The battle for love and the Special Marriage Act

  • Asad Ali, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 07, 2014 16:30 IST

Many couples in India, struck by Cupid’s arrow but fearing the well-oiled stick (and more drastic weapons) of the moral brigade, may have Bjorn Borg to thank for a successful getaway.

The Swedish tennis icon was one of the many people who helped fund Love Commandos, the Delhi-based voluntary organisation that seeks to help “India’s lovebirds who want to marry for love,” with a donation in April 2014, says Sanjoy Sachdev, chairman of the organisation. Sachdev says that Love Commandos helps couples come together by providing necessary assistance and protection, legal or otherwise.

However, even before such an organisation came into existence, couples across the country had consistently resorted to the one legal route to an inter-faith marriage – the Special Marriage Act (SMA), 1954. It is the only legally recognised provision in the country that allows two individuals, irrespective of their religion, to get married and register it officially.

Also read:Get hitched without a hitch

“Marrying under the SMA is simple,” says Rajeeva Shukla, the additional district magistrate (ADM) of South Delhi district. “Any two individuals who have attained legal age (18 years for girls and 21 years for boys) just have to give a notice to the marriage registrar of the district, declaring their intent to marry,” he explains.

But of course, as with any legal act, there are procedural challenges. At least one of the two applicants must be a resident within the jurisdiction of that particular marriage registrar’s district for a minimum of 30 days.

If all other criteria such as mutual consent and soundness of mind are met and relevant affidavits to the effect submitted, then that notice of intent is put up at the registrar’s office premises in a publicly accessible spot. For one whole month.

“This is only to ensure a window of natural justice,” says Shukla. He adds, “If either party concerned is already married and trying to suppress such information, then any third-party has that time to raise an objection to the marriage. If any objection at all is raised to the marriage within that period, the marriage officer will consider all aspects of the case before allowing the marriage to be solemnised.”

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This 30-day notice can lead to problems, says lawyer Vrinda Grover. “When people are marrying under SMA, clearly it’s a decision taken by two adults who are legally authorised to take decisions about their lives,” she says adding that, “the long notice period gives an opportunity to fundamentalist organisations on the ground to create trouble for the people concerned.”

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women discussed it with the Indian delegation in July 2014 at a UN convention, adds Grover. It is counterproductive, she says, to an Act that can be a free, fair platform.

But despite these contentious aspects, Indian couples have managed, by and large, to get married under this Act.

The rules of ‘courtship’

Two primary acts govern most Indian marriages: the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and Special Marriage Act, 1954.

For any marriage between two Hindus, the Hindu Marriage Act applies. An Arya Samaj wedding is convenient and speedy, but applicable only to Hindus. A person from another religion must convert to Hinduism before being eligible for it (similar for example, in traditional Muslim weddings, where the maulvi can’t solemnise the marriage if one party is not Muslim).

However, anyone can opt for the Special Marriage Act, irrespective of religion. For inter-faith marriages, couples can get legally married under the Special Marriage Act.

Quick look at the Special Marriage Act
The couple should have attained legal age: 18 years for girls, 21 years for boys.
2. The couple must be of sound mind and together by mutual consent.
3. Their relationship must not be ‘prohibited’ as defined under the Act. Which essentially means that the couple cannot be full blood relatives*.
4. At least one party should reside for 30 days in that particular marriage registrar’s district where the application is to be made.

For other nationalities
An Indian national can get married to a foreigner under this Act, and two foreign nationals can also get married under the same – provided there is an official No Objection Certificate from the foreign embassy concerned, declaring that the foreginer is not barred in any way from marrying in another country.

How to apply
The application form or ‘notice of the intended marriage’ must be filled up (available online or at the marriage office) and submitted along with necessary documents. A date for the solemnisation of marriage is then set for a month after. On that date, three witnesses are required plus basic identification documents to finally solemnise the marriage. After that, the couple may apply to have their marriage registered and get an official certificate from the registrar.

