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India law pushes couples to marry — or live apart

Midhat Fatimah in New Delhi
April 5, 2024

A law forcing unmarried couples to register when living together has sparked fears of surveillance and harassment among women in India's Uttarakhand state. One party doesn't want unmarried couples living together at all.

An image of a young Indian couple exchanging their engagement rings
Unmarried women living with their partners say they are worried the new rules will open doors for surveillance and harassmentImage: Divyakant Solanki/dpa/picture alliance

Things are about to change for many women and live-in partners in India's Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.  

Last month, the state became the first in the South Asian country to adopt the contentious Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which seeks to replace religion-based personal laws governing aspects of life including marriage, divorce and cohabitation with a common set of rules that apply equally to all citizens.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which also governs Uttarakhand, has touted the UCC as a law that empowers women and that would address discrimination against women.

However, many women and rights groups in the state have objected strongly to it.

Why is the UCC contentious?

In India, criminal laws are uniformly applied, but personal laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance are rooted in religious scriptures and traditions.

Major religious communities like Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, each adhere to their respective personal laws.

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Political debate on creating common civil laws in the country has gone on for decades. And Modi's BJP is now prioritizing making the UCC a reality.

But implementing a common set of civil laws in India's culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse society has remained a polarizing and politically delicate issue.

It has been met with pushback from different groups — especially from members of the Muslim community who say the UCC will erode their religious freedom.

Observers have said the implementation of UCC in Uttarakhand is a trial run before the BJP government can implement it for the entire country. Two more BJP-led states have already started the UCC adoption process. 

'Law threatens autonomy of women'

Live-in relationships are also under the microscope as part of the UCC in Uttarakhand, heightening concerns among young couples in the state.

Once the law is implemented, unmarried cohabiting couples will be required to register their relationship with local authorities or they will face up to six months in prison and a fine of 25,000 rupees (€277, $300). Even a delay in registration will trigger a jail term of up to three months and a fine of up to 10,000 rupees.

The couples will also be required to inform the authorities if they decide to end their live-in relationship.

"In a way, the law is limiting women's right to choose. In the name of safety, it is subjecting them to so many legal restrictions, so how can it be empowering women?" said Snigdha Tiwari, a human rights lawyer based in Dehradun.

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For many women, the mandatory registration of live-in relationships feels like a step backward. They say it breaches their right to privacy.

"This is a very conservative move. The state is trying to monitor women's relationships, who they love or live with. And then it is penalizing them," said Malika Virdi, a member of Uttarakhand Mahila Morcha, a women's forum in the state.

The BJP rejected the criticism.

"Privacy is only one aspect, but one also has to look toward protection of the women," the BJP's Uttarakhand spokesperson Satish Lakhera said.

Why some people support the law

In India, social acceptance of live-in relationships is low and, generally, women in such relationships are more likely to become the target of "moral policing" and right-wing hooligans.

In 2022, the case of a girl who was brutally murdered by her live-in partner rocked the country. The case spurred a debate on whether women should choose live-in relationships.

"Through registration of relationships, the UCC will make sure women are safeguarded in case a mishap takes place," said Asha Nautiyal, president of the BJP's women's wing in Uttarakhand.

But unmarried women living with their partners say they are worried the new rules will open doors for surveillance and harassment.

"I am scared. What if someday the police comes knocking on my door? What if some random person complains against me?" asked 23-year-old Payal (name changed), a student who has been living with her partner for over a year in Uttarakhand's capital city of Dehradun.

A joint statement released by women's groups in Uttarakhand rejected the UCC bill, arguing the law would adversely affect women's autonomy. 

"While seemingly being uniform across religions, the Bill is actually criminalizing and regulating constitutionally acceptable behaviors, like adult consenting cohabitation, reducing autonomy and choice, which the women in this country have attained through concerted efforts, inside the homes and on public platforms," the statement said.

Some provisions under the law, such as a woman's entitlement to maintenance in case her partner leaves, have been welcomed by experts. They, however, added the specifics of this provision have not been laid out.

Some women said the law would help them. 

"As someone in their 60s, I wanted my relationship to be solemnized but my partner did not. Now that it's mandatory, he has agreed to get our relationship registered," a social activist living with her partner in Dehradun, who asked not to be named, told DW.

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Fate of live-in couples hangs in the balance

The ruling BJP's ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has long opposed the concept of live-in relationships. The RSS is close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and holds an influence on national policy.

In 2014, it emphasized that it would not compromise on "moral values, social system and traditions in the name of individual freedom" when it comes to issues like "live-in relationships" and "homosexuality."

"Our party came into existence with an ideology, and our ideology does not view live-in relationships as a part of life," Lakhera said. "By bringing this law we hope to get couples more inclined towards marriage."

Rights activists said that amid rising religious and caste intolerance, the law will pose a serious threat to the lives of interfaith and inter-caste couples.

"I cannot tell my family about my relationship, neither can my partner since we both belong to different religions," said Salman (name changed), a 20-year-old MBA student in the city of Dehradun.

Salman admitted that he is concerned about becoming the target of a Hindu right-wing campaign that alleges Muslim men lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam. 

"By registering the relationship, the state is only trying to collect sensitive data that will be very prone to misuse and especially risk lives of couples in interfaith and intercaste relationships," said Qaiser Singh, a lawyer in Dehradun.

"For us, the only option left is to live separately," Salman said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru