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While ruling on a very significant legal point pertaining to the marriage ceremony and when it could be considered complete and binding, the Patna High Court in a most learned, laudable, landmark and latest judgment titled Ravi Kumar vs Bandana Kumari in Miscellaneous Appeal No. 248 of 2020 that was pronounced as recently as on 10-11-2023 has annulled a marriage that was held at gunpoint in 2013. The Patna High Court said that if ‘Saptapadi' has not been completed, marriage would not be considered to be complete and binding. It must be noted that the Patna High Court had annulled the marriage of a Constable who was abducted and forcefully married to a woman. Earlier the Constable had filed an appeal under Section 19(1) of the Family Courts Act, 1984 against the judgment of the Family Court which had dismissed his petition filed for decree of nullity of marriage.

At the very outset, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment authored by Hon'ble Mr Arun Kumar Jha for a Division Bench of Patna High Court comprising of Hon'ble Mr PB Bajanthri and himself sets the ball in motion by first and foremost putting forth in para 2 that, "The instant Miscellaneous Appeal has been filed by the petitioner/appellant under Section 19(1) of the Family Courts Act, 1984 against the judgment 27.01.2020 passed by the learned Principal Judge, Family Court, Lakhisarai in Matrimonial Case No. 51 of 2013 dismissing the petition of the petitioner filed for decree of nullity of marriage under Section 12(1)(c) of Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 read with Rule 6 of Hindu Marriage Rules, 1956."

To put things in perspective, it would be material to note that the Division Bench envisages in para 3 while shedding light on the facts of the case stating that, "The case of the petitioner/appellant as it appears from the record, is that the petitioner/appellant is a Constable in communication coy Section ‘A'. On 30.06.2013, the petitioner along with his uncle had gone to Ashok Dham Temple in Lakhisarai for worship. When the petitioner and his uncle had been purchasing materials for worship at about 02:00 pm, three persons, namely, Rajesh Kumar, Deepak Kumar and Bipin Singh all of Village Chauki, P.O., Balgudar P.S. and DistrictLakhisarai along with six unknown persons who were armed with pistol and knives came and surrounded the petitioner and his uncle. These persons brought the respondent near the petitioner and threatening him with life at gun point and dagger forced him to put vermillion (sindur) to the forehead of the respondent. On resistance being shown by the petitioner, he was assaulted with slaps and fists. The uncle of the petitioner was also surrounded and threatened by the aforesaid persons. Finding no way out as being in custody of the above noted persons, the petitioner put sindur on the head of the respondent but without any religious or spiritual rites and rituals. After performance of the so called marriage, the petitioner and respondent were kept confined in a dark room in the house of the above named Bipin Singh. The uncle of the petitioner was also threatened and confined to the house of Bipin Singh. After sunset, the uncle of the petitioner was set free and he was asked to come with his family members along with ornaments and clothes for respondent as the marriage has been performed. Thereafter, the uncle of the petitioner went to the Lakhisarai Police Station and informed the police about the incident at about 02:00 pm on 01.07.2013, but the police did not register the case. On the same night, the petitioner somehow managed to come out of the house of the respondent who is the daughter of above named Bipin Singh and went to inform the police about the incident but again the police did not take any action. Thereafter, the petitioner reached his village. Since the petitioner was required to join his duty immediately, he went to his service place and after getting leave, he came to file this case. Meanwhile, the uncle of the petitioner has also filed a criminal case in the Court of learned C.J.M., Lakhisarai vide Complaint Case No. 431C/12 under Section 323, 341, 352, 387 and 365 IPC. Thus the petitioner submitted that the so called marriage is in contravention of religious and customary laws and is voidable as the petitioner was forced to put sindur on the head of the respondent under threat and coercion. The petitioner has not performed any religious function out of his free will and consent and prayed the learned Family Court to annul the so called marriage while passing a decree of nullity."

As it turned out, the Division Bench enunciates in para 4 that, "The respondent appeared and filed her written statement. In her written statement, the respondent submitted that she is the wife of the petitioner and their marriage has been solemnized on 30.06.2013 under Hindu customs and at the time of marriage, the father of the respondent gave the petitioner gift of gold, Rs. 10,00,000 (Ten Lacs) and other material. The respondent went to her matrimonial home and after passage of some time, the petitioner demanded a Maruti Car and tortured the respondent. The respondent denied all the averments made by the petitioner in his petition contending that respective allegations are false and fabricated. The respondent further submitted that she has filed a complaint case under Section 498 IPC vide Complaint Case No. 599C of 2015 which was pending in the Court of learned S.D.J.M., Lakhisarai."

Do note, the Division Bench notes in para 34 that, "Section 7 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 reads as under:-

"7. Ceremonies for a Hindu marriage.–

(1) A Hindu marriage may be solemnized in accordance with the customary rites and ceremonies of either party thereto.

