(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)
Will raising the marriage age for women empower them?
The Indian Government is planning to raise the legal age of marriage to 21 from 18 for women. For men it is already 21. The government argues that this will empower women and ensure gender parity. That might sound possible at first glance, but seen against the backdrop of increasing social and state control over marriage, the proposed law may be disturbing. As critics have pointed out , an 18-year old person can vote and is considered an adult in other laws, but when it comes to marriage everyone is considered a child until 21.
Is this logical or sustainable? Could gender parity have been achieved by making 18 the age for marriage for all genders? The government move is also seen as an attempt to chip away at religious civil codes and move towards a uniform civil code.
Marriage is of course an instrument of social control, but is also a route of escape from conservative shackles for many women. There has been increasing hostility to interfaith marriages, and several Indian States under the BJP have made laws that make it difficult for interfaith couples to marry.
In April 2021, Gujarat passed the Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act that views all interfaith unions with suspicion. Police were filing FIRs under the new law soon enough, and the Gujarat HC intervened in one .
But there have been judicial interventions that frown upon interfaith marriages, and the BJP governments in U.P. and Haryana have propounded measures to prevent what they call ‘love jihad.’ Increased policing of private lives by the state and vigilantes is a reality.
There is no law that targets inter-caste marriages, but the stringent conditions of the Special Marriages Act (SMA) make them also difficult. Those who intend to marry are required to publish their names, date of birth, age, occupation, parents’ names and details, addresses, pin codes, identity information and phone numbers before they are allowed to marry. There are vigilante groups that trawl SMA filings to identify interfaith and inter-caste couples. The SMA may not be helping those who want to marry against social norms.
When we start to treat everyone under 21 a child for the purpose of marriage, how far are we from denying them the right to be counted as adults with regard to sexual autonomy? Age of consent was 14 in 1925, 16 in 1940 and 18 in 2013. No girl below the age of 18 can be considered to have given consent to sex, according to the existing law. Raising the age of marriage and age of consent have both been considered as progressive measures to favour women, for historical reasons in India. Are we now, therefore, on the cusp of raising age of consent also to 21? Already, anecdotal evidence suggests widespread criminalisation of consensual sex with girls below 18, at the behest of families.
The marriage bill has been sent to a parliamentary committee, but another controversial piece of legislation that was passed makes changes to the law relating to elections. It amends both The Representation of the People Acts of 1950 and 1951. Ironically, in the context of defining everyone under 21 as a child in the marriage law, the election law amendment reinforces the voting rights of 18-year-olds. “The Bill also increases the number of qualifying dates for the revision of electoral rolls from one per year to four. At present, January 1 of each year is the qualifying date. Every year, those turning 18 on or before that day is eligible to be a voter. This has been amended to include April 1, July 1 and October 1 so that one need not wait for the end of the year to apply for inclusion.”
Secular silence and selective outrage
Two men were beaten to death over alleged attempts to “commit sacrilege” in the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and on the Sikh flag in a gurdwara at Nijampur village in Kapurthala in Punjab ; in Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Hindu religious leaders and political activists made calls for genocide against Muslims and asked Hindus to arm themselves. These actions, and the response of the state and society, are ominous signs for India.
Responses to the Punjab lynchings from political parties bordered on open justification of the violence; and perhaps even called for the legalisation of such mob justice. Congress State president Navjot Sidhu called for public hanging as punishment for sacrilege. The caretaker of a gurdwara has now been arrested in the Kapurthala incident.
For the Haridwar incident, the police have filed an FIR, but none of the speakers who made open calls for genocide has been named. The BJP is predictably silent in Uttarakhand; other parties including the Congress is up in arms. In Punjab no political party condemned the killings without qualification. Both States are going to elections soon. The idea that people can kill at will, as long as they feel their faith has been violated is dangerous. Any violence, or call for it, must be condemned by society, and punished by the state. Regardless of who does it -- minority or majority . Unfortunately that seems to be a tall order.
Redrawing the political geography of Kashmir
The political power of social groups and regions are determined through voting in a democracy, but organising the process of voting itself is a key determinant in the distribution of power. How constituencies are drawn decide electoral outcomes, and such redrawing can be manipulated to favour particular regions or social groups. Gerrymandering is considered a challenge to democracy in the U.S.
Measures to redraw the political map of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is underway, and draft proposals published by the delimitation commission indicate a shift of power from the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley to the Hindu majority Jammu region. Proposals to provide reserved seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes are also mooted. Population alone is not the criteria for the proposed changes. If population is the sole criterion, then the seat share for the Valley, with a population of 68.8 lakh (2011 Census) would stand at 51 and the Jammu region with 53.5 lakh population at 39 in the UT Assembly. But now, it may be 47 in the Valley and 43 in Jammu.
For a more detailed explainer on the J&K delimitation debate, read this.
Karnataka’s reverse journey
On December 23, 2021, the Karnataka Assembly adopted the anti-conversion bill -- The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021. The Bill proposes a maximum punishment of 10 years of imprisonment for forcible conversion of persons from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes communities, minors and women to another religion, and much more. Like marriage, religion and faith must be a private affair of the citizen, but the state wants more and more control. The Karnataka law follows similar laws in several other States.
While Karnataka is undermining its reputation as a cosmopolitan place that attracted investment and talent, neighbouring Telangana is trying to take its place. Following the cancellation of comedian Kunal Kamra’s performance in Bangalore , Telangana information technology minister K.T. Rama Rao said the State welcomed stand-up comedians Kunal Kamra and Munawar Faruqui to stage their shows in Hyderabad, which is “truly cosmopolitan.”
Nagaland Assembly demands repeal of AFSPA
The Nagaland Assembly has demanded the repeal of the contentious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from the State and elsewhere in the Northeast and an apology from the “appropriate authority” for the botched Army operation that led to the death of 14 civilians in Mon district’s Oting a fortnight ago.
Myanmar and India’s Northeast
During a visit to Myanmar, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla sought cooperation from the military rulers. Mr. Shringla reminded the Myanmarese rulers that India shared a 1,700-km long border with Myanmar that runs along Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram. Communities on both sides share history and culture, though now they are divided by an international border.
Heat in the heights
The Apex Body Leh and the Kargil Democratic Alliance, two groups that have mobilised in the Union Territory of Ladakh, now have a common agenda: statehood. There are reasons why people are restive.
Fiscal federalism under threat
Prior to the pandemic, a series of steps by the Union government undermined the principles of federalism, especially fiscal federalism, this comment piece points out. But there can be solutions.
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