By *M. Burhanuddin Qasmi
In the backdrop of the recent idea-hauling for Uniform Civil Code (UCC), the Indian governments – both in the Centre and in some states, including Assam, and the TRP starving news channels are, once again, sensationalizing the issue of polygamy in ways that it looks as if polygamy is a widespread practice among Indian Muslims only and Muslims have a monopoly over it, whereas, the facts suggest otherwise. Hereunder we would examine the statistics released by various government and private bodies to bring home the facts and bust the propagated myths surrounding the issue.
Polygamy as per Indian Law
The ‘Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) 1955’ abolished polygamy by a “Hindu” and made it a crime. The Section 11 of the HMA states that ‘polygamous marriages are void’, and the HMA mandates only monogamous marriage relationship among Hindus. When a Hindu solemnizes a polygamous marriage, he is ought to be punished under Section 17 of the very HMA, as well as Sections 494 and 495 of the ‘Indian Penal Code, 1860 (45)’. Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs are all considered Hindus under HMA 1955 and they do not have their own personal laws, thus the provisions in the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 apply to these three religious denominations as well.
Under Sections 494 and 495 of the Indian Penal Code (1860), polygamy for Indian Christians is completely prohibited and criminalized. In India Christian marriages are governed by an Act of the British period - the ‘Christian Marriage Act 1872’. It applies to all sorts of marriages among the Christians of India and requires them to be solemnized under its provisions not only when both parties are Christian but also when one of them is a Christian and the other a non-Christian. This Act too prohibits bigamy (polygamy) and invokes criminal sections for the offenders, as in the HMA 1955, from the Indian Panel Code of 1860.
The ‘Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act 1936’, had already outlawed bigamy (polygamy). ‘Any Parsi, who has been married during his or her life, is subject to the penalties provided for by the India Penal Code for an offence to return to marriage during the lifetime of a Parsi or not, without being legally divorced by a wife or husband or having his or her previous marriage declared invalid or dissolved.’
The clauses under the ‘Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937’, apply to all Muslims in India. Polygamy is not prohibited in Muslim personal laws because it is directly mentioned in the Qur’an as an “option”, hence they tend to keep it as “Fundamental Rights”, guaranteed in the Constitution of India under Article 25.
Here it is unequivocally clear that except Muslims, all other religious communities are legally barred from polygamy and it is rather a crime for them to be a bigamous. Even the ‘Special Marriage Act 1954’ which permits marriages beyond religious faiths and customs or intra-religious marriages, does not allow polygamy. Yet, statistics prove that more non-Muslims are polygamous in India than Muslims.
It is also noteworthy that when there is an incompatibility between the Indian Penal Code and the established Personal Law of a religious community, then the personal laws are implemented because it is a legal principle that a specific law (fundamental right) supersedes the general law. Thus polygamy of Muslims, either they practice it or not, cannot be abolished as per standard principles of Indian Constitution.
Polygamy as per Census Data 1961
It is imperative to note that those who are not constitutionally allowed to practice polygamy are more polygamous than Muslims – who are allowed to do so. This is what, actually, is the fact, revealed by all statistics from the past and the present. Let’s examine how many Indians are really polygamous?
The census data from 1961 is very important on this subject matter, primarily because, the 1961 census was the last one to look at marriages by religion and community. That survey, in fact, found that the incidences of polygamy were the least among Muslims, with just 5.7 percent of the community members were likely to practice it. Hindus actually had a higher incidence rate of polygamy – at 5.8 percent, although other communities, including Buddhists and Jains, were proportionally even more likely to practice polygamy. 7.9 percent of Buddhists and 6.7 of Jains were polygamous. At the top were Adivasi (tribals), 15.25 percent of whom were polygamous.
It is notable here that until the enforcement of the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, polygamy was legal and allowed in all constitutionally defined Hindus. Moreover, changes in the social and religious demography doesn’t occur overnight thus data in the census 1961 is a right indicator where pre-HMA 1955 polygamous marriages among Hindus had also been recorded in the census.
