FOR the many vivah karyalayas (marriage bureaus) in suburban Bombay, marriage has suddenly turned out to be a pretty knotty affair. As providers of quick fixes—made-to-order marriages, instant conversions, prompt divorces—they have found themselves right in the centre of one major fix. In one sudden swoop, 11 marriage bureaus located in Bandra, a western suburb of Bombay were raided and 23 people, including three advocates, were taken into custody by the city police. The big marriage party came to an unexpected end when Majlis Manch, a women's legal centre headed by activist Flavia Agnes filed a writ petition in the high court early this month seeking immediate action against one-stop marriage shops. Unsuspecting women, she said, were being tricked into marriage after being lured into karyalayas run by axe-grinding advocates.
But the real issue hinges on the Hindu Marriage Act, 1954 which does not prescribe a compulsory one-month notice period, age and residence verifica-tions and the presence of three witnesses at the time of marriage. Circumventing these provisions, karyalayas had allegedly been tricking couples of different faiths into marrying under the Hindu Marriage Act, thereby rendering the marriage null and void. The exchange of garlands was often preceded by the exchange of a hefty price—between Rs 1,000 to Rs 30,000 depending upon the urgency of the marriage. Conniving with them were travel agents, photocopying centres—even offi-cials of the marriage registrar's office.
However, officials from the Registrar of Marriage, Bombay Suburban District, point out that if the memorandum of marriage, a form prescribed for the registration of a marriage document—not the marriage itself—under the Bombay Registration of Marriages Act, 1953, had the requisite signatures and the age limit fulfilled, they don't have the right to question the authenticity of the contents. "The karyalayas have taken advantage of the loopholes in the Hindu Marriage Act and the fact that we do not have the right to question the veracity of the claims. There have been cases of people marrying filmstars and registering the memorandum here, but since we cannot challenge them, our hands are tied. The Hindu Marriage Act needs to be amended. It should be a simpli-fied version of the rules of the Special Marriage Act."
Says Flavia Agnes, who specialises in matrimonial law: "There is no co-relation between the courts and the karyalayas. There are registered marriages and community marriages—but no such thing as a court marriage. The memorandum of marriage does not require the services of a lawyer."
And a memorandum does not a marriage make. So the problem assumed horrifying dimensions when girls seeking divorce stumbled upon the truth that the marriage was, to begin with, null and void. Further, since the Hindu Marriage Act stipulates that customary divorce is valid, karyalayas run by advocates had been invoking the same in their chamber—even revoking it at a price. Ironically, it was the growing number of failed marriages and related cases of bigamy and blackmail that eventually brought to light the subversion of the Hindu Marriage Act by thekaryalayas. While the long walk up the aisle took a short cut, victims discovered belatedly that messy divorce claims did not come as easy.
Citing the case of Sunanda, who realised that her marriage was invalid only when she filed for divorce on grounds of desertion, Agnes recounts: "Their child was entitled to maintenance but she didn't get anything. Sunanda's husband went one step further by claiming that his first wife lived in the village. The fact is, the registrar's office acknowledges the document and not the marriage. This is mistaken as a proof of marriage by unsuspecting victims.
Knowing that the marriage registrar's office will accept the form as long as it carries the signature of a priest, a boy and a girl, karyalayas register the document without authenticating the details. This allows for bigamous and fraudulent marriages. Strangely, unlike a sale deed where both parties are required to be present at the registrar's office, the memorandum can be presented in absentia."
Short-cut weddings have been shelved albeit, karyalaya owners believe, temporarily. Refuting charges of playing on the ignorance of couples, the owner of Shubh Vivah karyalaya counters: "The law is made by the people, we are not doing anything illegal and are prepared to go to the Supreme Court for justice. These offices will reopen before the end of this month."
Meanwhile, business is bleak for the garland-seller who used to make Rs 200-400 before the police action. But he is confident that as long as the institution of marriage does not go out of business, he will prosper alongwith the cornerside karyalayas.