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A Bigamous Hindu Marriages: Implications For Law, Society, And The Economy

This research article will explore the legal and social aspects of bigamy in India, with a focus on both traditional and modern trends, as well as the specific provisions of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. It will also critically analyze landmark judgments in family law and propose new recommendations to strengthen the laws against bigamy and minimize its occurrence.

Bigamy refers to the act of marrying another person while already legally married to someone else who is still alive. It is important to note that in many legal systems, a person cannot marry another individual who is already legally married to someone else, and such a second marriage is considered void ab initio, meaning it is invalid from the very beginning.

In a society where a man is permitted to have multiple spouses or a woman is allowed to have multiple spouses simultaneously, it can lead to issues related to inheritance, privileges, and financial stability. This can result in conflicts within the family, driven by envy or resentment, making it challenging for such households to thrive happily in the community. Therefore, it is essential for everyone in Hindu society to maintain a monogamous relationship for the well-being of their legally married partner and their legitimate children.

It is well-established that Hindu law does not permit bigamy, and any individual who marries someone else while already legally wedded to their spouse can face legal penalties if the aggrieved partner files a complaint. Bigamy refers to the practice of having multiple spouses, known as polygamy when a male has more than one spouse and as polyandry when a female has more than one spouse. Bigamy is a form of polygamy. Under Muslim law in India, polygamy is allowed for males, who can have up to four wives without facing penalties for bigamy. However, a Muslim female can be penalized for polyandry if she marries a second time while already wedded to her first spouse.

In the past, bigamy was practiced by people from various religions and societies, while polyandry was a rare occurrence, exercised by only a few groups in accordance with their customs. Over time, bigamy became less prevalent and is no longer considered an ideal form of marital relationship. In the Indian region, bigamy was common in various segments of the community during the past and the Middle Ages, but this practice has since faded away. Nowadays, it is widely seen as morally wrong and unethical.

Bigamy In Hindu Marriage Act, 1955

Section 17 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, explicitly declares bigamy as illegal in India for Hindus. Anyone who commits the offense of bigamy will face penalties, as determined by the provisions of Sections 494 and 495 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).

According to the law, any marriage conducted between two Hindus is considered void ab initio if, at the time of the marriage, either or both of the individuals had a living spouse who was still legally wedded to them at the time of the second marriage. Hinduism places a strong emphasis on monogamy and views marriage as a sacred union between a male and a female. The Vedas regard monogamy as the highest and most ideal form of marital union.

However, prior to the enactment of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Hindu males were allowed to marry multiple women at the same time. This practice was more common among the wealthy and aristocratic Hindus, including kings, village headmen, rich merchants, and Zamindars, who often had multiple wives concurrently. Additionally, certain familial groups and castes in both southern and northern India practiced polyandry, where a woman was married to more than one husband simultaneously.

Polyandry in these societies was often necessary for maintaining unity between brothers, protecting family assets, and addressing economic difficulties. After the implementation of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, both polygynous (multiple wives) and polyandrous (multiple husbands) marriages have been prohibited for Hindus, as well as for Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists who are also governed by Hindu law. Christians, Parsis, and Jews, who are not subject to Hindu law, are also not permitted to engage in bigamy.

Essential Factors To Constitute Bigamy

The presence of a prior marriage is a crucial factor in determining whether an act constitutes bigamy. If it can be conclusively proven that either party involved in the marriage under consideration had previously entered into a valid marriage that was still ongoing at the time of the second marriage, and if the husband or wife from the earlier marriage is still alive, then bigamy is considered both a crime against the institution of marriage and a legal offense.

If the first marriage was legally valid, the second marriage would be deemed null and void. However, if the first marriage was not legally valid, the second marriage would not be classified as bigamy.

To establish that the second marriage qualifies as bigamy, it is also essential that the second marriage was lawfully valid in itself, having undergone all the necessary ceremonies as required by Hindu law for marriage rituals. If the second marriage is not legally valid, it does not constitute bigamy because there was no legally recognized second marriage.

Furthermore, it's important that the first spouse from the initial marriage is alive and remains the legally wedded partner of the individual involved in the second marriage at the time the second marriage occurs.

If a court of law has declared the previous marriage as void, or if in the previous marriage, both parties' first spouses have been consistently absent from the life of the individual entering into the second marriage for a period of seven years, then the second marriage would not be considered as bigamy, even if the partner from the previous marriage is still alive when the second marriage takes place.

Additionally, if the first marriage has been legally dissolved through divorce, judicial separation, or the granting of restitution of conjugal rights, the second marriage would not be classified as bigamy.

