The Law Commission recently recommended a good way to prevent a married Hindu man from taking another wife: Deeming such a marriage illegal even if he converted to Islam before he wed a second time. That Law Commission report, ‘Preventing Bigamy via Conversion to Islam’, essentially highlighted an important and little-known truth – namely that more Hindus than Muslims commit bigamy.
This has been true for more than a quarter of a century. In 1974, a government survey found Muslims to account for 5.6% of all bigamous marriages and upper-caste Hindus accounting for 5.8%. The difference may appear to be small but it is big, in real terms. The 1971 census records 45.3 crore Hindus and six crore Muslims. Allowing for women and children to make up 65% of each group, as many as one crore Hindu men had more than one wife in 1971, compared to 12 lakh Muslim men.
The trend continues, says sociologist Asghar Ali Engineer, head of Mumbai’s Institute of Islamic Studies. “The survey was conducted on a large sample in all parts of India and the report wasn’t made public. Further, polygamy was higher in South India than in the north, and more so among rich and middle-class Hindus than the poorer sections.”
Go back still further – to 1961 – and the census records polygamy to be highest among adivasis, Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus, with Muslims right at the end. Engineer says the law matters only up to a point. “With both survey results coming out after the Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 1955, it shows that bigamy is basically a problem of a male-dominant culture than religion.”
Bigamy disadvantages Hindu women more than Muslim, says Chandigarh sociologist Nirmal Sharma. This, because a Hindu man will desert his lawfully wedded wife to live with another, while the multiple wives of Muslim men are entitled to equal legal and social rights. “Closet bigamy in Hindus is worse than open polygamy among Muslims,” he says.
Fiza alias Anuradha Bali, who married Haryana’s deputy CM after the pair converted to Islam, says, “Our laws were far more liberal in ancient times. Most kings and many of our mythological figures had more than one wife.” Though Chand has converted back to Hinduism, Fiza insists she remains his “customary wife while the first one remains the legally-wedded one. There is no way to get out of a dual marriage in spite of a legal ban.”
Supreme Court lawyer Praveen Agarwal cautions that Hindu bigamists often go scot free because “the courts can do little until there’s a formal complaint.” And this is not always possible because in many cases, the two wives don’t even know of each other’s existence, says Agarwal. He adds that it is relatively easy for a Hindu man to remarry because temples don’t hold records. “However, if the matter goes to court, the second marriage is declared null and void.”
Take the case of K Suryanarayana, the Indian engineer killed in Afghanistan, who left behind a second wife and daughter. Though she laid claim to compensation from the government, the court ruled in favour of the first wife.
Agarwal suggests that stringent and time-consuming Hindu divorce may force many men to resort to bigamy. “Instead of going in for long-drawn-out and financially debilitating divorce procedures, men simply desert the first wife and marry again.”
Engineer says that bigamy is not as rampant among Muslims as believed. The Quran only offers conditional permission for a man to take four wives: in times of war or a crisis that sees women outnumber men. “The 2001 census found 935 females for every 1000 males in India. Among Muslims, it was 930: 1000. So it would be difficult to find even one wife for every man,” he says. Engineer says polygamy will never cease to exist. Perhaps it’s better to regulate it, he says.
Divya A, TNN 13 September 2009,