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Well, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, is clear that it recognises only one ongoing marriage between a couple. "It is an offence in the eyes of law to have more than one wife," says lawyer Kamini Jaiswal. "But till the Representation of People’s Act is amended, there is little that the Election Commission can do to make its model code of conduct really effective."
In fact, there is one loophole in the Hindu Marriage Act that does make two wives possible. For a specific charge of bigamy, the aggrieved party—in this case, the first wife—has to approach the court. But instances of women approaching the judiciary for redressal are rare; in most cases, they just resign themselves to the new arrangement. This is particularly true if the husband is rich and powerful.
Karunanidhi’s having two wives has been criticised in the past, but the decibel levels increased after the fracas over ministerial berths. His rivals, particularly AIADMK chief Jayalalitha, have often linked the DMK chief’s inefficient handling of issues to pressures from his family. She has often remarked about the many power centres in the patriarch’s household, oblique references to his wives.
Karunanidhi married Dayaluammal four years after his first wife, Padmavathi, died in 1944, leaving behind a son, M.K. Muthu, a singer-actor who defected to the AIADMK. It was sometime in the ’60s that he fell in love with Rajathiammal during an election campaign and ‘married’ her as per a tradition started by the DMK known as the swayam maryada kalyanam—marriage of self-respect—eschewing the official sanctity of court marriages or priestly presence and instead seeking the blessings of elders in the party. According to insiders, Karunanidhi referred to Dayaluammal as manaivi (wife) and Rajathiammal as thunaivi (companion). It was in 1968, when Kanimozhi was born, that he referred to Rajathiammal in the state assembly as "the mother of my daughter".
In Tamil Nadu, where the moral brigade does not forgive trespasses easily, having more than one wife is somehow acceptable. In fact, politicians guilty of breaking the one-man, one-wife code are often voted back to power in the state. Chinna veedu (the other home) has been the staple of Tamil classics and cinema and continues as a tradition in politics too. DMK leader T.R. Baalu—left out of Manmohan Singh’s team—in his affidavit to the Election Commission furnished two names, Renuka Devi and Porkodi, under the spouse category. Of course, the two-wife trend in Tamil Nadu is not restricted to the DMK alone.
Things, though, may not remain the same for long, thanks to the Domestic Violence Act, 2007, under which any offence that causes hurt to a woman is subject to legal scrutiny. This may well allow women to protest. "Till now," says Saroja Thiruvengadam, protection officer, Vellore, "due to lack of financial support or any kind of moral support from the family, a woman would keep quiet. Now she is gradually mustering the courage to speak out."
Besides, having more than one wife has pressures of its own. Valmiki could write an entire Ramayana on it. Besides, says Kamini, "It is only after the death of the patriarch that the real wrangling in such families begins, with each member claiming his or her rightful share." And there is no dearth of instances in our country that can validate her claim.