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Uttarakhand’s Policing of Live-In Relationships: A Closer Look

The Indian state has set a dangerous precedent by legislating what is essentially vigilantism. Surveillance erodes civil liberties and exposes vulnerable groups to increased violence.

On 7th February, the Uttarakhand State Assembly passed the Uniform Civil Code* (UCC), setting a dangerous precedent by legislating what is essentially vigilantism. The new law mandates the registration of live-in relationships and penalises delays with imprisonment or heavy fines. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami's paternalistic claim that it would "end the centuries-long injustices faced by women" was risible since the legislation seriously undermines individual liberties. It cannot masquerade as progressive merely for recognising live-in relationships since it attacks the very essence of such relationships—freedom from legal and social obligations. It is a brazen attempt to normalise the culture of surveillance.

Let's not forget surveillance has colonial roots. Its purpose was to monitor and control indigenous populations and manage any threats to colonial authority. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015), author Simone Browne argues that in the United States, surveillance emerged from anti-Blackness and the desire to exert control over and monitor enslaved Black people.

In the current context, states and corporations continue to use surveillance as a tool to control and subjugate. By legitimising increased scrutiny, socially vulnerable groups are persecuted as their access to justice is already undermined by systemic and institutionalised discrimination. Different forms of surveillance force conformity, stifle opposition and break people down into datasets. Though often touted as a crime deterrent, surveillance exposes vulnerable groups to violence and loss of autonomy, perpetuating cycles of violence. It's crucial to understand how surveillance intersects with gender, sexuality, race, caste, class, and religion. In settler-colonial Israel, for example, surveillance has long been used to oppress Palestinians.

In India, most women, queer or gender-expansive people have limited control over choosing their intimate partners or defining the nature of living arrangements. The Uttarakhand UCC does little to empower women and gender-expansive people in domestic partnerships. Instead, it ensnares those who have a chance to break free from oppressive traditions.

The most pernicious part of Uttarakhand legislation is the prison term for a registration delay beyond thirty days or the failure to register a live-in relationship. The prescription of punitive measures for non-registry sets a dangerous precedent of governments forcing compliance with surveillance mechanisms by criminalising non-cooperation. In the rest of India, even the non-registry of marriage doesn't lead to punitive action. To provide optional registration to people is one thing, but attaching a prison term for failing to register a partnership is the carceral state asserting its authoritarianism.

State-appointed registrars can conduct inquiries and summon partners or any person they deem fit for "verification." Handing local officials arbitrary power and putting no checks in place creates room for harassment and discrimination. Further, what this verification might entail or what passes for evidence remains unclear. How the government intends to allow for an inquiry of this nature while simultaneously upholding privacy remains unanswered. The registrar will maintain records of these relationships, but it's unclear if they will be accessible to the public. Moreover, provisions of the UCC allow the Uttarakhand government to collect and maintain a register of data it doesn't need and shouldn't seek.

A registry of live-in relationships also increases the threat of violence against interfaith and intercaste couples. Summoning people in the quest for verification means local authorities can inform a couple's parents, relatives, landlords, and employers of their relationship status, even without their consent. In an incendiary atmosphere, it will serve as a new arm in the arsenal of Hindu supremacists who have invented narratives such as love jihad (a conspiracy theory which claims Muslim men are courting Hindu women in an organised effort to coerce them to convert to Islam).

Many reject the institution of marriage precisely because it is a state-sanctioned institution with legal barriers to entering and terminating it. A limited yet increasing acceptance of lived-in relationships in India has been emerging as an alternative. But the Uttarakhand legislation has laid the groundwork to strip people of this option by making live-in relationships even more scrutinised than marriages. It completely negates the basic principle of autonomy that consenting adults should be able to enter and exit relationships without being answerable to anyone.

The Uttarakhand UCC requires the registrar to forward the statements of the start and termination of domestic partnerships to the local police station, effectively creating a list of people living together in an area. Under the new rules, those below twenty-one must seek parental consent despite the age of consent being eighteen in India. If a couple fails to seek parental consent, the police will notify the parents before registration. It's not hard to see how these clauses reinforce traditional patriarchal familial frameworks that seek to infantilise young adults to exert control over them.

By exposing live-in relationships through registries and inquiries, the Uttarakhand government is stripping away the safety net that anonymity provides within traditionally oppressive societies. After all, vigorously defending cisheteropatriachal norms and the rigid gender binary is central to the Hindu supremacist agenda.

Amid rising political authoritarianism, the UCC aligns with the trend of using legislation to target Muslim communities, erasing plurality. In this Orwellian scenario, the most private parts of people's lives face government scrutiny. Surveillance has far-reaching consequences for victims; it has an impact on their mental and physical health, prevents their access to legal remedies, and can even be life-threatening.

The option to register domestic partnerships exists in twenty EU countries, the UK, Brazil, and the so-called USA, Canada, and Australia. The idea in other parts of the world is to allow partners access to many benefits otherwise reserved for those who are married. Partners in registered domestic partnerships in these countries generally have inheritance rights, can make medical decisions for each other, are allowed hospital visitations, can access their partner's health insurance, and can get tax benefits. In France, for instance, declaring a live-in relationship (concubinage) allows cohabiting partners to share a home, get their partner's health coverage, and claim compensation for the accidental death of a partner. Children born to cohabiting couples have the same rights as children born to married couples. This information is not shared publicly unless by the couple themselves.

In contrast, the Uttarakhand legislation is a regressive blow that does little more than scale back civil liberties. It is only a step in the direction of India's transformation into an absolute surveillance state.

The grip of surveillance is hardening in India. New Delhi has become the world's most surveilled city outside China in terms of video surveillance cameras per square mile. The Delhi Police uses facial recognition technology to crack down on citizens—hundreds were arrested during anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and farmers protests in 2020. Telangana, India's most surveilled state, uses highly invasive surveillance mechanisms, including cordon-and-search operations in predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods and a centralised database of residents. Opposition leaders, activists, and journalists are the targets of highly invasive spyware such as Pegasus, which was used to hack into three hundred cell phones in 2021 and over twenty in 2023. Drones are constantly monitoring people in Kashmir in the hostile presence of armed forces.

Moreover, new legislation is creating a landscape where people cannot resist even the most coercive forms of surveillance. The Telecommunications Act passed in December 2023 makes biometric verification of social media users mandatory and allows the government to intercept every message transmitted in any form. Another harsh legislation, the Post Office Act, passed simultaneously, authorises the government to intercept, inspect, and discard any postal item.

The Uttarakhand government has provided another legal cover for surveilling the most intimate aspects of people's lives. How the state will implement this legislation is yet to be seen, but the significant potential for misuse alone should have been enough to prevent the bill from passing.

* The "uniform civil code" in India refers to a proposed set of laws aimed at standardising personal laws across different religions, particularly in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption.