Court: The Supreme Court of India
Suit Type: T.P.(C) 1249-1250/2020
Petitioner: Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay; Shahida Quraishi
Respondent: Union of India
Bench: Hon’ble Justice D.Y. Chandrachud (CJI), Hon’ble Justice P.S. Narasimha, Hon’ble Justice J.B. Pardiwala
Petition Filed on: October 26th, 2020
Last Hearing: February 20th, 2023
- Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 – Section 60(1)
- Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 – Section 3(1)(c)
- Special Marriage Act, 1954 – Section 4(c)
- Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 – Section 5(iii)
- Prohibition of Child Marriage Act – Section 2(a)
Facts of the Case:
In the case of Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay filed a petition seeking a uniform age of marriage for men and women. The current minimum legal age of marriage in India is 18 years for women and 21 years for men.
Upadhyay argued in his petition that religion-specific laws regarding the age of marriage are discriminatory and violate the fundamental rights to equality and protection of personal liberty. He urged the Supreme Court to direct the Central government to establish a gender and religion-neutral minimum age of marriage.
A bench consisting of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala observed that while Upadhyay sought to set the age of marriage at 21 years for both genders, the plea actually sought to strike down the provision prescribing any minimum age of marriage.
The court stated that the power to amend the law lies with the Parliament, emphasizing that the judiciary should not be seen as the sole custodian of the Constitution. It highlighted that the Parliament has the authority to amend the law and establish a uniform marriage age.
The Supreme Court also reprimanded Upadhyay when he commented on the court transferring the case from the Delhi High Court and later dismissing it. Chief Justice Chandrachud clarified that the court is not there to please anyone or engage in political discussions, emphasizing that it is not a political forum. These are the factual details of the case, as reported.
- Whether religion-specific laws prescribing different minimum ages of marriage for men and women are discriminatory and violate the fundamental rights to equality and protection of personal liberty?
- Whether the minimum age of marriage should be made gender and religion-neutral to ensure equality?
- Whether the provision prescribing any minimum age of marriage should be struck down altogether?
- Whether the Supreme Court has the authority to direct the Central government to establish a uniform age of marriage?
- Whether the judiciary or the Parliament holds the power to amend the law regarding the minimum age of marriage?
Arguments from the Petitioner’s side:
The petitioner, Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, put forward several arguments in support of his position seeking a uniform age of marriage for men and women.
Firstly, the petitioner contended that religion-specific laws prescribing different minimum ages of marriage for men and women are inherently discriminatory. Such differential treatment on the basis of gender violates the fundamental rights to equality guaranteed under the Constitution of India. The petitioner argued that equality before the law should apply to matters of marriage as well, and a uniform age of marriage would ensure equal treatment and protection of rights for all individuals, regardless of their gender.
Secondly, it was argued that the differential ages of marriage perpetuate gender stereotypes and reinforce the notion of women as dependent and in need of protection. The petitioner highlighted that setting a higher minimum age for women implies that they are less capable of making decisions about their own lives, which goes against the principles of autonomy and individual agency. By advocating for a gender and religion-neutral age of marriage, the petitioner sought to challenge these stereotypes and promote gender equality.
Furthermore, the petitioner emphasized the importance of protecting the fundamental rights of individuals, particularly the right to personal liberty. By imposing different minimum ages of marriage for men and women, the current laws infringe upon the personal liberty of individuals who wish to marry at an age that may be considered appropriate for them. The petitioner argued that the state should not interfere in personal decisions related to marriage, as long as both parties involved are legally capable of giving their consent.
Arguments from the Respondent’s side:
The respondents, representing the Union of India, presented counter-arguments to challenge the petitioner’s claims for a uniform age of marriage.
To begin with, it was contended that the existing differential ages of marriage are based on reasonable classifications that take into account the biological and social differences between men and women. The respondents argued that these differences justify setting different ages for marriage, as they reflect the specific needs and circumstances of each gender. They claimed that the intention behind such provisions is to protect the well-being and interests of both men and women in the institution of marriage.
The respondents also argued that the issue of setting the minimum age of marriage involves complex social and cultural factors, which require a nuanced understanding. They emphasized that social reform should occur gradually and in harmony with the prevailing customs and traditions of Indian society. The respondents contended that any significant changes to the minimum age of marriage should be left to the discretion of the Parliament, which represents the will of the people and possesses the power to make legislative amendments.
Moreover, it was asserted that the judiciary’s role is limited to interpreting and upholding the Constitution, not to intervene in matters that fall within the domain of the legislature. The respondents highlighted that the power to amend laws rests with the Parliament and that the judiciary should respect the separation of powers. They argued against the petitioner’s plea for the court to direct the Central government to establish a uniform age of marriage, asserting that such a decision falls outside the purview of the judiciary.
