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India: A progressive court ruling accords the right live with or marry anyone of choice

by Zahidul Islam Biswas, 26 July 2009

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Reproduced from: The Daily Star

Live with or marry anyone

by Zahidul Islam Biswas

This is all about a young woman’s right to choose her partner. The Indian Supreme Court in a recent judgment (written judgment delivered on 21st May 2009) observed that girls above 18 years of age can live with or marry anyone of their choice. Unhappy parents could at best severe their ties with her and dare not harass or torture her taking law into their hands, it warned.

The judgment and order was passed by a vacation Bench comprising Justices Markandey Katju and Deepak Verma while protecting one Fiaz Ahmed Ahanger of Jammu and Kashmir from harassment at the hands of the police on the basis of a complaint lodged by the parents of his wife, a Hindu girl.

The girl, with an infant in her lap, stood before the Bench, braved questions and was unflappable in her resolve to live with her husband. But, there was an urgent plea from her to save her husband from harassment at the hands of the police and threats from her parents and brothers who did not agree to the inter-religious marriage.

Convinced that she had attained majority, the Bench put it down in writing: "India is a free country where girls after attaining the age of 18 years have the freedom to live with or marry anyone they like. Parents, if not happy, could at the worst severe their ties with her but cannot threaten, coerce or torture her."

The girl converted to Islam and acquired a Muslim name Mehvesh Anjum to marry Fiaz, a teacher in Ramban district in J&K in December 2007. On coming to know about their daughter’s marriage, her parents forcibly brought her back and got her married off to a Hindu. But she escaped and got reunited with Fiaz.

Seething with anger, the parents and the second husband lodged a case of kidnapping against Fiaz. The police harassed the couple, who moved the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to seek stay of the police investigation. The HC passed an order in May 2008 refusing to stay the police probe following which the couple appealed to the Supreme Court.

The SC offered police protection to the couple and stayed their arrest. "We direct nobody will threaten, harass or commit any violence or unlawful act against the petitioner (Fiaz), the girl or the petitioners’ family members," the Bench said, though it refused to stay the police probe into the case.

This Indian Supreme Court judgment has become a matter of headache for many conservative Indian families. On the other hand, the human rights organizations, especially women rights groups have hailed the judgment. The have termed the judgment as a big step towards women’s empowerment in India.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. He is currently with the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.