Polyandry and Indian Justice System

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By Sunita Tridevi

Although Polyandry is illegal in India, nobody has been found guilty and punished by courts during the last 10 years. This is due to social pressures and courts have soft corners for this practice. Many courts in past upheld the polyandry prevalent among the Gorkha community when women tried to reach justice. While in the majority of cases, the benefit of the doubt was given to the accused.

The Hindu Marriage Act (1955), the Hindu Succession Act (1956), the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956), and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956), the introduction of 498A (1983), and the Special Marriage Act (2000) do not allow Polyandry.

This practice is not confined to the highlands of the Himalayas rather it is spread as far as to fertile lands of Indian Punjab. Therefore the justification that Polyandry is practiced when economic, ecosystemic, or demographic circumstances limit individual men’s ability to support women and their children adequately is wrong. It is untrue that practice is popular only in less productive areas of India where landholdings and yields are marginal.

Western Anthropologists believe that polyandry is “related to the low and unreliable productivity of farms. Crook and Crook interpreted polyandry in Zanskar, northwestern India, as a “response to ecology where the carrying capacity of the land is not only restricted but subject to severe seasonal constraints. However, several incidents of these practices were reported from Punjab in the last 10 years but Police always avoid registering cases against families who throw their daughters into this illegal and inhuman practice.

According to Chandigarh Times, at least 255 women committed suicides in Haryana and Punjab during 2018-2019 who were victims of Polyandry.

How does it work?

A woman who is shared among brothers lives only in the house of her legal husband and he is recognized as the father of the children she bears. But any of his brothers have the right to woman as a wife. It is a right in the sense that a husband may not attempt to interfere and may not exhibit any signs of jealousy when he finds his brother with his wife.

Since a married brother offers his wife to his other brothers therefore anyone of a man’s brothers may be the biological father of his wife’s child, only the husband is recognized as the sociological father. Underlying the practice of sharing wives among brothers is the opera­tion of a principle whose presence may be discerned in other phases of the culture, the principle of the equivalence of brothers. Just as every member of a group of brothers has equal sexual rights to the wife of any one of them, once the husband’s precedence has been allowed, so do brothers share equally in other things. In the economic sphere, a group of uterine brothers till the paternal fields together and mutually partake of the harvest. When brothers live together, they divide household tasks and timing for sharing one wife. One brother can act as a herdsman, some as blacksmiths, others can work in the fields. The proceeds of their labor are pooled, and each one enjoys an equal part of the total in­come. When the paternal inheritance is to be divided, it is parceled out equally among all the sons. The kinship system further reflects the operation of the principle of fraternal equivalence.

Indian folklores illustrate the cultural setting within which the formula of fraternal equivalence works. There is a tale of a man who asked his brother to keep away from his newly acquired second wife so that more of her time might be available to her husband. For this mild and seemingly reasonable request, the husband almost was outcaste, had to pay a heavy fine, and send the woman to live with his brother for a time. The slightest sign of sexual jealousy between brothers arouses the relatives and the sib members of the jealous man to bring all the persuasion and social force at their command to eradicate the symptoms of jealousy. This is not to say that jealousy outside the fraternal line is unknown. A husband will not usually tolerate any sexual relationship between his wife and a man who is not one of his brothers. If he suspects such a relationship, the husband will threaten the paramour, or remove his wife from tempta­tion.

Religious Background

Polyandry in India refers to the practice of polyandry, whereby a woman has two or more husbands at the same time, either historically on the Indian subcontinent or currently in the country of India. An early example can be found in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, in which Draupadi, daughter of the king of Panchala, is married to five brothers.

Popular regions where Polyandry is practices

Polyandry was mainly prevalent in the Kinnaur region, a part of Himachal in India that is close to Tibet or currently the Indo-China border. As mentioned in the epic Mahabharata, the Pandavas were banished from their kingdom for thirteen years and they spent the last year hiding in this hilly terrain of Kinnaur. Some Kinaauris claim that this practice has been inherited from the Pandavas, who they identify as their ancestors. The Garhwali people similarly identify their practice of polyandry with their descent from the Pandavas.

Polyandry is also seen in South India among the Todas tribes of Nilgiris, Nanjanad Vellala of Travancore, and some Low castes. While polyandrous unions have disappeared from the traditions of many of the groups and tribes, it is still practiced by some Paharis, especially in the Jaunsar-Bawar region in Northern India.

Fraternal polyandry also exists among the Khasa of Dehradun; and among the Gallong and Memba of Arunachal Pradesh, the Mala Madessar, the Mavilan, etc. of Kerala. Non-fraternal polyandry exists among the Kota; and among the Karvazhi, Pulaya, Muthuvan, and Mannan in Kerala.

Recent years have seen the rise in fraternal polyandry in the agrarian societies in Malwa region of Punjab to avoid division of farming land.

A book titled “Gender, Culture and Honour” written by professor Rajesh Gill reviews the practices in Haryana and Indian Punjab. Book says that the ancient practice of polyandry still followed in several parts of the states — where a woman is shared as a partner among brothers. According to the book, women in such arrangements were found to be “extremely cheerful, satisfied and happy, unlike their counterparts in other households”.

Supporters of polyandry believe that this practice also acted as a form of birth control. Five brothers with a wife each could easily produce dozens of children. But polyandrous families seldom had more than six or seven children.

Disclaimer:

The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.

Central Desk
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