The bench comprising Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala provided their rationale in the case of Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India. Their reasoning and thought process can be understood through their approach, analysis, and significant observations made during the proceedings.
Firstly, the bench acknowledged the petitioner’s contention that religion-specific laws regarding the age of marriage are discriminatory and infringe upon the fundamental rights of equality and personal liberty. They recognized the importance of addressing such concerns and ensuring equal treatment for all individuals, irrespective of gender or religion.
However, the bench noted that the specific prayer in the petitioner’s plea was to strike down the provision prescribing any minimum age of marriage altogether. The court recognized that while the petitioner sought a uniform marriage age of 21 for both men and women, the plea aimed at eliminating the concept of a minimum age of marriage entirely. This observation was crucial in understanding the scope and nature of the petitioner’s request.
Moreover, the bench emphasized the principle of separation of powers and the role of the Parliament in amending laws. They stated that the power to amend the law regarding the minimum age of marriage lies with the legislature, not the judiciary. By highlighting this, the court reaffirmed the importance of respecting the legislative process and the authority of the Parliament in shaping and modifying laws.
The bench also underlined the principle that the court is not the exclusive custodian of the Constitution. They stressed that the Parliament is equally responsible for upholding and amending constitutional provisions. This observation emphasized the collaborative nature of governance and the shared responsibility of the judiciary and the legislature in ensuring constitutional rights and addressing social issues.
Furthermore, the bench’s reprimand of the petitioner for making political comments during the proceedings showcased their commitment to maintaining the integrity and neutrality of the judiciary. The court firmly asserted that it is not a political forum and that its purpose is to administer justice based on the law and the Constitution.
The bench dismissed the petition filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, thereby rejecting his plea for a uniform age of marriage for men and women. The court upheld the existing provisions that set the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 years for women and 21 years for men in India.
The judgment noted that while the petitioner sought to fix the age of marriage at 21 for both genders, the prayer in the plea actually aimed at striking down the provision prescribing any minimum age of marriage altogether. The court clarified that the power to amend the law lies with the Parliament and not the judiciary.
Emphasizing the role of the legislature, the bench stated that the Parliament is equally responsible for amending the law to provide a uniform marriage age if deemed necessary. The court’s observation highlighted the need for legislative action rather than judicial intervention in this matter.
Furthermore, the judgment addressed the petitioner’s contention that religion-specific laws regarding the age of marriage are discriminatory and violate fundamental rights. While recognizing the importance of addressing such concerns, the court reiterated that the Parliament has the authority to amend the law to establish a uniform marriage age.
Additionally, the judgment reprimanded the petitioner for making political comments during the proceedings, affirming that the court is not a political forum and that its purpose is to administer justice based on the law and the Constitution.
Defects of the Law:
The case of Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India reveals flaws and limitations in the Supreme Court’s decision. The judgment upholds the unequal minimum marriage ages of 18 for women and 21 for men, perpetuating gender inequality. It fails to acknowledge changing social dynamics and the need for gender-neutral legislation.
The judgment heavily relies on Parliament’s power to amend laws, avoiding judicial intervention. However, the Parliament has not taken sufficient action to address the gender disparity in marriage ages. The court missed an opportunity to emphasize the urgency of legislative action for a uniform age of marriage that upholds equality and non-discrimination.
Furthermore, the judgment neglects to address concerns about religion-specific marriage laws, which create different standards for different religious communities and result in disparate treatment. The court could have examined the constitutional validity of such laws and their potential infringement on the right to equality and non-discrimination.
Additionally, the judgment lacks specific recommendations or directions to the Parliament for amending the law. It would have been beneficial for the court to provide guidelines or suggestions, urging prompt legislative action for a uniform marriage age.
In conclusion, the Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India judgment exposes defects and limitations in existing laws. The failure to address gender disparities, religion-specific laws, and provide specific recommendations to the Parliament highlights a missed opportunity to promote equality, combat discrimination, and ensure a uniform marriage age aligned with constitutional principles. As a first-year Indian law student, it is essential to critically analyze such judgments and advocate for legislative reforms that uphold justice, equality, and human rights.
The Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India judgment upholds gender-based differences in the minimum marriage age, perpetuating inequality and disregarding evolving social dynamics. It reinforces the notion that women mature earlier and can marry at a younger age, neglecting equality principles. The judgment relies heavily on Parliament, diminishing the judiciary’s role in rectifying gender disparities and disregarding the need for a uniform marriage age. It also fails to address religion-specific laws, resulting in disparate treatment and potential infringement on equality rights. Overall, the judgment perpetuates gender inequality, reduces judicial involvement, and neglects religion-specific laws. Legislative reforms are needed to promote equality, non-discrimination, and a uniform marriage age in India.
Author – Herang Krishana
College – Institution of Legal Studies and Research, GLA University, Mathura.
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