(2) Where such rites and ceremonies include the Saptapadi (that is, the taking of seven steps by the bridegroom and the bride jointly before the sacred fire), the marriage becomes complete and binding when the seventh step is taken.""

Most significantly, the Division Bench unmistakably holds in para 35 what constitutes the cornerstone of this notable judgment that, "From bare perusal of the aforesaid provision, it is obvious that when such rites and ceremonies including Saptapadi the marriage becomes complete and binding, when seventh step is taken. Conversely, if ‘saptapadi' has not been completed, the marriage would not be considered to be complete and binding. Now, the respondent has claimed that all rituals were performed and ‘saptapadi' was complete. It is surprising that Pandit who performed the marriage ceremony has no knowledge about the essentials of the marriage and his deposition is not clear about the place of marriage. The photographs of the purported marriage cannot help the case of the respondent since it has not been properly exhibited and could not be considered admissible. Moreover, the photographs on their own could not reveal anything. It is not the case of the petitioner/appellant that no marriage was ever solemnized rather it is his contention that he was forced into marriage. Under the circumstances, even if the photographs are taken into consideration, it cannot be said that the marriage was being solemnized without any outer influence. It has all along the contention of the petitioner that his marriage was under duress and the same was rebuttable contention for which the onus was on the respondent, but she failed to discharge this onus. On the other hand, the petitioner's case has been supported by witnesses who remained unimpeached during cross-examination."

It cannot be glossed over that the Division Bench propounds in para 36 that, "The learned Family Court has adopted its own reasoning for disbelieving the case of the petitioner, but, in our opinion, the said view is flawed. The learned Family Court went on the premise that the petitioner did not immediately lodge the complaint either to the police or to the court and this gap makes the case of the petitioner disbelievable. As discussed herein before, the petitioner has explained the situation and there is no undue delay, even the petitioner took steps post marriage through his Officer in the Army Command. So, it cannot be said that the petitioner slept over the matter. Similarly, the learned Family Court has recorded that at the time of marriage, persons from both sides were present. But, where from the Family Court come to this conclusion is not forthcoming from the evidence of the respondent's side. When the learned Family Court expressed his opinion that photographs has not been examined, it was not open for the Family Court to rely on the same documents. Then, in absence of material to otherwise, the learned Family Court's finding that not performing the ritual of ‘saptapadi' does not mean that marriage was not performed, is devoid of any merit. Another aspect which has been taken into consideration by the learned Family Court is about respondent staying in her matrimonial home for a few days. But, where is the evidence to prove this contention? It remains only a statement in absence of any supportive evidence. If the respondent has resided in her matrimonial home after her marriage, there would have been corroborative evidence which is clearly lacking in the present case. Further, the learned Family Court relied on respondent lodging a case under Section 498(A) of IPC. But, dates and events makes it amply clear that the case was lodged by the respondent on 17.08.2015, i.e., after two years of the marriage. It does not appear to a co-incidence that the said case was lodged after the Matrimonial Case No. 51 of 2013 came into existence. So, the case under Section 498(A) IPC being a counterblast to the matrimonial case, cannot be denied."

While citing the most relevant case laws, the Bench propounds in para 37 that, "We find merit in the contention of the learned counsel for the petitioner/appellant. The written statement of respondent is silent on a number of points and denials are evasive. Further, it has come in the evidence of the petitioner's side that the marriage did not commence, as there was no cohabitation since the petitioner fled away in the night of his marriage. Even this fact has not been denied by the respondent, though a plea has been taken that she went to her matrimonial home after the marriage, but, as has been observed earlier that she failed to produce any corroborative evidence. Reliance could be placed on the decision of the Hon'ble Apex Court in the case of Gian Chand and Brothers and Anr. Vs. Rattan Lal Alias Rattan Singh, reported in 2013(2) SCC 606 that if there is no specific denial and denial is totally evasive, respondent could not have been permitted to lead any evidence. Similarly, reliance of the learned counsel for the appellant/petitioner on the decision of the Hon'ble Apex Court in the case of S. Nagalingam Vs. Sivagami reported in (2001) 7 SCC 487 is quite appropriate that a traditional Hindu form of marriage is not a valid marriage in absence of performance of ‘saptapadi' and ‘datta homa'."

As a corollary, the Division Bench holds in para 38 that, "In the light of discussions made so far and on the basis of evidence adduced by the parties, we come to the conclusion that the order of the learned Family Court is not sustainable and hence the Judgment dated 27.01.2020 passed in Matrimonial Case No. 51 of 2013 stands set aside. The marriage of the appellant-petitioner with respondent stands annulled."

In conclusion, we thus see that the Patna High Court very rightly annuls the marriage of the Constable who is the petitioner. The Court has thus made it indubitably clear that if ‘saptapadi' has not been completed, marriage would not be considered to be complete and binding. There can be just no denying it!

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