The government of Kerala State of India has decided to withdraw a controversial circular that gave permission to register marriages of Muslim girls as young as 16.
The state government informed the Kerala High Court that it would issue a new circular within a fortnight. The development comes in the wake of petitions by several organisations contesting the directive of the original circular.
The first circular produced a wave of protests from different quarters including Muslim women leaders, who pointed out that the circular amounted to recognising child marriage. Stung by the criticism, the government agreed to look at the issue again and the deliberations led to the finding that the legal basis of the circular was false.
Legal experts pointed out that the circular was based on the premise that the Muslim Marriage Act of 1957 had not insisted on a minimum age of 18 years for Muslim girls to get married. Experts found that the Act itself was non-existent and therefore the circular had no standing in law. The fact that the rules banning child marriage came into force well after 1957 underlined the fact that it was not legal to register the marriage of a girl aged under 18.
The state government’s stand was that the circular was meant to formalise the marriages of those who had got married at an age below 18 years before the anti-child marriage law came into being. However, it was pointed out that the wordings in the circular did not substantiate the government’s claim. Instead, the circular gave the impression that it was still possible to get married at an age under 18 and have that marriage formally registered.
The circular was issued by the Local Self Government department. Left-wing parties and women’s organisations were the first to voice their opposition to the circular. There was also a political colour given to the issuance of the circular since the Local Self Government department is handled by the Indian Union Muslim League, a key constituent of the ruling United Democratic Front.