In 2008, Manipur Compulsory Registration of Marriages Bill, was introduced in the February session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly and passed in the Winter session in October the same year. The Bill, it will be recalled came as part of a directive from the Centre to the states. This Act, it was then hoped would end all hangovers of the feudal and pre-modern past which have put women in Manipur at the receiving end of conjugal life, as well as inheritance of parental properties. The first of the institutions that this new law, was expected to make illegal is bigamy/polygamy and its more shadowy sibling concubinary. Keeping an atonbi (second wife), is definitely considered a deviant male behaviour which would earn him a roguish philanderer’s reputation but all the same socially accepted. A woman matching such behaviour would not be similarly seen as merely naughty, but spat upon as a whore. We are not suggesting that prostitution should be socially endorsed, but only throwing in the reminder that if prostitution is bad for the woman, whoring should be equally bad for the man. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, so they say, and there can be no two ways about this. To go into a little more nuances about the term atonbi, she is less than a wife (that is why parental neglect, and so too governmental neglect, is often described as atonbigi macha, atonbi’s children). She is not a courtesan, for a courtesan is generally a professional enchantress who cohabits volitionally with important men for return favours. She is definitely not a whore too. She is a second class wife, who does not even get to live in her “husband’s” home, or her children considered legitimate heirs of their father’s property. Most of the time it is not love that makes a man keep a concubine, but lust. On the woman’s part it is generally poverty and a desperate need for a sense of security which make her willing to offer herself as a concubine to a well provided man. In other words, this despicable institution is a rich man’s disease. The question now is, what has become of this Act?
It probably reflects on the guilt shared by a good many legislators in the Assembly, ruling and opposition alike, that everything is so quite now and the matter has seemingly been swept under the carpet. If the Act is invoked, many of our high and mighty probably would be facing criminal charges. This brings us to the next point. The Bill would seek compulsory registration of marriages, which would mean that if somebody seeks a second marriage for whatever the reason, he or she will have to legally divorce from the first marriage first or else face penal action. This is all very well, except while considering what status those already in such liaisons would be categorised in, especially because a majority of those guilty would be VVIPs and VIPs. Probably the resort has been to not to make the Act have retrospective coverage, but come into effect only from the day it is promulgated so that those already into such relationships can be exempted. Moreover, it will have to be also assured that children born out of such cohabitations are not left victims of the legislation for no fault of theirs. Even if the Act was not made applicable for offences committed before 2008, it has been nine years since 2008 and there probably are new violators. Why has the Act been allowed to remain in hibernation? If those in the government have a vested interest in silencing the Act, what are the reasons for campaigners of gender equality also silent?
While polygamy is one practice this legislation seeks to end, if we remember the discussions in the Assembly, the Act also had a lot to say about giving the girl child equal inheritance rights. Here too, the silence of child rights activist has been deafening. The Act also had a clause on alimony if a marriage were to end in divorce. We suggest the matter be brought back into the public domain once again. In the years that have gone by, there have been so many incidents of legally wedded wives being subject to domestic harangue and forcefully divorced. This is a crime of a different order, but even if it was only divorces which were being sought, the alimony clause should have restored some semblance of justice. Besides having a legal handle to deal with such offences, alimony would also be a deterrent to the corrupt rich men every time their philandering and wayward instinct prompt them to enter into a relationship they do not intend to keep or respect.
Source: Imphal Free Press