.”

She added: “The rules said marriages within the same religion should be solemnised according to the personal laws of the community. Muslim personal law does not prescribe any minimum age and thus the rules, in a way, nullified the essence of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006.”

Suhara said that although the 2006 Supreme Court order did not mention any age limit, it had taken a clear stand against child marriage.