The Punjab and Haryana High Court recently asked the Centre if there was any move to upwardly revise the age of majority. This comes in the wake of an influx of petitions by newly wedded or live-in couples seeking police protection from their parents and relatives who are opposed to their relationships. But many believe this is not a ground to increase the majority age when most of our individual rights start with it, writes VIVEK GUPTA from Chandigarh.
WHAT’S in an age? Legally speaking, a lot actually. The Punjab and Haryana High recently issued a notice to the Centre and called for an affidavit “as to whether there is any proposal for tabling any amendment as regards an upward revision in the age of majority”.
Those living in India get the status of the majority through the Majority Act enacted in 1875, which stipulates that every person domiciled in India shall attain the age of majority on completion of 18 years.
This remains unchanged to date, barring the fact that the definition of adulthood was changed for the purpose of marriage and was set at 18 years for women and 21 years for men through amendments in the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 in 1978.
The High Court’s latest move to seek review of the age of majority is rooted in the context of modern-day relationships and problems associated with them. For quite some time, the High Court has been dealing with a large number of petitions from young couples seeking police protection in wake of threats from their parents and relatives, who are strongly opposed to them marrying outside their castes and religion.
People in Punjab and Haryana, sociologists believe, still carry a feudal mindset and are particular about marrying their children within their communities.
This clash is forcing several young men and women to run away from their families to marry and in several cases, having live-in relationships.
This is also creating a host of legal and social problems, forcing the couples to approach courts to seek a legal remedy in the context of their right to have a dignified life and liberty following coercion attempts by their parents and relatives to end their relationships.
Barring a few examples, the High Court has been liberal in granting police protection in cases where young couples are adults and well above the legal marriageable age. In several cases, the Court has even allowed pleas of adult couples in live-in relationships, citing their right to police protection under the Constitution.
Also read: Why the Punjab & Haryana High Court’s recent order denying protection to live-in couple gets it wrong
But there are divergent judicial orders by different benches in dealing with petitions from runaway couples who are minors or adults in few cases but yet to attain legal marriageable age.
In one such case recently, a newly-wed couple, fearing a threat to their life from their relatives, moved a petition to seek police protection, but the High Court handed over the custody of the girl to the police and sent her to a government shelter house after finding that she was 17 at the time of marriage.
On the other hand, the High Court granted police protection to a married couple despite the fact that the girl was a minor. It observed that just because the girl was not of marriageable age, it cannot be a reason to deprive her of her fundamental rights as envisaged under the Constitution.
In the present case in which the Court served notice to the centre on the question of age of majority, it was dealing with a couple who were in a live-in relationship. Both were above 18 years, but the boy was below the legal marriageable age, i.e., 21. The Court granted the couple police protection on the ground that with the age of majority being 18 as per the Indian Majority Act, 1875, obviously the petitioners have to be considered adults (whether mentally so or not is a separate issue altogether).
But at the same time, the bench opined that since these kinds of cases are on the rise these days, it is considered necessary to at least obtain the response of the governments concerned as “to whether there is any proposal for tabling any amendment as regards an upward revision in the age of majority”.
“The Indian Majority Act, 1875, being an Act enacted more than 150 years ago; and with teenagers now, normally still being students even sometimes well into their 20s, whereas that was not usually the position at the time when the said Act was enacted,” it further opined.
Also read: Living-in couples in Punjab & Haryana battle prejudices from courts and police
Chandigarh-based advocate Arjun Sheoran, who is also the national organising secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, said: “Why do courts need to dwell on the question of upward revision of age of majority when most of our rights, whether right to vote, right to contract or right to have driving license, comes with adulthood.”
He added: “Suppose the age of majority is increased, these young adults will still be seen as children in the eyes of law and be prevented from getting a host of legal rights just because they are trying to get the freedom to choose their partners and our feudal mindset is against it.”
Sheoran said he failed to understand what was the logic behind keeping the legal age of drinking at 25 or the legal marriageable age for boys at 21, three years higher than women.
“On the other hand, even after strict laws, the government has failed to stop child marriage. There are several reports which reveal that 40% marriages in India still take place before the age of 18 years,” he said. “The country must first debate the age of consent because it is leading to many people being incarcerated in jails despite being in genuine relationships.”
The problem in India, he said, is that there are different definitions under different laws. For instance, earlier this year, a Punjab and Haryana High Court bench ruled that a Muslim girl can marry anyone on attaining puberty under Muslim marriage laws, but otherwise if one is less than 18, one can’t have sex. If she has sex, it will be counted as rape, with or without her consent.
Also read: The lottery of protection orders by High Courts in the case of “forbidden romances”
As per data, there are only a handful of countries that have kept the majority age above 18. In Scotland, one can marry, enter into a civil partnership, consent to lawful sexual intercourse, leave home without parents’ consent and have access to banking facilities at the age of 16.
In 2018, the Japanese government approved an amendment to the country’s civil code which dropped the age of legal adulthood by two years to 18 from April 1, 2022.
Human rights lawyer Navkiran Singh said that in most developed countries, the driving age is from 16 years, which means that those societies believe that a child attains a sense of understanding and majority by that age. “The society around us is changing very fast. When we are sending our kids as young as 15 or 16 to study abroad or out of the city to hostels, how can we assume that mental and physical development will be attained at a higher age,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Punjab and Haryana High Court will hear the matter regarding the age of majority on October 29. Besides the centre, it has made the state governments of Punjab, Haryana and Union Territory of Chandigarh, all under the domain jurisdiction of the High Court, as a party to the case and sought a similar response.
“It is of course to be observed that it is something which is wholly in the domain of the legislature, but since these kinds of cases are on the rise these days, it is considered necessary to at least obtain the response of the Governments concerned,” stated the court.
(Vivek Gupta is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh. The views expressed are personal.)