Religious Conversion For Second Marriage

Changing one's religion with the intention of legally permitting bigamy for the purpose of entering into another marriage is considered unlawful, and any second marriage entered into under such circumstances is void. In the case of Sarla Mugdal & others v. Union of India, the Court ruled that in order for a person to marry again, their first marriage must be dissolved in accordance with the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

Therefore, under Hindu law, the first marriage remains legally valid, and any second marriage solemnized after the individual's conversion to Islam would be considered void. The man would also be subject to punishment for bigamy under section 494 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Rights Of The Second Spouse:
In the case of bigamy, when an individual commits such an act, the second spouse cannot rightfully claim any legal rights because the marriage between them is void, and therefore, it holds no legal validity. Since the second marriage is considered invalid, the second spouse would not be entitled to receive any alimony or engage in divorce settlements because divorce is not applicable in the absence of a legally recognized marriage.

However, there is a slight possibility that the second wife may receive some form of compensation, but this largely depends on the discretion of the judges, as there are no explicit legal provisions that define the rights of a second wife in such cases.

On Matters Of Succession And Inheritance:
Under Hindu law, only the first wife is granted all the legal rights and entitlements of a wife. The first wife is the legitimate heir of the husband, and the second wife is not authorized to inherit any family or self-acquired assets if the husband passes away without leaving a will.

Once the court has declared the second marriage void, the second wife cannot even claim maintenance as an automatic right. Maintenance is typically awarded after a divorce, but when a marriage is declared void ab initio, there can be no divorce because the marriage was legally invalid from the beginning. However, children born from such marriages have the right to claim a share of their father's ancestral property.

In the case of Revanasidappa v. Mallikarjun, Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly ruled that children born to the second wife also have a legitimate claim over their father's ancestral property.

Position Of Bigamy In Live-In Relationships
Engaging in a long-term sexual relationship between a married person and an unmarried individual does not constitute the crime of bigamy. The Supreme Court has ruled that live-in relationships that have continued for a substantial duration should not be considered as casual or temporary "walk in and walk out" arrangements, as there is a presumption of marriage between the individuals involved.

Additionally, the Court has clarified that children born out of such live-in relationships are not considered illegitimate and have a right to inherit properties from their parents. It's important to note that the concept of bigamy is not applicable to live-in relationships because there are no legally contracted marriages or formal marriage rituals involved. Bigamy can only be established when there is substantial evidence that an individual entered into a second marriage without legally nullifying their first marriage.

As for the application of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, it is not applicable to the second wife because the second wife is not legally considered a married wife in the eyes of the law.

Live-in relationships have gained significant acceptance and popularity in recent times. However, there is a concerning trend of married individuals entering into live-in relationships. This trend is particularly observed among Indian males, and it can be challenging for females to establish the nature of the relationship as the man has not formally married the other woman.

In the case of Indra Sarma v VKV Sarma (2013), the Supreme Court laid down the conditions which prove a live-in relationship in India. The court mentioned five conditions which were:
  • A domestic relationship between an adult male and female who are unmarried.
  • A domestic relationship between a married man and an unmarried woman is entered unknowingly.
  • A domestic relationship is entered knowingly between an adult unmarried man and a married woman.
  • A domestic relationship between an adult unmarried woman and a married man, which is entered knowingly.
  • Lastly, a domestic relationship between same-sex partners.
This decision by the Apex Court proved to be a landmark judgment that paved the way for live-in relationships in India.

Bigamy in IPC:
Section 494
This Section states that anybody who is previously having a husband or wife and marries another person in presence of previous partner, then the person shall be penalized with detention which shall expand to seven years and would also be liable to fine.

But a person cannot be sentenced according to this section when the marriage has already been declared void by the court.

When one of the partner is missing for a period of seven years and there is no details regarding his existence then the other partner can constitute another marriage. But the person who is marrying needs to open the facts before the person to whom they are getting married.
  • The person who has been cheated by their partner in the agreement of second marriage can only file a suit in opposition to the person under this Section.
  • The first partner does not have the legal rights to file a grievance under this section.
  • In the case of women:
    • She can herself file the complaint.
    • In the case of the wife, her father, mother, brother, sister, or any person related to her by blood with the leave of the court can file a complaint on her behalf.
  • In the case of the husband:
    • He can himself file the complaint.
    • But in the case of the person in Armed Forces, who is not able to take leave to file the complaint, an exception is provided by the court of law.

