The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act 1955: The Anand Marriage Act 1909

Many laws relating to and/or affecting marriages and marital relations were enacted by the imperialists of the Raj during the 19th century. Here it might be mentioned that it is a bit surprising that their enthusiasm for lawmaking had not extended to making a law governing marriages in the majority of the population of India, namely Hindus. As a matter of fact, Hindu marriages were not governed by any statute till the parliament of free India enacted the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955. The British Raj was to pass without making a relevant law or even a satisfactory attempt in the general direction of making a law concerning marriages between Hindus.

This writer feels that it is safe to say that all modern religions have their own rules concerning marriages and divorces. Such rules dictate inter alia things like who to marry, when to marry, whether divorce is permitted or not, and if it is permitted then how to go about it. Sikhism is one such religion. It has specific as well as unwritten rules concerning marriage. It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate where these rules can be found, and their extent and coverage. Most Sikhs like members of all other religions would naturally wish to have their own separate identity. Evidence of this can be seen almost every time whenever there is an attempt by people to include Sikhs within the admittedly vast rubric of Hinduism. Much time is whiled away in debates about whether the Shiva referred to by Guru Gobind Singh is the same Shiva who is worshipped by hundreds of millions of Hindus, and similar topics. Sometimes such debates end in strife perpetrated by hotheads.

Around the time when the imperialists from Britain had completed about a century of informal and formal lawmaking for India, a number of Sikh leaders and intellectuals decided to campaign for a marriage law specifically pertaining to marriages between or involving Sikhs. This was a natural progression from a number of other directions also, the first of which was the reaction to some events like the emergence of what are regarded by many Sikhs as cults. These include the Radhaswamis and the Namdhari movement. There was also the impact of the Kuka rebellion subsequent and corollary to the birth of the Namdharis. There was also the small matter of a resurgent religion expressing itself via the Singh Sabha movement, brought about in part by (and carried out as a part of) the backlash to the successful conversion of large sections of the general population to Christianity or Brahmo Samaj. Another factor was the founding of progressive Sikh institutions like the Khalsa Akhbar and the Chief Khalsa Diwan. The third factor was the revival of the Anand Karaj wedding ceremony, a practice which had mostly lapsed during the early part of the nineteenth century.

The 192 word Anand Marriage Act was passed by the Imperial Council in 1909. This act came about as the result of efforts by Tikka Ripudaman Singh (the then maharaja of Nabha, aka Sardar Gurcharan Singh), Namdhari Satguru Pratap Singh, and Sundar Singh Majithia, a knighted prominent zamindar of Amritsar. Both were members of the Imperial Legislative Council, at different times. For those interested in trivia, Sundar Singh Majithia was a direct ancestor of Harsimrat Kaur, wife of Sukhbir Singh Badal. Ripudaman Singh was a direct ancestor of Hemant Singh, Vasundhara Raje's husband and an erstwhile titular maharaja of Dholpur. Old money takes care of its own very well, and thereby grows into older money, as is pretty evident from the progress made by these dynasties.

But coming back to the Anand Marriage Act of 1909. It was an innocuous piece of legislation which arguably did not achieve anything at all except putting a meaningless stamp of government approval on the Anand wedding ceremony. It pertained to the wedding ceremony only, and did not aim to or pretend to define anew what could or could not be accepted as a valid marriage. It did not exclude other forms of wedding ceremonies, thus rendering the Anand wedding ceremony only one out of an unspecified number of acceptable ways of solemnising a wedding between Sikhs, or maintaining its status as one such way (depending upon which side of the acceptability argument you were on). Society was already approving all such marriages without demur. Moreover the concept of annulment of a duly or 'duly' solemnised marriage was probably unheard of amongst Sikhs in those days. There was no attempt in this Act to define ways and means of getting divorce. There was no mention of any ramifications of a marriage between Sikh persons vis-à-vis their property or indeed any other portion of their lives.

What then did this Act achieve? Was it an ego-trip for powerful politicians and rulers, designed to get their names into history books? Was it a first step or an early step towards carving out a separate identity of Sikhs? Did the 'leaders' really feel that Sikhs would obtain any tangible benefits from a law enacted according to such a draft? Did Sikhs actually gain anything in the period when this Act was operational? Could they have not made such gains without this Act? A germane question in this context would be to ask if the Act did achieve something concrete, like for example foreshadow the Gurdwara Reform Movement of the 1920s?

A number of other questions can be asked here. Did not the Sikhs already have a prominent place in Indian society? Why then did they feel the need to lobby for a law which they felt would provide them their own separate identity or a pathway to such recognition? If they did feel the need to have a law, then why did they work for the passage of a Bill which neither defined what a valid marriage was (except to approve all marriages approved by society); nor who could marry and who could not marry according to these rites; nor indeed how such marriages could be dissolved if things came to such a pass?

Also, since there was no law pertaining to Hindu marriages, strictly speaking, why did they feel threatened that they would be subsumed by Hindu society if they did not have their own marriage law? Coming to section 3(b) "Nothing in this Act shall apply to any marriage which has been judicially declared to be null and void", was there indeed even a single marriage which had been so declared? And if there was any such example of annulment of a marriage, surely the judiciary had declared it null and void on the basis of customary law (in the absence of any written statute)? Why then did they not attempt to have the imperialists lay down in black and white exactly what kind of marriages could or could not be declared null and void, and what kind of ceremonies were acceptable/unacceptable?

Moving to a time almost exactly a century later, we can see the Anand Marriage Act 2012. This Act has revived interest in the Anand Marriage Act of 1909, which was overshadowed by the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955 due to the inclusion of Sikhs as Hindus by the legislature of a free India. Resultantly all Sikh marriages were registered under HMA 1955. This led to confusion and difficulties in the recognition of Sikh marriages overseas. The 2012 Act mandated registration of Sikh marriages under itself. The other thing which this Act did was to insert the phrase Anand Karaj in the statute. Would it be fair to say that this amended Act was passed with the limited purpose of ending the inconvenience faced by Sikh NRIs?

Interestingly Sikhs were represented in parliament in 1955 as well as in 2012, by MPs who could justifiably be called vociferous. Why did these members not take up the cause of broader legislation for Sikhs in terms of personal law? One of them was busy in television shows. Speaking as an equal gender rights activist, this writer would like to see some action to protect Sikh men from the pernicious provisions of dowry related legislation like section 498a and 304b inter alia, knowing that dowry is expressly prohibited in Sikh tenets. If Muslim and Christian men can be made immune to the unfair provisions of IrBM in the forthcoming amended Hindu Marriage Act, then why not Sikhs?

You may also wish to read The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: William Bentinck and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Legislatures under the British Raj and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (Part 1) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (Part 2) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (part 3) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: The Indian Succession Act 1925

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 2nd October 2013
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