As stated above that the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 includes three other religions – Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism – within its jurisdiction besides Hinduism. Similarly, Article 25 of the Constitution of India describes Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism as parts of the Hindu religion. Explanation II of sub clause (b) in clause 2 of the article 25 says: “the reference to Hindus will be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina and Buddhist religions …” Thus if we club together the constitutionally defined Hindus, then the rate of polygamy climbs among them to as high as 20.4 percent [Buddhists 7.9%, Jains 6.7%, Hindus 5.8%] excluding Sikhs, as we do not have data available for it from census 1961.
The takeaway from the 1961 census data thus stands for 5.7 percent Muslims, 15.25 percent Adivasi and 20.4 percent Hindus are polygamous. Muslims had been the least polygamous since decades in India yet this vital fact has been kept away from public by media as well as academia for vested interests and communal polarization in the country. This also is an indicator that 20.4 percent constitutionally defined Hindus were found to be committing a crime as per HMA 1955, in 1961 census.
[Some inputs incorporated in this part from scroll.in (digital newspaper) article ‘Muslim women and the surprising facts about polygamy in India’, dated July 08, 2014, by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan]
Polygamy as per National Family Health Survey (NFHS)
National Family Health Survey (NFHS), is a ‘compendium of fact sheets’ conducted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. This survey reveals various data including religion wise marriages, divorces and other indicators related to health and family wellbeing in India. This survey is, sometimes, fully or partly, funded by foreign charities or NGOs. The latest survey NFHS – 5 (2019-2021) is funded by the USAID, an American Government funded charity. We have data on polygamy from NFHS – 3 (2005-06), NFHS – 4 (2015-16) and NFHS – 5 (2019 -21); and all surveys indicate polygamy is drastically decreasing in India.
An illustrated reportage ‘Multiple wives most common among tribals: NFHS data’ by Rema Nagarajan in the Times of India, dated July 28, 2022 begins:
“Polygyny or the practice of having more than one wife is legal in India only for Muslims, but National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data shows it is almost as prevalent in other communities, though on the decline in all.”
The latest NFHS – 5 data from 2019-2021 which was carried and thoroughly analyzed by all major print and digital media platforms shows that the prevalence of polygyny was 2.1% among Christians, 1.9% among Muslims, 1.3% among Hindus, 1.3% among Buddhists, 0.5 among Sikhs and 2.5% among other religious groups. Here again if we put together these handy figures of polygamy of the constitutionally defined Hindus (1.3 + 1.3 + .0.5 =) it stands to be 3.1%, the highest among all, even as per the latest NFHS 2019-2021. Legally this 3.1 and 2.1 (total 5.2) percent people are committing a crime, for they all come under the HMA 1955 and under Sections 494 and 495 of the Indian Penal Code (1860) which criminalized polygamy, but 1.9 percent Muslims are not, instead, they are legal under the Muslims Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937!
ThePrint.in (digital newspaper) also carried a detailed reportage entitled with ‘It’s not just Muslims who have multiple wives in India. But practice has declined across faiths’, by Nikhil Rampal, dated 18 May, 2023 which reads:
“Polygamy has entered the political discourse in the past few months owing to speculation over a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), but data shows the practice is rare in India — so much so that only 1.4 percent of married Indian women surveyed in 2019-2021 said their husbands had another wife or wives.
It further goes on, “India has also seen a decline in instances of polygamy across religions and demographies, according to a research brief published by the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) in June 2022. It makes these assertions on the basis of responses gathered across multiple rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), up to the latest, NFHS-5 (2019-21).”
The Print quotes researchers and writes: “The brief goes on to highlight that the practice of marriage to more than one spouse at a time is more prevalent among tribal-dominated districts, besides the ‘poorest’ and ‘uneducated’ households. The authors — Harihar Sahoo, R. Nagarajan and Chaitali Mandal — use NFHS-5 data to establish that incidents of polygamy are highest among members of the Scheduled Tribes (ST) in India.
“Compared to the national average of 1.4 percent (NFHS-5), the rate of polygamy was 2.4 among STs, 1.5 among SCs, 1.3 among OBCs and 1.2 among others. Even among STs, the number has come down from 3.1 percent in NFHS-3 (2005-06) to 2.8 percent in NFHS-4 (2015-16) and further to 2.4 percent in NFHS-5 (2019-21),” the Print reportage elaborated.
