India: Banning Polygamy in Assam to Create Positive Ecosystem for Women’s Empowerment Irrespective of Caste, Creed or Religion

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Assam to table bill to end polygamy: CM Himanta Biswa Sarma

By Nava Thakuria    11 August 2023

The nation starts debating aggressively over the Uniform Civil Code (UCC, समान नागरिक संहिता) soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated for the ‘one nation one rule’ policy at a public meeting in Bhopal of central India. PM Modi argued that two laws in one house should not be accepted and the nationalist leader even linked it with the rights of Muslim women. As the State assembly elections are due in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana (need not to talk about the national polls) early next year, PM Modi’s argument was denounced by the opposition parties questioning the government’s intention.

Ahead of general elections, the opposition leaders belonging to the Congress, DMK, AIMIM, Janata Dal (United), Rastriya Janata Dal, Bharat Rashtra Samity, Trinamool Congress, etc have criticised the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party-led alliance for propagating the UCC with an aim to get undue electoral benefits. They argued that the UCC will destroy India’s diversity & pluralism, and hence its implementation is not necessary. All India Muslim Personal Law Board strongly opposed the UCC claiming that it was planned only to target the Muslim population of India.

Even though the UCC remains a preferred issue for the saffron leaders, many politicians from northeast Indian States of Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya (who are even political allies to the ruling BJP) expressed dissatisfaction over the development. The Union government in New Delhi initially planned to place the bill in the monsoon session of the Parliament and the Law Commission of India gathered suggestions from the organizations & citizens over the proposed UCC.

The law panel received an overwhelming response from over 8 million submissions and it is going to prepare a draft for the government as well as organise discussions with various parties. Earlier, the office of the President of India received over 0.3 million suggestions and the Prime Minister’s Office got over 0.2 million responses.

Once implemented, the uniform law will be applicable to every Indian citizen irrespective of his/her religion, community and gender. Thus, it would overpower the religion centric personal laws. But many political observers are not convinced that the federal government will bring the bill in the running Parliamentary session (which is scheduled to culminate on 11 August). They assume that the government is more interested in banning the practice of polygamy first (which is considered as an important component of the UCC), which will boost their electoral benefits from the Muslim women in particular.

Moreover, a large section of Indian society also believes that polygamy (bigamy) has no place in a gender-sensitive modern society and hence it should be outlawed immediately.

Amidst the intriguing debates, Assam government in the north-eastern region plans to go ahead with a new law banning on polygamy. State chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma revealed that his government will initiate a bill in the upcoming State legislative assembly session scheduled for September to ban the practice. Insisting on prohibiting polygamy so that a male irrespective of his religion can be stopped from marrying more than one spouse at a time, the BJP leader admitted that it’s almost zero among the educated families (comprising indigenous Muslims too) in the State. He however reiterated that the initiative is not intended to target any community.

Days back, Sarma constituted a committee to examine whether the State legislature had the authority to ban polygamy. Recently, the committee headed by justice Rumi Phookan, submitted its report seemingly indicating that the State assembly has the competency to enact a relevant law. The hard-liner saffron leader asserted that the ban on polygamy in Assam will be imposed by 2024, aiming to create a positive ecosystem for women’s empowerment irrespective of caste, creed or religion.

Men having multiple wives (definitely not vice versa) was a common practice in ancient India. From the emperors to kings and landlords to influential individuals all enjoyed the practice (though with guidelines that wives should be treated equally) as it was not prohibited in earlier days. However, after India’s independence in 1947, voices were raised against the practice in the largest democracy of the globe and then came the Special Marriage Act 1954 and Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which outlawed polygamy for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs (with exceptions to some tribal communities and residents of Goa).

However, the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937 allows a Muslim man to marry up to four women at a time. Even the conversion to Islam (from other religions) permitted a man to have more than one wife. The Supreme Court later declared this kind of religious conversion as unconstitutional in 1995. Earlier the apex court outlawed the practice of Triple Talaq (under which Muslim men used to divorce his wives by pronouncing the word Talaq three times) terming it as unjustified for Muslim women as they could not raise legal voices against the decision of her husband. The historic verdict in 2017 also paved the way to challenge polygamy as being unilateral and unconstitutional.

Among the Muslim dominated countries, Turkey and Tunisia have already banned the practice of polygamy. Some nations like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh allow polygamy with restrictions. But it’s rarely heard on Earth that a woman is allowed to possess more than one spouse. One can however mention the great epic Mahabharata which projects a divine lady living with five husbands. Draupadi, princess of Panchal kingdom, married five Pandavas (Yudhisthir, Bheem, Arjun, Nokul and Sahadev) and she used to live with one Pandava for a year with specific arrangements. Months back, when Assam government cracked down on child marriages and thousands of individuals were arrested, it came to public notice that many elderly Muslim men used to marry young girls taking advantage of their socio-economic status. The drive against child marriages, though logically supported by every conscious citizen, ironically invited public outrages from opposition parties terming it an abuse of power.

Unmoved by criticism, Sarma stated that the drive against child marriages must continue and legal procedures will be followed against polygamy.

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Nava Thakuria is a northeast India-based professional journalist who is an engineering graduate.