Documents needed
Along with the ‘notice of the intended marriage’ you will need
1. Notarised affidavit declaring that you’ve met all the conditions (your age, that you do not already have a spouse etc)
2. Residence, DOB & ID proof
Passport size photographs
Rs 150 processing fee

The downside


The time period between the intent to marry notice being put up and the marriage date is 30 days, which gives

time enough for rogue elements to pressurise and harass the couple

. And if one person is from a different city then the ‘exposure period’ is multiplied.

For example, if X and Y are both in Delhi, then the notice is put up on the notice board of the relevant Delhi registrar office. But if X is from Delhi and Y is from another state, say MP, then a copy of the notice is also sent to the registrar office of the district in MP where Y is resident (there too, the notice is put up).


If a couple is actually on the run fearing a threat to their lives or property, and wish to get married quickly, it is not possible under this act.

For example, if X & Y are from Delhi but want to go to Mumbai to marry at very short notice, it can’t be done. The 30-day residence rule will still apply.

*For more details, read section 2 (b) under “Degrees of Prohibited Relationship as per the Special Marriage Act, 1954”

Love and happy endings
Three couples who broke the shackles of convention by exercising their right to marry

Deepshikha Dutta and Madhavan Kumar*

When Deepshikha, who works in the publishing industry, got engaged to Madhavan, a graphic designer, she first wanted an unostentatious Arya Samaj wedding (governed by the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955). But later the couple decided to register under the Special Marriage Act (SMA).

“We didn’t want the jurisdiction of any future dispute to fall under religious law,” says Deepshikha. “Arya Samaj weddings fall under the Hindu Marriage Act, the guardianship, inheritance and even social security of which is either something we found dubious or were averse to,” she says.

When both parties are Hindus, choosing the Act can often come as a surprise to family. While her parents, says Deepshikha, were supportive, Madhavan’s parents weren’t initially. “Their notion about the Act was that it’s only for couples who have to elope, not for those who already have the families’ blessings!” she says.

Smita Mitra and Ijaaz Ahmed*

In 2010, PR professional Smita Mitra decided to take the plunge and marry Ijaaz Ahmed, an engineer, after 11 years of courtship. Smita was well aware of the ramifications of such a decision – her grandparents had moved from Pakistan to India during the Partition and had witnessed post-Partition bloodshed between the two communities first hand.

“My family was shocked at my decision to marry a Muslim,” says Smita. But she had always anticipated their reaction: “My husband’s family agreed when they realised that their son wouldn’t have it any other way but they weren’t happy,” she says. “My family wasn’t informed about the marriage as we were very sure they wouldn’t agree. They might even have taken some drastic steps to disrupt the marriage,” she adds.

Smita and Ijaaz had a ‘court marriage’ too, solicited under the Special Marriage Act. Both applied a month in advance. “We were required to produce three witnesses. The marriage certificate was issued to us on the very same day,” says Smita, and adds after a pause, “This was also the time when I informed my family about the final decision.”

On being asked if she regrets her decision, and about the Love Jihad theory that’s making news, Smita says, “I am happy with my decision and I don’t believe in this theory at all as I certainly didn’t convert to Islam.” She says that now even her in-laws have come around: “Post-marriage, my husband’s family showered a lot of love on me and continue to do so till date. Religion never came in our way.”

Anwar Mashud and Jyoti Jain*

In 1998, marketing professional Anwar and banker Jyoti married under the SMA. Anwar’s parents knew about the wedding. Jyoti’s family did not. The marriage was solemnised without a hitch. Except, says Anwar, “I was the last to reach due to a flat tyre. There were no problems in the paperwork, though we had to marry again after one month since my signatures never match!”

The marriage didn’t go down very well with Jyoti’s parents. “Her mother got hysterical and seemed as though she’d pass out any moment in shock,” recalls Anwar. “Her father appeared composed, though visibly shaken by her daughter’s decision. We were politely asked to take our sorry a**es out of his house.”

As far as societal reaction was concerned, Anwar says that he “couldn’t care less,” before adding that he was “too emotionally tipsy with the way things were going ahead and that helped me give most people who had an issue a clueless grin.”

*Names changed to protect identities

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From HT Brunch, December 7
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