UCC: Indian state wants to govern live-in relationships

UCC: Indian state wants to govern live-in relationships
UCC: Indian state wants to govern live-in relationships

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - NEW DELHI — Moving in with your partner in India's picturesque Himalayan state of Uttarakhand may soon require informing authorities and complying with a new law regulating "live-in" relationships.

This key proposal within the state's expansive Uniform Civil Code (UCC) — designed to establish a unified personal law for all residents, regardless of religion, sex, gender, and sexual orientation — has garnered more attention than the entire law itself since it was tabled in the state assembly on Tuesday. A common law has been one of the original promises of Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules Uttarakhand.

Unmarried couples living together is still frowned upon in most parts of India, where these relationships are commonly referred to as "live-in".

Under the proposal, partners — the law specifies a man and a woman — must submit a live-in relationship statement to the registrar, who conducts a summary inquiry within 30 days. During this investigation, the partners might be asked to "supply additional information or evidence" if necessary. The registrar also forwards live-in relationship statements to the local police and informs parents if either partner is under 21.

If the official is satisfied, he enters the relationship in a register and issues a certificate; otherwise, partners are informed of the reasons for denial. The official can refuse registration if one partner is married, a minor, or if consent to the relationship is obtained through coercion or fraud.

Partners can terminate the relationship by submitting a statement to the official and providing a copy to their partner. Terminations of these relationships will also be reported to the police.

If partners fail to submit the live-in relationship statement, the registrar, if prompted by a "complaint or information," serves a notice demanding submission within 30 days.

Staying in a live-in relationship for over a month without informing the authorities can invite punishment: up to three months in prison, a fine of up to 10,000 rupees ($120; £95), or both. The punishment for making "false statements" or withholding information about the relationship may lead to a three-month-prison term, a fine of up to 25,000 rupees, or both.

Not surprisingly, the proposed law has sparked criticism from legal experts.

"A few years ago the Supreme Court had ruled that privacy was a fundamental right. The state has no business regulating intimate relationships between consenting adults and what makes this provision worse is the penal consequence a couple may end up facing for not getting the relationship registered . This is an appalling provision and must be struck down," says Rebecca John, a senior Supreme Court lawyer.

Currently, live-in relationships in India are referenced under the 2005 domestic violence laws, defining "domestic relationship" as, among other things, a connection between two individuals "in the nature of marriage".

To be sure, cohabiting unmarried couples are not entirely uncommon in India's bigger cities as young men and women relocate for employment and defer traditional marriages. (An aside: In a 2018 survey of over 160,000 households, 93% of married Indians reported having arranged marriages, while only 3% had "love marriages".) However, random surveys present a mixed picture.

In a May 2018 poll by Inshorts surveying 140,000 lakh netizens — 80% aged 18-35 — more than 80% of millennials viewed live-in relationships as taboo in India, while 47% preferred marriage in the choice between the two. One out of two Indians felt that living together was important to understand their partner better, according to a 2023 survey by Lionsgate Play, conducted among 1,000 Indians.

India's courts have sometimes frowned on live-in relationships. In 2012, a Delhi court deemed live-in relationships "immoral" and dismissed them as an "infamous product of Western culture", labelling them a mere "urban fad."

The Supreme Court has been more supportive. In 2010, the court endorsed the right of unmarried couples to live together in a case involving an actress accused of outraging public decency. In 2013, it urged parliament to enact laws safeguarding women and children in live-in relationships, ruling that such relationships were "neither a crime nor a sin", despite being socially unacceptable in the country. (In Uttarakhand's contentious proposed law, a deserted woman can seek maintenance from her live-in partner through the courts, and children born from such relationships will be deemed legitimate.)

Many fear the Uttarakhand law may drive away cohabiting couples, encourage reporting on them, and make landlords hesitant to rent to "unregistered" couples. Also, they say, the idea of counting and registering live-in couples seems peculiar in a country that hasn't conducted a population census since 2011. — BBC

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