In five years of being married, Pramod Arora has never felt particularly motivated to get his marriage officially registered. Twice, the 35-year-old from Gurgaon made inquiries about the registration procedure at the local civil court but could not bring himself to follow through on the “immensely complex and time-consuming” process.

“Filling forms and taking two witnesses to the court on a set date, along with supporting documents like the wedding invitation card and photos – it seems like a never-ending process,” said Arora, a digital marketing professional. The absence of a legally recognised marriage certificate caused some trouble when Arora and his wife had to get their passports renewed and updated with their respective spouse’s names on them. “But we managed to get the work done by attaching an annexure to our forms stating that we are married.”

Since he has faced no other significant problems, Arora is not in a hurry to get his marriage registered. “I believe we will get it done at some point, though,” he said.

Registering one’s marriage with the local court or municipal authority is perhaps more common among Indian couples today than it was a generation ago, but it is still not the norm. Like Arora, most couples solemnise their union through religious rituals, without following it up with the registration that would give them a government-backed marriage certificate.

This may change, however, if the central government accepts the Law Commission’s recent recommendation to make marriage registration mandatory for couples of all communities across the country. In a report submitted to the law ministry on July 4, the commission pushed for compulsory registration of marriage within 30 days of the wedding, proposing a fine of Rs 5 per day for any delays after that.

Mandatory registration, the report reasons, would help prevent child marriage, fraud, bigamy and husbands deserting their wives. It would be particularly helpful for women seeking their rights as wives. The Law Commission also suggested linking marriage registration with Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometric-based unique identity number, to ensure universal traceability.

However, in a country where lakhs of couples choose not to register marriage despite facing a range of problems, the success of compulsory registration would depend on how easy the procedure is.

Mandatory in some states

The demand to make marriage registration mandatory in India is not new. In 2005, for instance, the National Commission for Women drafted a Compulsory Registration of Marriages Bill that was not taken up further. In 2006, the Supreme Court recommended mandatory marriage registration for people of all religions. In 2013, the Rajya Sabha passed a proposed amendment to the Registration of Births and Deaths Act to include compulsory registration of marriage, but it was not taken up by the Lok Sabha before its term expired in 2014.

Some states, however, have already passed laws to make marriage registration mandatory. Himachal Pradesh became the first state to introduce such a law in 2004. In 2006 and 2008, Bihar and Kerala, respectively, followed suit. Rajasthan introduced such a law in 2009 but it does not apply to marriages solemnised under Christian and Parsi personal laws.

Last month, Uttar Pradesh announced its plan to make marriage registration mandatory. The state had already introduced an Aadhaar-based online registration process last year: couples have to provide their Aadhaar and mobile numbers to register and get downloadable marriage certificates from a government website. State officials claim over 87,000 people have obtained their marriage certificates through this new system.

Culture governed by rituals

Across India, however, most marriages still go unregistered. “In general, we are not a country that values marriage certificates because our culture is heavily governed by rituals,” said Vandana Shah, a divorce lawyer from Mumbai who believes the trend of registering marriages has risen in recent years as more couples seek passports and visas to migrate abroad. “Even the Hindu Marriage Act recognises customary or ritualistic marriages as legitimate.”

But when customary marriages are not registered with a state body, it becomes tougher for couples – wives in particular – to prove their marital status when applying for identity cards, loans, joint bank accounts, even divorce.

Shah cites the example of a client who had trouble getting divorce from her second husband because their marriage was not registered. Although it was irrelevant to the case, court officials made her file multiple affidavits to prove she had been widowed before marrying the second time. “It was black humour,” Shah said. “She had to prove that she was seeking a divorce because she was married to the man. As a woman, your life becomes so much easier to justify if you have a marriage certificate.”

‘No need to register’

Many couples who have not yet registered their marriage have found ways to circumvent such bureaucracy, though.

In Mumbai, writer Anurag Bakshi realised that marriages had to be registered when his wife tried to get her passport. But instead of choosing the “tedious” process of registering their marriage, Bakshi’s wife followed her passport agent’s advice and got her surname officially changed through a notarised affidavit and a notification in the government gazette. After that, the couple managed to buy a flat under her marital name and get her passport made. They are not planning to get their marriage registered anymore. “Now both our passports show us as husband and wife, so we don’t feel the need to register,” said Bakshi, who has been married 10 years.

Rafat Khan, a healthcare professional, is eager to see a law that makes marriage registration compulsory. Without a marriage certificate, Khan has faced problems getting his wife’s name on the family’s ration card and her address changed on her voter identity and Aadhaar cards. “Our nikhanama [Muslim marriage contract] is not accepted as proof of marriage,” said Khan, who lives in Mumbai and has been married for a decade.

Tazeen Syed, a marketing executive in Mumbai, however, has been successfully using her nikahnama as proof of marriage for official paperwork in the year and a half since her wedding. “When we rented our house, our nikahnama was accepted,” she said. “Nikahnama is legally accepted in India so I have used it whenever needed.”

Simplify the process

This lack of consistency among government officials – some demanding registered marriages and others accepting ritualistic ones – has contributed to the confusion among many couples over whether they should bother registering their marriage.

Freelance journalist Nidhi Jamwal, who has not faced any major problems without a marriage certificate, has no desire to get a “piece of paper from the government” to prove that she has been married since 2004. “I don’t intend getting our marriage registered till it is forced down our throats like Aadhaar, which I don’t have,” Jamwal said.

Couples who do not have such strong views against registration said they would go for it if the process was made simpler. Syed, for instance, does plan to get her marriage registered but has ideas about how the procedure could be made less wearisome. “I find the whole process very taxing,” she said. “Taking a date from the court, going there, getting a witness again. If I have a nikahnama, the procedure should be as simple as uploading it and getting registered online.”

In Gurgaon, Arora wants marriage registration made compulsory, but only after the process is simplified. “Look at the passport office,” he said, offering an example. “It is great that it has transitioned from completely offline to online form filling, and a seamless computerised procedure.”