The Rajasthan State Assembly recently passed the Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriages (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (“Amendment bill”) which provided for compulsory registration of marriages, including child marriages. This bill faced severe opposition from non-governmental organizations, activists and political parties because it ‘legitimizes’ child marriages and is said to be in contravention of several child protection laws. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) is the body upholding child rights in India and has asked the Rajasthan Government to reconsider the bill as it will have a serious impact on the minors in the state. Furthermore, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India challenging the constitutional validity of Section 8 of the bill. In this article, I argue that needless row has been created over the passage of this bill. The amendment bill does not provide legitimacy to child marriages and does not contravene child protection of laws of India. It is a beneficial legislation.
Scrutinizing Important Provisions of the Amendment Bill
The primary contention of political parties as well as the NCPCR is regarding the proposed amendment to section 8 of the Compulsory Registration of Marriages Act, 2009 (“2009 Act”) which highlights that the parties to the marriage have to submit the memorandum within a period of 30 days from the solemnization of marriage. It is pertinent to mention that section 8 of the 2009 Act also speaks about the submission of memorandum by the parents and/or guardian of the parties, if the parties i.e., bridegroom and bride have not completed 21 years of age. Hence, the 2009 Act provided for compulsory registration of child marriages. The Amendment bill only differentiates between the age of parties to the marriage. Until now, the parents and/or the guardian of the parties had the duty to submit the memorandum to the marriage registrar when both parties had not completed 21 years of age. However, the amendment seeks to make it the duty of the parents and/or the guardian to submit the memorandum in case the bridegroom has not completed 21 years of age and/or the bride has not completed 18 years of age. The age of the bride was reduced so the act is in conformity with Section 2(a) of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 which reads “child means a person who, if a male, has not completed twenty-one years of age, and if a female, has not completed eighteen years of age.” The compulsory registration of child marriages already existed in the 2009 Act and the Amendment bill only differentiates between the age of the parties to the marriage. The Amendment bill seeks to add a new subsection (1-A) under section 8 which enables the widow, widower or their heirs (in case both have died) to register the marriage within 30 days of the death. This provision facilitates access for widows to various beneficial schemes. While the 2009 Act only empowered the District Marriage Registration officers (DMRO) to register marriages, the Amendment bill authorized additional DMRO and block MRO to register marriages. This will increase efficiency and transparency in the registration process.
Misinterpretation of Registration of Child Marriages?
The NCPCR, NGOs and political parties have misinterpreted the Amendment bill as they have conflated the concepts of registration and legitimization of child marriages. The opponents of this bill have created an unnecessary controversy as the bill does not validate or legitimize child marriages. The Supreme Court in Seema v. Ashwani Kumar held that registration of a marriage is not the determinative factor regarding the validity of a marriage. Registering a marriage is not an adequate proof of a valid marriage. Registration of a marriage has great evidentiary value in matters of custody and marital obligations. The court noted that registration of marriage is “in the interest of society” and directed compulsory registration of all marriages in India. Hence, the Amendment bill does not validate child marriages and is in conformity with the judgment of the Supreme Court.
Child Protection Laws and Benefits of Registration of Child Marriages
The Amendment bill does not contravene child protection legislations like the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (“Central Act”), Juvenile Justice Act and Child Marriage Restraint Act. Child marriage is still an offense and registration of such marriages is not tantamount to permitting them. The opponents of this bill argue that it contravenes sections 8, 9, 11 and 12 of the Central Act which provide punishment for promotion and solemnization of child marriages. However, registration of child marriages does not imply that these marriages are legally valid. The marriage registrars can intimate the Child Marriage Prohibition officers when child marriages are registered. Registering child marriages will also assist in prosecuting those individuals who have solemnized or promoted such marriages. The Kerala high court in Punarjani Charitable Trust v. State Of Kerala held that the state should ensure adequate proof and increased transparency while penalizing offenders under the Central Act. Therefore, the Rajasthan Government should ensure that they have instructed the marriage registrars about alerting the prohibition officers.
Child marriages in India are not void ab initio; they are voidable at the option of the contracting party who was a child at the time of marriage. The petition to annul the marriage has to be filed within two years after attaining majority. While rights and obligations subsist even after divorce, there are no rights and obligations after annulment of a marriage. However, in order to financially stabilize the female contracting party after the annulment, Section 4 of the Act provides for maintenance and residence to the female contracting party until her remarriage. Registration of child marriages allows the minors to assert their legal rights and prevent the other party from denying the marriage at a later stage. The compulsory registration creates documental evidence of the marriage which facilitates access to benefits available under the Central Act. Therefore, registration of child marriages assists in achieving the objectives sought under the Central Act.
This controversy has rekindled the discourse pertaining to validity of child marriage in India. While there have been discussions on making child marriage void ab initio, the parliament has not made any significant progress. Child marriage negatively impacts the health and education of minors. Progressive decisions must be undertaken to eradicate this malaise from the society. In light of this controversy, the parliament ought to consider the 205th Report of the Law Commission of India which recommends that marriages below the age of 16 should be void and between the age of 16-18 should be voidable.
The Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriages (Amendment) Bill, 2021 does not provide legitimacy to child marriages and is not in contravention of child protection laws. Child marriages are still an offense in India and registration of such marriages is not tantamount to validating them. The registration process assists in prosecuting individuals who are in contravention of the Central Act and facilitates access to benefits under the same. The registration of marriages has great evidentiary value and allows the minors to assert their legal rights. The Amendment bill is in conformity with the child protection laws and the judgment of the Supreme Court. After taking into consideration the validity and benefits of the bill, it can be safely concluded that controversy created over it is unnecessary.
Dhaval Hemesh Sheth is a second year law student at National Law University, Delhi, India.
Suggested citation: Dhaval Hemesh Sheth, Compulsory Registration of Marriages (Amendment) Bill in Rajasthan: Providing Legitimacy to Child Marriages?, JURIST – Student Commentary, October 11, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/10/dhaval-sheth-compulsory-registration-child-marriages-india/.
This article was prepared for publication by Sambhav Sharma, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com
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