“Although polygamous marriage is not legal in India for any community other than Muslims, its practice still continues in some sections of the society in India,” reads the brief by IIPS researchers. It adds that the “prevalence of polygamous marriages in India was quite low, at 1.4 per cent in 2019-21, and will further decline over time”. The research findings evidently indicate that socio-economic factors played a major role in this form of marriage in addition to region and religion and that the prevalence of polygamy in India was very low and fading away.
States of India where Muslims population is tiniest like Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Odhisha etc. top the list of polygamy in India. The East Jainta Hills district of Meghalaya tops the all India list of polygamous men with a massive 20% and the North District of Sikkim comes among top 15 places with 5.7% polygamous among all Indians.
Assam where Muslims are 34.22% of total population, 1.8% Hindus, 3.6% Muslims and 1.8% others, are polygamous, as per the NFHS-5 (2019-21) findings. This is, however, a radical declined, especially among the Muslims of Assam, compared to NFHS – 3 (2005-06) when 2.1% Hindus, 6.9% Muslims and 1.3% others, were polygamous in the state. This statistic indicates how appalling and how hollow Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, the present chief minister of Assam, has been while ‘hunting Muslims’ for political polarization of his fan-club vis-à-vis UCC and so called Muslim women empowerment!
Polygamy as per the Qur’an
In Islam polygamy is allowed with strict conditions which are generally difficult to fulfill. That is why polygamy is not widespread in Muslim society in the whole of Indian subcontinent, even though it is legally as well as religiously permitted everywhere, including India. Very few Muslims get married to more than one wife. Sometimes it is even done as per the wish of the first wife or at least with mutual desire. Some of them do so because of the need, such as first wife is suffering from chronic disease or because of the wish of having either a child or a male child while a very few of them may misuse the ‘option’ and practice polygamy with wrong intention. It is not a fault of law but it is their personal crime if they oppress their first wives after getting married to other women and that can be brought to justice through domestic violence laws. However, it is by all means more humane than having extra marital relationship and committing adultery by cheating on the first wives, when at least the 2nd woman would have a legal and respectable social status which ensures her legal as well as religious rights as a wife with the polygamous man.
Contrary to the clear teachings of Islam and the Qur’anic verses, a few ‘ultra-feminists’ who are poorly educated, argue that polygamy is “unIslamic” and the Qur’an does not permit it. The glorious Qur’an says:
"And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one ...” [Surah An-Nisa, Ayat 3]
Precisely, polygamy is a conditional option but allowed in Islam. However a survey was conducted by a team of journalists from ummid.com at Malegaon, Maharashtra in India under the supervision of Mr. Aleem Faize, the seasoned journalist, to fact-check the hotly debated so-called prevalence of polygamous cases among Muslims on the ground zero level in 2016. Malegaon is a Muslim majority township with 7 lakh population and 78.95 percent Muslims. The report reads:
“The quick survey conducted by ummid.com amidst the ongoing debate on the subject following pleas in the Supreme Court by the Modi Government and some women activists seeking a ban on polygamy also showed that there are just 02 men in this hugely Muslim populated city who have three wives.” It further goes on “…just 151 men in Malegaon - a city of more than 05 lakh Muslims, have two wives…, and none with four wives” the latest survey showed. [http://ummid.com/news/2016/October/17.10.2016/ummid-dot-com-survey-on-polugamy-malegaon.html]
Incisively, Malegaon has 5 lakh Muslim populations, consider 50 percent of them are females, thus 2.5 lakh are males. Further make a deduction of 40 percent as they are either not married or children, thus total number of married men stands to roughly 1.5 lakh. Now the total number of men having more than one wife is 153 out of 1.5 lakh that is an astonishing 0.10 percent only.
This physical survey of Malegaon and the census data from 1961, NFHS – 3 (2005-06), NFHS – 4 (2015-16) and NFHS – 5 (2019 -21) together with follow up analysis and research from the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) are clear indications that banning polygamy will not make any difference and will not stop polygamy or “oppression upon women”. For, most of the polygamous males in the country are those who are not permitted by law to practice polygamy. However, polygamy from India is fading away and will continue to be so due to people’s own choices, without politicking in the country – with or for polygamy.
*M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is an author of various books, Editor of Eastern Crescent and Director of Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre, Mumbai, India