Assam Govt Repeals Muslim Marriage Act: A Step to Pave Way for UCC or a Continuation of Attacks Against Muslims?

The 1935 Act outlines the procedures for the registration of Muslim marriages and divorces. Its primary objective is to provide a legal framework for the formalization and documentation of Muslim marriages and divorces.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma

New Delhi: The Himanta Biswa Sarma-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Assam has come up with a new strategy to “fight” child marriage by repealing the Assam Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act of 1935.

This step has brought in varied reactions, with many political analysts claiming this is the first step towards bringing in a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Many members from the religious minorities are calling the party out for constantly “attacking” their religious freedom.

Chief Minister Sarma has described the decision to repeal the 1935 legislation as a “crucial move” towards preventing child marriages in the state.

“On 23.2.2024, the Assam cabinet made a significant decision to repeal the age-old Assam Muslim Marriages & Divorces Registration Act,” the chief minister, on February 24 posted on X (formally Twitter). 

He further wrote, “This Act contained provisions allowing marriage registration even if the bride and groom had not reached the legal ages of 18 and 21, as required by the law. This move marks another significant step towards prohibiting child marriages in Assam.”

The Act currently allows marriage registration even if the individuals involved are below the legal marriageable age of 18 and 21 for brides and grooms, respectively.

The chief minister criticized the legislation as an “obsolete pre-Independence Act of the British” and highlighted its informal registration machinery, which he believes leaves room for non-compliance with existing norms.

During a Cabinet meeting, it was emphasized that the Act, governing nikah (a Muslim marriage contract) and talaq (divorce), is “outdated” and “lacks a formal structure”.

According to a report published in The Indian Express, Advocate Nekibur Zaman, part of a government-appointed committee, raised concerns about the misuse of power by many government-registered qazis (judge of a Sharia court), leading to the marriage of minors and divorces without grounds.

The decision to repeal the Act comes two weeks after Uttarakhand, also governed by the Hindu nationalist BJP, became the first state in India to implement a state UCC.

Following the suits, Minister Jayanta Malla Baruah, a minister in the Assam government, while announcing the Cabinet’s decision, highlighted the repeal of the Act as a “significant” step towards this goal.

He noted that after scrapping the law, Muslims in Assam would be required to register marriages under the Special Marriage Act instead.

The move turned out to be controversial for the Muslim community, who has been living in the state for centuries. This is mainly due to the fact that the state government already has a history of “attacking” the community.

Abdur Rahman, a member of the Association of Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) told The Mooknayak, “Talking about eradicating child marriage is just an excuse that is being used by the ruling party to bring in a UCC, just like Uttarakhand. This is purely a political agenda.”

He said had the government been honest in its approach, it would have held a public review, involving the community members, which did not happen.

“Child marriage is a concern for every person in the state,” he said, adding that “no ethical individual would like the practice to continue”.

He went on to explain that “one needs to understand that the social evil of child marriage is not just present in the Muslim community but in various other spaces too”. “Many Adivasi communities too follow this practice,” he pointed out.

Polygamy is a term constantly used against the community. Talking about it, the activist exclaimed, “Polygamy is a stereotype that is constantly being used to frame the community as conservative. If one does a survey of the state, one will get to know the real numbers.”

Advocate Aman Wadud, who practices at the Guwahati High Court, explained the implications of the decision to scrap the legislation. 

“The government could just have amended Section (8) of the 1935 Act that allows lawful guardians to get minors married if the intention was to curb child marriages,” he said.

“There were 94 Muslim registrars who could register Muslim marriages,” said the advocate, stating that the registering authority will be the district commissioner under the Special Marriage Act, which requires a 30-day wait period and notice, long list of documents, lawyers etc. 

This means, he said, more expenses, longer waiting times and more documentation.

“This might bring down Muslim marriages heavily,” he stated.

He continued, “The moment you remove Muslim registrars, the number of unauthorised qazis will increase, which might be difficult for the government to control.

Every decision of the government, he said, is making the religious minority feel their life is being made more inconvenient.

“At first, the system of marriage was more decentralised, and the qazis felt more approachable. But now, it has become more complex because every district has one district commissioner,” Wadud pointed out.

The Act at a Glance

The law, enacted in 1935, outlines the procedures for the registration of Muslim marriages and divorces. Its primary objective is to provide a legal framework for the formalisation and documentation of Muslim marriages and divorces.

The Act empowers the state to issue licenses for the registration of marriages and divorces to any person who is a Muslim. These individuals, designated as Muslim registrars, are considered public servants. This provision ensures that those responsible for registering these events are authorized by the state and have a legal standing.

A crucial aspect of the Act is its alignment with Muslim Personal Law. This means that the procedures and regulations outlined in the Act are designed to be consistent with the religious and cultural practices of the Muslim community. 

The Act respects and incorporates the principles of Muslim Personal Law, while providing a legal mechanism for marriage registration.

It defines the process through which marriage and divorce applications can be submitted to the registrar. It likely includes details such as the required documents, eligibility criteria and the specific steps involved in the registration process. 

This ensures a standardized and formalized approach to recording Muslim marriages and divorces.

In 2010, an amendment was made to the Act, changing the term “voluntary” to “compulsory”. This amendment indicates that the registration of Muslim marriages and divorces became mandatory in the state of Assam. This shift had underscored the state’s commitment to ensuring the proper documentation of such events within the Muslim community.

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