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Same-sex couples in India are using a Gujarati practice to get ‘married’

Maitri Karar began as a tool for married men to legitimize their lovers. Now same-sex couples are using it to make their relationships official

Representational image from a Pride March in India.
Representational image from a Pride March in India.

In late June, two policewomen from Mahisagar, Gujarat, filed a petition in the Gujarat high court in Ahmedabad. The women had been in a relationship for the past three years, their petition said. They wanted to live together but their families were not in favour of it. They were trying to separate the two, and the women sought a court order for police protection.

The petition also referred to a ‘Friendship Agreement’ they had entered into. This Maitri Karar, as it is colloquially known in Gujarat, was their way of legitimizing their relationship. Under the contract, their lawyer, Zakir Rathod, told Mint, the two had vowed to stay together for the rest of their lives. “Like in case of a marital union, it had details on property ownership, inheritance and maintenance, in case of separation.”

On 23 July, the Gujarat high court granted their petition and ordered the Mahisagar police to give protection to the couple. While there was no explicit mention of the Maitri Karar, Rathod believes it helped the couple demonstrate their commitment to each other. “Under Indian laws, same-sex civil unions are not possible but same-sex cohabitation is. And ever since homosexuality was decriminalized by the Supreme Court in 2018, I have come across many instances of gay couples wanting to get into a Maitri Karar. I myself have helped three-four of them in the past few years,” he adds.

Its exact origins are uncertain but Maitri Karar is believed to have started in the 1970s in Gujarat. “It started as a small phase in an overarching patriarchal tradition,” says Maya Sharma, an activist with the Vikalp Women’s Group. “For as long as we know, men and women were having relationships outside marriage. Usually, the man would keep promising the woman that he would leave the wife but that seldom happened.”

The Hindu Marriage Act prohibits a second marriage as long as the spouse from the first is still alive. “The women often felt they needed some kind of security from the man they were involved with,” says Sharma. “The Maitri Karar wasn’t codified in law but drafted on a stamp paper. There wasn’t a set format but often it spoke of their relationship and laid out the terms of living arrangements. When the man couldn’t leave his wife, this is a way of telling the lover, look at the stakes I am taking in our relationship.”

The practice, adds Sharma, spread “like Chinese whispers, like secrets are passed”. But it also invited the wrath of women’s rights groups. Shobha Saxena, author of Crimes Against Women And Protective Laws, writes: “This contract is simply fraud upon the woman who is unaware this is not a marriage at all. This agreement cannot be enforced. The woman can do nothing if the man simply walks out of the contract.”

In 1982, the book says, the Gujarat government issued a notification clarifying that Maitri Karar was against policy. It also introduced a Bill in the state assembly to ban such contracts. The Bill has lapsed but Sharma says the practice has decreased.

Maitri karar is most commonly practiced in Gujarat.
Maitri karar is most commonly practiced in Gujarat.

In 1988, two women from Vadadhali village in Chhota Udaipur, Gujarat, decided to make their relationship official using Maitri Karar. It is among the earliest documented cases of same-sex couples using the Karar. Their decision, an Indian Express report on 7 May 1988 said, “created a sensation of sorts when they entered into a contract marriage by signing before the notary republic [sic] and decided to live together”.

At the time, homosexuality was illegal. “But the Maitri Karar translates into ‘a contract of friendship’,” says Sharma. “It doesn’t say relationship anywhere.” Over the years, she says, many same-sex couples entered into such agreements. In 2016, an inter-faith heterosexual couple from Banaskantha, Gujarat, entered into a Maitri Karar as a substitute for marriage, since neither of them wanted to change their religion. Sharma says her organization used such contracts in court cases in which one of the partners’ parents were forcing marriage upon them. “It has helped us get judgements in our favour,” she adds.

Most instances of Maitri Karar are found in Gujarat. But Ruth Vanita, scholar and author of Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage In India And the West, writes that Mamata and Monalisa, a lesbian couple from Odisha, entered into a similar contract in 1998. “These procedures are comparable to the practice in the United States of same-sex couples drawing up wills and powers of attorney to confer rights on one another,” writes Vanita. “Friendship agreements evolved independently in India under Indian contract law, which recognizes any contract, whether notarized or not, between consenting adults, if it does not violate state policy. The idea of a friendship agreement is also based on premodern traditions of recognizing friendship as an institution.”

There has been no study to assess the prevalence of Maitri Karar over the years. Manvendra Singh Gohil, co-founder of the Vadodara-based LGBTQ+ rights group Lakshya Trust, says that a 2018 Supreme Court judgement recognizing the right of a couple to be in a live-in relationship has helped foster wider acceptance for practices such as Maitri Karar. “Now the community is trying to use Maitri Karar as a way to formalize their partnership. It’s leading to a fact that even if same-sex unions are not legalized, you are contractually bound to be together.”

The policewomen from Mahisagar did not respond to phone calls and text messages. But Rathod, their lawyer, says the couple hasn’t been harassed since the court ruled in their favour. “I have seen their relationship is a mature one,” he says. “They might not be married but they are happy.”

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