“I love you”, I told her over three years back.

“If you love me so much give me half your assets”, she replied, probably in jest.

“I’ll give you but in exchange for half your assets”.

“You know I’ve just started working so I don’t have too many assets. So I’ll happily exchange half my assets for half yours”.

A few months later we got married. And yes, this is a true and serious story. While it might  be devoid of all the romance that one associates with love and marriage, it illustrates what marriage is all about – it is a commercial contract where you pledge to share half your assets to the counterparty, and bequeath all your assets to him/her in case of your “unfortunate demise”.

One of the major points in the BJP’s manifesto over the years has been for a Uniform Civil Code. Currently, in India, people belonging to each religion have their own “civil codes” which governs their personal lives. According to the current Indian laws, a Christian girl has to wait until she is 21 years old to get married, while a Muslim girl can get married at 16. A Hindu man can have a maximum of one legally wedded wife, while a Muslim man can have four.

Now you can see why the BJP’s clamour for a Uniform Civil Code appears controversial – Muslims believe that this move will deprive them of the additional three wives that they are currently entitled to. However, I argue that by stripping marriage off all the emotional context and just sticking to its core commercial values, we can have a Uniform Civil Code without any controversy.

The basic argument is this: the Government of India (or any other government) has no business telling people who they should live with, sleep with or have children with. As long as two adults consent to stay together or share a bed , there should be no legal hassles to them doing so. If three adults consent to live with each other and agree on a conjugal arrangement, the government should have no problem with that either. So why do we need a civil code at all?

The only interest a Government has in the institution of marriage is in terms of property rights. Because of the basic principle that a person’s “next of kin” inherits its property, the government needs to know who a person’s next of kin is. For that purpose, you need a legal document – a purpose that is today served by a marriage certificate. Beyond this realm of property rights and inheritance, a secular government has no right to dictate who I’m sleeping with – as long as it’s consensual.

So I propose the following segment of the Uniform Civil Code: “any adult, at a particular point of time, can have exactly one legally wedded spouse” (notice that the gender neutral wording takes care of LGBTs also). Notice also that this code only talks about legally wedded spouses. What it doesn’t mention, or care to mention, that one can have as many “illegal” spouses as they want. With the caveat that because these people are not legally wedded to you they don’t have a claim on your property.

Currently there is too much drama in the courts about the “basic structure of the Indian family” and “family values” and more often than not they are being used to pass rather illiberal judgments. The multiple civil code structure that we have, which is based on a supposedly divine and romantic institution of marriage, is doing more harm than good to the citizens. Once the state (and all its arms) realizes that marriage is at the core a commercial contract a lot of social wrongs can be easily set right.

I didn’t need to marry the person who is now my wife only if I wanted to move in with her. As two consenting adults, no one could have prevented us. It was, however, a measure of mutual trust and love, that we decided that we should share assets also. And hence decided to get married (our marriage was registered according to the “Hindu Marriages Act”, for the record).


7 thoughts on “Marriage”

  1. Instead of marriage, you can have a Civil Partnersip like how it is in a lot of European countries – because the religious leadership in our country will never allow marriage to include whatever you suggest.

  2. Why only one legally wedded spouse? If 3 or more people be ‘wedded’ together, just get them to agree to share property too?

  3. “I didn’t need to marry the person who is now my wife only if I wanted to move in with her. As two consenting adults, no one could have prevented us.”

    You underestimate the willingness of Indian police force to enforce social norms and dogma, quite at contrast to their unwillingness to enforce most laws of the land.

  4. Yes, fair point. We ought to make marriage laws religion neutral, caste neutral and, most importantly, GENDER neutral.

    Marriages can’t be “gender neutral” because marriage by definition is between a man and a woman.

    Marriage is not a “right” but a restriction on one’s rights. It is like any other legal contract. Marriage laws have evolved over the past 5000 years across the world keeping in mind the unique asymmetries that exist in a man-woman relationship. (Eg: Women have babies while men don’t). There is absolutely no reason why all these laws evolved over centuries should be transferred to a very different kind of relationship (between 2 people of the same gender) which has no real asymmetry to speak of!

    Gay marriage is a bit of an oxymoron, because there is no “gay marriage” to ban. It is a nonsensical concept in some respects. It’s like football players insisting to play soccer using hockey rules. Or for that matter a bit like caste-less Christians/Moslems insisting to get incorporated into the Hindu caste system.

  5. a secular government has no right to dictate who I’m sleeping with – as long as it’s consensual.

    The Government doesn’t claim otherwise either!

    As it is, people are absolutely free to live-in with anybody and make their property transfer arrangements whichever way they like. As far as I know there is nothing to stop one (in India or elsewhere) from bequeathing one’s property to a “stranger”

    Marriage (including everything that goes with it) is for people who want marriage. There is no compulsion here. The fact that most people choose to get married indicates that it is an institution with some merit! People seek the protection of the law because “man-woman” relationships are incredibly asymmetrical with one party being significantly stronger. The law attempts to mitigate this asymmetry.

    To say that marriage is not govt’s business is to say that the govt has no business governing! After all the most important function of any govt is to protect its people and enforce contracts.

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