India’s ruling party targets unmarried couples living together with new law

NEW DELHI — Want to move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend? If you are in India’s state of Uttarakhand, you’ll have to register your relationship with the authorities according to a new law — or face up to six months in prison and a $300 fine.

The rules for unmarried, cohabiting partners, called “live-in couples” in India, are part of the controversial new Uniform Civil Code of Uttarakhand state, which has been a long-standing campaign promise of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP and its political allies have for decades argued that India needs to replace the various religious laws governing marriage and inheritance — especially for Muslims — with a single national code. This week, the party began a campaign of gradually overhauling these laws state by state. At least two other BJP-ruled states have started the process of passing similar legislation.

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Uttarakhand, where the Beatles once meditated and practiced yoga in the 1960s, became the first Indian state to do it, stirring intense debate in India as critics warn that the new measure amounts to state intrusion into individual freedoms and privacy.

While a lot of Indians, including opponents of the ruling party, agree that a new, progressive legal code is needed to bring about equality and overhaul the country’s complex religious and customary laws, many were surprised to find stringent rules governing live-in couples tucked inside Uttarakhand’s 740-page law.

The new law will create the office of a registrar who will issue certificates for live-in couples who will have to report the beginning and end of their relationships. Under these rules, the registrar can summon couples to seek more information before issuing a certificate and even reject their applications.

Neighbors can also inform on live-in couples suspected of not having the necessary certificates. If either of the applicants are found to be below 21, the registrar will inform their parents through local police.

Experts and activists have expressed ambivalence about the coercive aspects of the new law, such as strict punishments for presenting false information and failure to apply within 30 days of receiving a notice from the registrar, saying this contradicts legislation’s supposedly progressive thrust. They also worry about nosy neighbors engaging in more surveillance and “snitching.”

The new code remains silent on the question of live-in relationships that are not between men and women.

Many in India particularly objected to the mandatory registration requirement for live-in couples and pointed out that registration for married couples remains voluntary. Bengaluru-based independent researcher Mary E. John argued that the legislation was bound to encourage people to invade the privacy of others and make “deviants” out of those who opt into live-in relationships instead of getting married conventionally. Many unmarried couples face trouble renting apartments.

“The idea that people in a society can police each other is horrible. Women are the first to get affected,” John said. “Far from offering more freedom, this UCC will lead to more surveillance.”

The rules specifically exclude live-in relationships in which one of the partners misrepresent their identity, which critics allege is a clear reference to the Hindu nationalist obsession with so called “love jihad,” of Muslim men seducing Hindu women with the aim of converting them.

The universal code has been a key agenda item for the BJP, along with the scrapping of majority Muslim Kashmir’s special constitutional status and the construction of a Hindu temple on the remains of a destroyed mosque in Ayodhya. Hindu nationalists see it as a pushback against privileges extended to minorities, especially Muslims, under the Indian constitution.

Proponents of the code say it outlaws polygamy, protects women from men who conceal their marital status or seek to forcibly convert them and safeguards inheritance rights for children born out of wedlock. But Muslims insist there is a sectarian bias, noting that while many of their customs are targeted, indigenous tribes are exempted on the grounds of preserving their traditions.

On Tuesday, with national elections just months away, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami presented the code in the Uttarakhand assembly amid loud chants of “Jai Shri Ram,” or victory to Lord Ram, raised by fellow BJP lawmakers.

“It is a matter of great pride for us that Uttarakhand has become the first state to enact the Uniform Civil Code,” Dhami wrote in an X post. “This is not just a coincidence but a golden opportunity for the state to show the rest of the country the path toward equality and uniformity.”

But the live-in aspect of the code also received its share of ridicule. In the Times of India broadsheet, a cartoon depicted a bureaucrat sitting in bed with a couple asking them to do “biometrics first, biology later.” Some Indian users on X, formerly known as Twitter, wondered how the law would affect the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former Indian prime minister and founding president of the BJP who was in a live-in relationship with a married woman for a substantial part of his public life.

While newspaper editorials measured their words in warning against the law’s “potential to encourage vigilantism,” one veteran columnist and talk show host went as far as drawing parallels to Afghanistan under the Taliban in a piece published online.

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