The Rajasthan government waded into controversy last week after it amended the state’s Compulsory Marriage Registration Act. By providing that, when a marriage involves a groom below 21 years of age and a bride below 18 years of age, the parents must move to get the marriage registered, the state government is encouraging child marriage by ‘legalising’ it, argue activists and the opposition parties. However, the fact is that child marriage is yet to be made illegal; the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006, makes marriages between children (defined as a boy under 21 years of age and a girl under 18 years) merely voidable, that is if one of the contracting party were to opt out of the marriage anytime between the marriage and after two years of attaining the age of marriage as sanctioned by the law, the marriage will stand annulled. Thus, the central Act continues to treat child marriages as legal. The Rajasthan amendment Act in question merely changed an earlier provision—under which parents/guardians of a couple under 21 years of age were required to register the marriage—to bring it in sync with the definition of children as per the 2006 central Act,as lawyer Seema Sindhu points out in The Leaflet.
While the National Commission on Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has written to the state government, objecting to the legalisation of child marriage, it ought to have concentrated its efforts on advocating the passage of an amendment that the Union women and child development ministry had proposed in 2018. This would have made marriage between a boy under 21 years of age and girl under 18 years of age voidable ab initio (at the outset). However, the proposal continues to hang fire.
The Rajasthan Amendment is in line with the 2006 judgment of the Supreme Court in Seema vs Ashwini Kumar, which made the registration of all marriages mandatory. The judgment also stated that the registration of all marriages enables the states to obtain the necessary regulatory data for nabbing the violators of any marriage-related legislation—this is reflected in the Rajasthan amendment Act empowering the district authority to declare a marriage as void. A corollary of this would be that registration of marriage is simply informing the state of the marriage and not granting the marriage legal status. In fact, as per the 2006 SC judgment, registration enables the prevention of child marriages as well as safeguards women against a host of evils including desertion, trafficking under “the garb of marriage”, illegal polygamy, and so on.
Given the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, deficiencies notwithstanding, tries to curb child marriage by prescribing imprisonment and fines as punishment for those who permit or promote or solemnise child marriage, making marriage registration compulsory may be intended to be a deterrent. But, how effective it will be remains to be seen; for instance, there is nothing to prevent such a marriage to be solemnised while being kept under wraps till the minors involved attain the sanctioned age of marriage as per the law. It is only when child marriages are made illegal—there were 785 such marriages reported in 2020, as per NCRB data—that such marriages can be curbed; it will call for a relook at the personal laws that govern marriage and deft political handling of opposition from communities that promote such marriages.