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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 2 April, 2003, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Indian state amends bigamy law
By Jill McGivering
BBC South Asia correspondent

The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has passed legislation weakening its laws against bigamy.

The move is said to be designed to make it easier for people involved in bigamous relationships to reach an informal compromise or settlement.

Indian women
Concern over how the law will affect women
It is thought to be the first state to introduce such an amendment.

But it has also raised concern over its possible impact on women.

Bigamy is illegal throughout India, with the exception of the Muslim community which is exempted from the anti-bigamy law on religious grounds.

For a spouse to be prosecuted, the case against them can only be brought by a wronged spouse.

For example a first wife may file a complaint against her legal husband who has subsequently married a second woman.

But once the case is filed, the state then prosecutes the bigamous spouse, under criminal law.

Legal battle

The amendment now introduced in Andhra Pradesh gives the accusing spouse the right to withdraw charges and end a prosecution, even once it is under way.

The state's Law Minister, P Chandrashekhar, told the BBC that he wanted to make it easier for parties to reach an informal compromise or settlement out of court, especially because legal proceedings could drag on for many years.

He said instances of bigamy had not increased but did exist in rural areas.

As a result of poverty and lack of education at village level, some people thought, he said, that they could divorce a spouse on the authority of the village council or even by rejecting their wife and sending her back to her family's home.

Many did not realise they had to apply formally to the courts for a divorce to be legalised.

Most of the cases are of men taking a second wife, rather than women taking a second husband.

The legal amendment, making it possible for an accuser to nullify a case under prosecution, will also apply to dowry harassment cases.

The law minister said this was also an attempt to make it possible for the parties to reach an informal settlement outside the court.

Concern

But one women's rights lawyer in Delhi told the BBC that she was concerned about the impact these amendments might have on women.

In both bigamy and dowry harassment cases, women in rural areas are often subject to pressure from their own families, worried about social stigma, or from their husbands, worried about criminal proceedings against them, not to file charges.

Some may even face verbal or physical threats or abuse as part of attempts to stop them pursuing a prosecution.

In other states, once the case is filed, the women is powerless to stop the prosecution and is less liked to be intimidated.

But in Andhra Pradesh, she could now face continuing pressure to withdraw charges and reverse the action.


SEE ALSO:
Move to stop Indian child marriages
14 May 02  |  South Asia
Battle over India's marriage age
05 Sep 02  |  South Asia
Bigamy row in Colombia
12 Jun 01  |  Americas
Gay couple hold Hindu wedding
29 May 01  |  South Asia


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