Rooh-Afza. Shararas. Adaab and...Polygamy? In the second season of popular web series, Made In Heaven, there's an episode which primarily deals with polygyny (when a man is being married to two or more women at the same time). No points for guessing: It's a Muslim couple. The fact that the only time the makers feature a Muslim couple with religious markers, they chose to show them as polygyny-practicing.
"I am not only a Muslim, but also a citizen of this country," said Dia Mirza's character, Shehnaz, in the episode as she decides to pursue a ban on polygamy legally. As well-intentioned as the makers of the show might be, at a time when Muslims are experiencing hate crimes, hate speech, losing their homes, jobs and lives, was this the only issue worth picking? The episode ended up feeding into stereotypes and overtly advocating for the controversial Uniform Civil Code.
This begets the question: What IS the reality of polygamy in India?
First, let's look at the some statistics. According to the last National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), the prevalence of polygynous marriages in India was quite low, at 1.4% in 2019-21. While polygynous marriages are 1.9% among Muslims, it's followed by 1.3% among Hindus and 1.6% in other communities.
State-wise, polygyny among Hindus was more prevalent in Telangana, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu, and less prevalent in Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, and Punjab. Similarly, polygynous marriages among Muslims were high in Odisha, Assam, and West Bengal and low in Jammu and Kashmir.
It must be noted that polygynous marriages are not isolated cases but deeply linked to a region's access to education, healthcare, employment and culture, but also what is presented as the norm in the mainstream media is by and large, based on exploiting exceptions with political overtones.
'Polygamy Most Prevalent in Meghalaya, Among Tribals'
Assam's Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma reportedly said in May last year that a Uniform Civil Code would act as “protection” for “Muslim daughters" and has repeatedly called for a ban on polygamy and advocated for UCC. The rate of polygamy among Hindu women in Assam was about 1.8%, according to NFHS-5 data, as compared to 3.6% among Muslim women.
Nabeela Jamil, an Advocate at the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court noted that Bigamy is already criminalised in the Indian Penal Code, but no one knows what UCC would entail.
"With a UCC being pitched as a code that will exempt tribal communities, among whom polygamy is the most common; with no clarity whether customs will be exempted from the code or not as they have been exempted in the Hindu Code and the Special Marriage Act, it’s difficult to say today how a UCC is the answer to polygamy," she told The Quint.
On the other hand, Executive member and spokesperson of All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and national president of Welfare Party of India, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas has stated that those who want to spread propaganda against Muslims when it comes to polygamy will do so, in spite of the data and research available.
Even if you suggest bringing in a law, you should substantiate it with reasoning and data, look at the male and female ratio in India-1000 males: 924 females. The Constitution says UCC will be applied all over the country, then why are you exempting Northeast tribals and Christians? Then, doesn't UCC come across as a political tool?SQR Ilyas, spokesperson, All India Muslim Personal Law Board
Among the caste groups, polygynous marriage was found to be most prevalent among the Scheduled Tribes (STs) vis-à-vis other groups and has declined over time in all the caste groups.
Beyond these statistics, NFHS-5 also noted that "one has to bear in mind that the prevalence of polygyny in India is low and it is fading away. Demographic, health and gender consequences of polygyny needs further probing."
The common belief that Islam is against family planning, which is why Indian Muslims practise polygyny, has for decades caused resentment between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
Even if there are some polygynous marriages, their impact on population growth is negative as then there would be a corresponding number of unmarried men. Besides, the number of children from a second wife is always much lower than from an only wife.Dr SY Quraishi, Ex-Chief Election Commissioner of India, excerpt from his book 'The Population Myth'
'Why Are Only Muslims Represented as Polygamous?'
Here, it's important to note the 'Sarla Mudgal vs Union of India, 1995' and then 'Lily Thomas v union of India, 2000' which outlawed the practise of conversion to Islam by Hindus as a ploy to get rid of the first wife and take a second one.
Ilyas too, said it's the representation in films ends up setting a narrative, advertently or inadvertently. "We saw the hate politics in films like The Kerala story, The Kashmir files which set a certain narrative. Now we have the statistics, one should think twice. Islam only gives conditional permission, what is the reason for all other communities for practising bigamy or polygamy, why is there no complaint then?"
A Deep Misunderstanding of Islam's Position on Polygyny
Moreover, Jamil said that the episode "lacked research on the Islamic position on polygamy and the nuances thereof. How Islamic it is for a man to have an extra-marital relationship with another woman? To put his wife, mother of his children, and another human most importantly, under distress? We all felt this angst while watching the episode."
At the centre of the debate that Muslims produce too many children is the belief that Islam encourages polygamy, which leads to a rise in population growth, Quraishi in his book, observed:
Chapter 5 in his book also noted that Bigamy was rampant in the pre-Islamic era during tribal wars and Islam put restrictions on the same. Mostly, to provide rehabilitation, rights and shelter to the orphans. He wrote that there are only two verses in the Quran, out of which one 'permitting' polygamy conditionally, the other cautioning against it.
The latter verse in the Quran, roughly translates that one cannot do perfect justice between wives even if it is what you desire and hence if you cannot act equitably, then marry one.
Hence, proving that it was only a conditional permission given in a certain historical context and not to be used to legitimize all kinds of polygynous marriages today.
In this regard, Ilyas stated that "when a woman is not able to bear a child and if they want to have a family, some men marry another woman for a child as they don't want an extra-marital affair or divorce and leave his first wife. But this comes with conditions and has its own fallout: You cannot do justice, and marriage is a huge economic burden too. Some men are also misguided and believe what the political leaders say."
The 'Dog-whistling' on Polygamy Goes Back in History
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, mockingly remarked: "Hum paanch, humaare pachchees," suggesting that every Muslim has four wives and 25 children.
Moreover, contrary to what the Hindu Right Wing believes, nowhere has the Quran prohibited family planning, there are only interpretations for and against it. In fact, according to NFHS-5, the total demand for family planning among currently married women age 15-49 in India increased from 66% in 2015-16 to 76% in 2019-21.
The book, 'The Population Myth' also stated that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) believes that those who are against the UCC misguide the community by creating an RSS-phobia, holding that the real purpose of UCC for RSS is majoritarianism.
"The RSS stands for a UCC that does not address micro-issues like rituals, local and community traditions but mainly meta issues like marriage, its dissolution, succession and the right to property for women," the book reads.
The book also included an excerpt from an interview of MS Gowalkar (head of RSS, 1940-1973) wherein he stated that the right to "marry four wives is causing a disproportionate increase in Muslim population," adding that Muslims must resolve their old laws.
RSS had advised Hindus time and again, to have bigger families and go for more children as small-family norms are posing a threat to Hindus.
It must be noted that fertility rates have dropped across communities and the sharpest decline has been among Muslims who are 14.2% of the whole population. The NFHS-5 data stated that fertility rate in the Muslim community, from 4.4 in NFHS 1(1992-93) to 2.3 in NFHS 5 (2019-21).
Hence, discourse and representation of polygyny can be divorced from the politics in the country and the consequences for an already maligned minority community.