Understanding Sapinda Marriages and Legal Restrictions Under the Hindu Marriage Act

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Understanding Sapinda Marriages and Legal Restrictions Under the Hindu Marriage Act

Introduction

Incestuous relationships, characterized by sexual intercourse between members of the same family, are strictly regulated under the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA). Section 5(v) of the HMA prohibits marriages between Hindu relatives known as “sapindas” unless custom or usage permits otherwise.

Recently, the Delhi High Court upheld the constitutionality of this provision, which restricts unions between Hindu sapindas unless specific conditions are met.

In its judgment delivered on January 22 regarding a petition filed by a woman advocating for the removal of this section, the court expressed that “Failure to regulate the selection of partners in marriage could lead to the legitimization of incestuous relationships.”

Sapinda Marriages Under the Hindu Marriage Act

A sapinda marriage refers to a union between individuals who share a certain degree of familial closeness. These relationships are delineated in Section 3 of the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA).

Section 3(f)(ii) of the Hindu Marriage Act defines sapinda relationships as those where one person is a direct ancestor of the other within specified limits of familial closeness, or they share a common ancestor within those limits.

According to the HMA, marriage restrictions vary based on the lineage. On the maternal side, a Hindu individual is prohibited from marrying someone within three generations of their lineage. On the paternal side, this prohibition extends to individuals within five generations.

In practical terms, this means that an individual cannot marry their sibling (first generation), parents (second generation), grandparents (third generation), or anyone within these generational limits sharing the same lineage on their mother’s side.

The prohibition extends on the father’s side up to the great-grandparents and anyone sharing this lineage within five generations.

If a marriage is determined to contravene Section 5(v) as a sapinda marriage without a recognized custom permitting it, the marriage will be deemed void.

This implies that the marriage was invalid from the outset and will be treated as if it never occurred.

Exceptions to the Prohibition of Sapinda Marriages

The only exception to the prohibition against sapinda marriages is outlined within the same provision. This exception applies when the customs of each individual involved permit such unions.

Definition of “Custom” in the Hindu Marriage Act

Section 3(a) of the HMA provides the definition of “custom,” emphasizing its continuous and uniform observance over a prolonged period. It must have gained significant acceptance among Hindus in a specific local area, tribe, group, or family to attain legal validity.

However, even if these criteria are met, a custom may not be protected if it is uncertain, unreasonable, or contrary to public policy. Additionally, if a rule applies only to a particular family, it should not have been discontinued by that family to be considered valid.

Basis of the Legal Challenge

In 2007, the woman’s marriage was annulled after her husband demonstrated that they had entered into a sapinda marriage, and it was established that the woman’s community did not recognize such unions as customary. This decision was contested in the Delhi High Court, which rejected the appeal in October 2023.

Subsequently, the woman filed another petition with the High Court, contesting the constitutional validity of the ban on sapinda marriages. She argued that despite the absence of evidence of custom, sapinda marriages are widespread. Therefore, Section 5(v), which prohibits sapinda marriages without established custom, allegedly infringes upon the right to equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution.

The petitioner further contended that the marriage had obtained consent from both families, thereby validating its legitimacy.

the High Court’s ruling

The Delhi High Court dismissed her arguments, stating that they lacked merit.

Acting Chief Justice Manmohan and Justice Manmeet Pritam Singh Arora’s bench ruled that the petitioner failed to furnish “sufficient evidence” of an established custom essential for justifying a sapinda marriage.

Furthermore, the court affirmed that regulation of partner selection in marriages is permissible. Thus, it concluded that the petitioner failed to provide any “convincing legal basis” to demonstrate that the prohibition on sapinda marriages infringed upon the right to equality.

Legal Status of Incestuous Marriages Across Nations

Marriage laws regarding sapinda marriages, akin to those in India, vary significantly across different countries. While some European nations have more relaxed regulations on incestuous relationships, others maintain stricter prohibitions.

France and Belgium: In these countries, incestuous marriages between consenting adults are not considered criminal under the Penal Code, with France’s law dating back to 1810 and Belgium adopting a similar stance. Despite subsequent legal revisions, incest remains permissible.

Portugal: Incest is not classified as a criminal offense under Portuguese law.

Republic of Ireland: While same-sex marriages have been recognized since 2015, laws regarding incestuous relationships have not been updated to encompass individuals in same-sex unions.

Italy: Incest is only criminalized under Italian law if it results in a “public scandal.”

United States: All 50 states prohibit incestuous marriages, although New Jersey and Rhode Island allow consensual incestuous relationships between adults, albeit with certain restrictions.

Frequently asked questions

What are sapinda marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA)?

Sapinda marriages refer to unions between individuals who share a certain degree of familial closeness, as defined in Section 3(f)(ii) of the HMA. This includes relationships where one person is a direct ancestor of the other within specified limits of familial closeness, or they share a common ancestor within those limits.

What does the Hindu Marriage Act say about sapinda marriages?

Section 5(v) of the HMA prohibits marriages between Hindu relatives known as “sapindas,” unless custom or usage permits otherwise. The Act imposes marriage restrictions based on lineage, prohibiting individuals from marrying someone within three generations of their maternal lineage and within five generations on the paternal side.

What is the basis of the legal challenge against sapinda marriages?

The legal challenge against sapinda marriages often revolves around the constitutional validity of Section 5(v) of the HMA, which prohibits such unions unless permitted by custom or usage. Challengers may argue that this provision infringes upon the right to equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

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