Church leaders in India are debating the Hindu-led government's proposal to change a 130-year-old Christian divorce law. The bill would provide women with new grounds for dissolving their marriages. The Parliament plans to discuss the Indian Divorce Amendment Bill 2000 (IDA 2000) during the first week of March.

Under existing law, a Christian husband can petition for the dissolution of his marriage because of adultery, whereas a wife must not only allege adultery but add a charge of cruelty, desertion, or bigamy.

Some Christian leaders, who had been demanding changes for a long time, reacted sharply after claiming that the government failed to consult with them. The government says it heard from all sections of the Christian community before it crafted the measure.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) was one group that made recommendations. "Although divorce is not part of the Roman Catholic faith, we have accepted the bill to support the other Christian groups' demands in the country," said Dominic Emmanuel, CBCI spokesman. "We have also asked the government to name the bill the Christian Marriage Act. … We have also asked [that] the annulment power of marriage … remain with the church."

Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, is among those complaining. "The whole package given by the government is not acceptable to the Christian community," Howell said. "Yes, there is a need to relook into the old laws concerning divorce, but certain sections, [such as] the marriage of Christian and non-Christian, the government need not touch. … We have raised objection to this."

Women's reactions

Jyotsna Chatterjee of the Joint Women Programme (JWP) has a more guarded reaction. She has been working since 1978 to help various parts of India's minority Christian community to reach consensus on divorce law. "I am glad that the government is trying to bring the changes, and the Christian community has agreed largely," Chatterjee said. "But the government is not making the changes comprehensive. … The bill must include the issues that follow divorce, [such as] custody of the children, alimony, and maintenance. Another important section that the bill doesn't include is … divorce by mutual consent."

Howell stresses the need for biblical principles to be followed in divorce cases. "[The] Bible also permits divorce, but only in certain cases," he said, "and the effort should be toward strengthening the marriage bond by encouraging fidelity, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing, rather than to rush for easy, legal separations."

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Meanwhile, some Christian women think the changes might bring about needed changes for women. "The bill will provide the Christian women [with the] justice they have been seeking for years," said K. S. Mary, a lawyer at India's Supreme Court who works with the Justice and Peace Commission in Delhi. "It is a good sign."

Lucy Sebestain, a lecturer in English at a convent school, has been married for the last 18 years and is a mother of two. "In the name of religion, a woman shouldn't be penalized," Sebestain said. "If a Hindu woman can get [a] divorce easily, why not a Christian woman?"

"I am happy that the bill may give equality to women," Sebestain added. "In India we are taught by parents and the society to live in a marriage, whether you are happy or not. … But now the trends are changing, at least in the urban areas."

Related Elsewhere:

Coverage of the rising divorce rate in India and the Christian marriage bill is available from The Times of India.

Previous Christianity Today stories on India include:

India's Christians Face Continued Threats | We must preach what we believe in spite of Hindu pressure, says Operation Mobilization India leader. (Feb. 15, 2000)
India's Quake Survivors Need Counseling | Earthquake survivors are desperate for more than material aid, Indian bishop warns. (Feb. 9, 2001)
Quake Rocks Hindu Hotbed | Agencies appeal for funds to aid victims (Feb. 8, 2001)
Politician Who Saw God's Hand in Gujarat Quake Forced to Resign | Civil aviation minister had told Christians that quake was God's judgment against persecution of Christians. (Feb. 5, 2001)
Christians Hammered by Pre-Christmas Violence | 200 Christians driven from a small town in Gujarat, India, and their church converted into a Hindu temple. (Dec. 22, 2000)
Indian Christian Youth Form Protection Group | Non-violent group aims to counter attacks on Christians through peaceful solidarity. (Nov. 12, 2000)
A Chinese Model for India's Churches? | No thank you, say Indian Christians to Hindu proposal for government church regulation. (Oct. 12, 2000)
U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Criticized | Indian churches reject U.S. inquiry, but Pakistani Christians welcome it. (Oct. 3, 2000)
Plans to Resolve India's Interfaith Tensions Face Delays and Accusations | Did India's National Commission for Minorities plan a meeting to discredit Christians? (July 20, 2000)
India's First Dalit Archbishop Holds 'No Grudge' Over Predecessor's Attack | Once "untouchable" Dalits make up bulk of country's Christians. (May 11, 2000)
India's Christians Resist Move to Register Conversions | State's legislation unconstitutional, says leaders. (May 2, 2000)
Build Bridges, but Fight Fanaticism, India's Churches Told | National Council of churches in India will work against strengthening of caste system. (Mar. 9, 2000)

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