Effects of bigamy on the rights of women:
The practice of bigamy has a disproportionate and negative impact on women due to the patriarchal structure of society. Unfortunately, bigamy still exists in many societies, where it is often perceived as a privilege and right for men. On the other hand, in a benevolent context, polyandry is not seen as an advantage but rather a commitment for a woman to allow sexual access to multiple partners.

The Hindu Marriage Act places limitations on the remedies available to women in cases of bigamy. In the case of Priya Bala Ghosh v. Suresh Chandra Ghosh, the Supreme Court ruled that the burden of proving the second marriage lies with the claimant, which is typically the first wife. In this specific case, the husband was acquitted, and the wife did not receive any compensation.

However, as previously mentioned, second marriages often occur secretly, and expecting the first wife to provide evidence of such a marriage is often impractical. The Supreme Court's stance neglects the realities of a pluralistic society and often disadvantages women.

The Hindu Marriage Act does not adequately address the rights of the second wife in cases of bigamy. Courts have typically disregarded the rights of the second wife in cases of bigamy due to the inability to establish the second marriage as valid. Unless the husband and second wife have been engaged in sexual relations for an extended period, the second wife may not be entitled to any support.

While the court's approach to such cases has evolved over time, women continue to suffer due to gaps in the law. In the case of Kulwant Kaur v. Prem Nath, the second wife was granted interim relief while the courts were determining the legality of the marriage. Nevertheless, the judicial attitude towards bigamy cases remains inconsistent, and it largely depends on the judge's discretion whether to provide relief to the second wife.

Judges may not always consider the social realities when making their decisions. To address this issue, it is crucial to introduce a provision in The Hindu Adoption and Marriage Act that ensures relief or maintenance for women who have suffered due to such marriages. A change in both procedural and substantive law is necessary to bring about a shift in the judicial approach to bigamy cases.

In the case of Priya Bala Ghosh v. Suresh Chandra Ghosh ([1965] 2 S.C.R. 837), the plaintiff had accused her husband of bigamy because he had entered into another marriage while their own marriage was still in effect. However, in relation to the second marriage, it was determined that there were no necessary marriage rituals mandated by Hindu law to validate it as a legal marriage. Therefore, the court ruled that the plaintiff had the burden of proving that the second marriage was valid, conducted in accordance with the customs and rituals of personal law.

In the case of Naurang Singh v. Sapla Devi (AIR 1968 All. 1958), the petitioner had refused to provide maintenance to his first wife, arguing that she was not his legally wedded wife. The petitioner had entered into a second marriage while the first marriage was still in effect, and he had a child with his first wife. The court ruled that he was obligated to provide maintenance to his first wife and child.

In the case of Lingari Obulamma v. Venkata Reddy (AIR 1979 SC 848), it was noted that to establish a case of bigamy, the first wife must not only demonstrate that she is legally married to the accused but also provide evidence that the accused entered into a valid second marriage, complete with the necessary rituals. If the first wife fails to prove the occurrence of the second marriage, the charge of bigamy cannot be substantiated.

This article explores the limitations of the laws governing bigamy among Hindus and highlights the ongoing prevalence of bigamous marriages in India. Despite the legal prohibition of bigamous Hindu marriages, the existing laws have proven ineffective in addressing this issue. The courts have taken a stringent and inflexible stance in interpreting these laws, which calls for a reform in the legal framework to curb the practice of bigamy. The judiciary's approach often fails to adequately safeguard women's rights and inadvertently reinforces the patriarchal structure of society by allowing wrongdoers to exploit legal loopholes.

To protect women's rights, the courts should adopt a more lenient interpretation regarding the requirements for a valid marriage. The second marriage might not fulfill all the customary rituals of a valid marriage, but the husband's intent to engage in a second marriage should be considered. The courts' current interpretation, coupled with the gaps and shortcomings in the law, disadvantages the aggrieved party, which is often the wife in cases of bigamy. Therefore, it is essential to make necessary legal amendments to better align with the realities of society.

Bigamy continues to exist in societies where it is legally permitted. For instance, Hindu, Parsi, and Christian personal laws impose penalties for the offense, but there is no prohibition on bigamy under Muslim Personal Law. These legal gaps need to be addressed. Moreover, the regulations for bigamy do not address the rights and responsibilities of individuals in live-in relationships. As a result, married men engaged in live-in relationships often have the upper hand, while their partners have limited recourse. Despite these challenges, the incidence of bigamy has decreased significantly in recent times, and there is hope for a brighter future in terms of legal reform and enforcement.

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