Indian Decade

A Questionable Verdict

A recent high court decision indicates the more we change, the more we stay the same.

The more we’re changing the more we seem to be the same. For almost two decades India seems to have been on the move on all fronts—social, political, economic and cultural. No doubt our way of life has drastically changed; India today resembles in some way the Britain of the 19th century that GM Trevelyan described in his landmark book, ‘English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries from Chaucer to Queen Victoria,’ in which he talks about how the Industrial Revolution changed ‘the ways of life’ in the country.

But India is also so much rooted in its social, religious and cultural mores that material changes are not yielding proportionate social and cultural change.

Otherwise, how could one explain the verdict of the Allahabad High Court early last week in which a two-judge bench declared a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man null and void if the girl fails to convert? And the court cites Muslim law for its regressive verdict.

The ruling has pained many in India, including me.

Think about all those women who married Muslim men out of love and affection without succumbing to the pressure of converting. My good friend Bandana Preyashi, a young and dynamic bureaucrat in Bihar, is terribly upset. She defied her parents, her caste, her friends’ so-called concerns and the whole tradition of her family and married a Muslim man, Shahab, a few months ago.

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The verdict means possible legal tension for her in case something goes wrong in the future; it means treating women not as equal partners, but as subordinates to their husbands; it means discouragement to all those who want to break tradition and religious prejudices; it means a slap in the face to those progressive people in India.

Usually upbeat and vivacious Bandana was despondent when I spoke to her a day after the verdict. Nobody, including her parents, questioned her decision to marry a Muslim guy, but the Court’s questioning has let her down. And the young bureaucrat is a model for many girls in Bihar, as her professional conduct has earned her quite a name in the area’s predominately male-dominated bureaucracy.

Even the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan is married to a Hindu girl, Gauri, but the celebrity falls in a different category. It’s the common people, the people from small towns, who script the real change in society. A Muslim-Hindu marital alliance denotes the diminishing suspicions and animosities between two communities and the gradual breakdown of historical prejudices.

A court of justice should be a facilitator of change rather than the preserver of primitive laws written centuries ago in a completely different context and historical circumstances. For greater social interactions and acceptance between the two largest religious groups in India means a greater cohesiveness in society and a boost to the process of nation building.