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Supreme Court Delivers Verdict on LGBTQ+ Rights and Same-Sex Marriage

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On October 17, the Supreme Court of India issued its long-awaited verdict on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, a momentous decision that has captured the attention of the nation. The apex court’s judgment, following months of deliberation, stems from a batch of petitions seeking legal validation for same-sex marriage. The five-judge Constitution bench presiding over these crucial pleas consisted of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices SK Kaul, SR Bhat, Hima Kohli, and PS Narasimha.

Throughout the hearings, the petitioners passionately argued that “India is a marriage-based culture,” underscoring the importance of extending the same rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) couples. These rights encompass various aspects, including the legal status of the “spouse” in financial and insurance matters, medical decisions, inheritance, succession, adoption, and surrogacy.

The Supreme Court’s verdict weaves together four separate judgments, collectively spanning an extensive 366 pages. As Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud observed, these judgments reflect “a degree of agreement and a degree of disagreement.” The dissent primarily revolved around the extent to which the law should address issues related to adoption rights and the formation of civil unions. The majority opinions were authored by Justices S. Ravindra Bhat, Hima Kohli, and P.S. Narasimha, while the minority views were expressed by the Chief Justice and Justice S.K. Kaul.

There was a prevailing consensus within the majority opinion, affirming the rights of transgender individuals in heterosexual relationships to “marry under the existing laws or personal laws.” Furthermore, there was a general acknowledgment of the discrimination and harassment frequently encountered by individuals in queer relationships.

During the proceedings, the Supreme Court made it clear that it would refrain from delving into personal laws, focusing instead on examining whether the Special Marriage Act of 1954 (SMA) could accommodate marriage rights for queer relationships. There was hope among some quarters that interim measures, granting unmarried queer couples equivalent rights associated with marriage, might receive recognition from the Court.

However, the verdict did not provide legal recognition to same-sex marriages, with the Court reasoning that marriage “as a social institution predates all rights, forms of political thought, and laws.” The verdict emphasized that there is no unqualified right to marry that can be claimed as a fundamental right. It was affirmed that individuals have the right to choose their partners and cohabit with one another. Justice Kaul aptly noted, “The capacity of non-heterosexual couples for love, commitment, and responsibility is no less worthy of regard than heterosexual couples. Let us preserve this autonomy, so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others,” quoting Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”

Additionally, the Court declined to strike down or interpret the Special Marriage Act (SMA) as gender-neutral. Such an action, as per the verdict, would encroach upon the legislative domain and have a cascading impact on other laws. The verdict highlighted the potential reverberations, stating that if the SMA were struck down, it would regress the country to a pre-independence era.

The SMA, enacted in 1954, provides a secular framework to govern unions in which the state sanctions marriage, rather than religious institutions. While the petitioners argued that queer couples could seek legal protection under frameworks like the SMA and Foreign Marriage Act, thus rendering marriage legislation exclusive to heterosexual couples as discriminatory, the Court did not arrive at this conclusion.

Justice Bhat expressed a counterargument, suggesting that a gender-neutral interpretation of the SMA could have adverse consequences for women. However, legal experts contend that such concerns are unfounded, especially considering that the Indian Penal Code still contains a marital rape exception and outdated practices like the restitution of conjugal rights remain unaddressed.

Despite the verdict’s nuances and the absence of legal recognition for same-sex marriages, the ruling marks a significant milestone in the ongoing discussion surrounding LGBT rights and equal treatment in India. It signifies progress and a shift toward greater acceptance and understanding, reflecting the evolving social landscape of the country.

As discussions and debates continue, India’s LGBTQ+ community and its supporters remain hopeful for further advancements in achieving equal rights and recognition in the future.

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