I got married on February 16, 2023, in a civil court in Mumbai to Fahad Ahmad, my old friend and relatively new love, amid cheers and claps from our parents and friends. Our marriage, admittedly rushed, under the Special Marriage Act (1954), took place with the blessings of both sets of parents and extended families. We were lucky to be encouraged and helped by cooperative friends and colleagues. And, yet, it was a process ridden with anxiety and fear.
The SMA is an Act of Parliament that provides for civil/registered marriage for Indian citizens, irrelevant of the religion followed by either party. Marriages solemnised under SMA are not governed by personal laws. While the act itself is progressive, there are certain provisions that have increasingly been weaponised by people opposed to love marriages. The SMA requires that the couple intending to marry submit a notice of intent to marry to the civil court, providing details like name, age, address, govt IDs, photographs and names of three witnesses. This information is then made public on the marriage registrar’s notice board with the intent to invite objections (technically to verify that the information provided is correct, neither party is married prior and both are of sound mind). Since Covid, many states (including Maharashtra), have a provision of posting this information online. So our details were on the notice board of the marriage registrar’s office, and online, for anyone and everyone to see. Every day we scoured the online site (requiring no login ID, neither password) to see if our names were still visible and then searched on social media lest the information had been outed. Every day we worried that self-appointed vigilantes would turn up at the court to disrupt the marriage.
Our worries were not unfounded. In the last eight years, interfaith marriages (especially Hindu woman-Muslim man marriages) have been politicised as ‘love jihad’. Agencies of the state have in more than one case intervened in cases of consenting interfaith adults marrying and slapped anti-conversion laws and registered love jihad cases.
In the last few years as hindutva groups have grown to enjoy impunity for their acts of terrorising the public, cases of mobs turning up at interfaith wedding venues to stop proceedings, and rescue Hindu girls have frighteningly been numerous.
Fahad, I, and our parents worried that some or the other cooked up legal case would be brought to create an obstacle to our marriage.
Luckily for us, our notice went undiscovered and we married without a glitch! But it made me ponder.
Interfaith/inter-caste/inter-class/inter-regional/inter-linguistic and ethnic identity marriages are hard as it is. Identity is a niggling, sticky and all encompassing entity that lives in the corners of our unconscious without us realising. It manifests not just in religious habits like how we pray, but in mundane habits like what we eat, what we wear, what perfumes we use, our exclamations and expletives and what we fear.
Discovering and negotiating our own identities in a vexed, hate-filled, polarised new India has been a surprising and humbling journey for me. I have encountered prejudices in myself that I did not know existed. I am learning to be sensitive to concerns I never needed to have because my privileged identity as an English-educated savarna Hindu from an upper middle class background never exposed me to certain realities of our country. And I have had to ward off (constantly) the fear of how the hindutva brigade on social media and in media will twist my love into a poisonous narrative.
Love is hard. Interfaith love in India is harder.
Is it too much to ask, that in 2023, as India hosts the G20 with a much publicised campaign about our place on the world stage, consenting Indian adults have the freedom to love and marry, without the fear of a mob, prejudiced officers of the state or false cases by estranged family ruining their chances at a happy fulfilling life?
In 2023, shouldn’t the right to marry who you choose be a basic right for all Indians?
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.