The law on polygamy among religious groups in India
- Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said that the state government will move to ban the practice of polygamy through legislative action, and that an expert committee would be formed to examine the issue.
- Polygamy is the practice of having more than one married spouse — wife or husband. The issue is governed both by personal laws and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
- Traditionally, polygamy — mainly the situation of a man having more than one wife — was practised widely in India. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 outlawed the practice.
- Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs are also included under the Hindu Marriage Code. The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, had already outlawed bigamy.
- IPC Section 494 (“Marrying again during lifetime of husband or wife”) penalises bigamy or polygamy. This provision does not apply to a marriage which has been declared void by a court — for example, a child marriage that has been declared void.
- The law also does not apply if a spouse has been “continually absent” for the “space of seven years”. This means a spouse who has deserted the marriage or when his or her whereabouts are not known for seven years, will not bind the other spouse from remarrying.
- However, despite bigamy being an offence, the child born from the bigamous marriage would acquire the same rights as a child from the first marriage under the law.
- A crucial exception to the bigamy law for Hindus is Goa, which follows its own code for personal laws. So, a Hindu man in the state has the right to bigamy under specific circumstances mentioned in the Codes of Usages and Customs of Gentile Hindus of Goa.
Under Muslim law
- Marriage in Islam is governed by the Shariat Act, 1937. Personal law allows a Muslim man to have four wives. To benefit from the Muslim personal law, many men from other religions would convert to Islam to have a second wife.
- In a landmark ruling in 1995, the Supreme Court in Sarla Mudgal v Union of India held that religious conversion for the sole purpose of committing bigamy is unconstitutional. This position was subsequently reiterated in the 2000 judgment in Lily Thomas v Union of India.
- Any move to outlaw polygamy for Muslims would have to be a special legislation which overrides personal law protections like in the case of triple talaq.
- The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019 made instant triple talaq (talaq-e-biddat) pronounced in any form – spoken, written or via electronic means – illegal and void. Talaq-e-biddat refers to the practice under Muslim personal laws where pronouncement of the word ‘talaq’ thrice in one sitting by a Muslim man to his wife results in an instant and irrevocable divorce.
Prevalence of polygamy
- The National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-20) showed the prevalence of polygamy was 2.1% among Christians, 1.9% among Muslims, 1.3% among Hindus, and 1.6% among other religious groups.
- The data showed that the highest prevalence of polygynous marriages was in the Northeastern states with tribal populations. A list of 40 districts with the highest polygyny rates was dominated by those with high tribal populations.
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