Image: Wikimedia Commons/Shajankumar

The headline effect: the Indian Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage

In India, marriage stands as a revered institution – a sacred bond woven with threads of love and trust, deeply rooted in the country’s rich cultural tapestry. Over the decades, this institution has undergone a profound transformation. Fifty years ago, the notion of interfaith marriages or the abolishment of dowry might have seemed improbable; yet here we stand, witnesses to this evolution of society. However, the recent verdict delivered by the Supreme Court of India on October 17 has sent shockwaves through the LGBT+ community.

The judgement, refraining from legalising same-sex marriages, has sparked contemplation and discourse, prompting us to reassess and redefine the boundaries of cultural norms. As the nation grapples with the aftermath of this ruling, it prompts a closer examination of the cultural ethos surrounding marriage. Traditionally defined as a union between a husband and a wife, the following question emerges: how does our societal fabric accommodate the prospect of two wives or two husbands within this established framework?

The five-judge bench, led by the Chief Justice of India, was divided on this matter, with three of five judges finding that the issue must be decided by the Parliament. Chief Justice Chandrachud stated, “The court, in the exercise of the power of judicial review, must steer clear of matters, particularly those impinging on policy, which fall in the legislative domain.” This judgement left the LGBT+ community in India feeling helpless. After the significant improvements of the past, everyone came to the court with hopes of a significant change in the marriage act. Three decades ago, India openly persecuted gay individuals, endangering one’s employment, life, and position in society. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) represented India’s initial legislation on homosexuality, stipulating that being queer in India was punishable by up to 10 years. This changed on 6 September 2018, with a unanimous decision by a five-judge bench leading to the removal of Section 377 from the Indian Penal Code (IPC), thereby legalising consensual same-sex relationships. It was a historic move by the Indian Supreme Court that made people believe they were on the cusp of legalizing same-sex marriage too.

The court declared Section 4 unconstitutional and expressed support for civil unions among queer persons

The recent judgment delivered by the Supreme Court has stirred conversations across the nation. Contrary to expectations within the LGBT+ community, the verdict did not legalize same-sex marriage but also did not condemn individuals of the same sex from forming unions. The decision, rather than discriminating against the LGBT+ community, emphasised the universality of queerness, dispelling the notion that it is exclusive to urban elites. Justice Chandrachud underscored that homosexuality is not confined to urban settings; individuals from villages and farming communities could also identify as queer. In acknowledging the transformative nature of marriage, Justice Chandrachud observed that the institution has “metamorphosed” into something unrecognisable to our ancestors. However, he noted that the majority of these changes have historically come through acts of Parliament. While the judiciary may guide and catalyse change, it is not empowered to strike down laws. Justice Chandrachud argued that the issue at hand revolves around the constitutionality of Section 4 of the Special Marriage Act (SMA) and asserted that it is for Parliament to determine the fate of this section. The court declared Section 4 unconstitutional and expressed support for civil unions among queer persons, however, it emphasised that striking down the law is a complex matter that goes beyond its jurisdiction. The ruling maintained that queer individuals cannot face discrimination, and denial of material benefits and services to homosexual couples would be a violation of their fundamental rights. The court asserted that the right to enter into a union should not be restricted based on sexual orientation. Effectively, the judgement implies that LGBT+ individuals can now engage in relationships without fear of legal repercussions. However, it also highlighted the intricate legislative changes that would be required if the law were to be amended, touching on areas such as adoption, inheritance, hospital visitation rights, succession, and other matters that fall within the purview of Parliamentary supremacy. The verdict thus initiates a nuanced dialogue between the judiciary and Parliament in navigating the evolving landscape of marriage in India.

Headlines shape perceptions and influence public understanding

The pivotal question that demands attention in the wake of the recent Supreme Court judgment on same-sex marriage is: how has this decision been interpreted by the public? The headlines echoing across news outlets proclaim, “Indian Supreme Court refuses to allow same-sex marriage.” However, the implications of such headlines extend beyond mere reporting; they shape perceptions and influence public understanding. For the average reader who may not delve into the intricacies of the judgement, the immediate assumption might be that the union of homosexual couples is not recognized or accepted. Such a perception, fuelled by headline-driven narratives, can permeate society with detrimental effects. An encounter with a relative exemplifies this phenomenon, as she expressed, “If the Supreme Court does not accept them, then why should I?” This sentiment is echoed by numerous individuals who, guided solely by headlines, form judgments without scrutinising the actual content of the ruling. The repercussions of such assumptions are palpable in various aspects of life. Homosexual couples may face discrimination as potential tenants or encounter obstacles in employment within certain governmental agencies. This bias persists due to a fundamental misunderstanding fuelled by misleading headlines.

In this context, the role of journalism becomes paramount. Good journalism should not only report the news but also elucidate the nuances and true essence of judgments. A more nuanced headline, such as “Legalising Civil Unions: A Step Forward, but Full Marriage Recognition Still Pending,” would better convey the essence of the ruling. The crux of the matter lies in the understanding that headlines wield considerable influence in shaping public opinion. As this situation in India has shown, responsible reporting is crucial, and headlines should serve as guides to understanding rather than reading misconceptions. While I may not entirely endorse the judgement, a thorough reading has afforded me a more nuanced perspective, illustrating the potential for misinterpretation arising from headlines. It is crucial for society to recognize the impact of headlines and strive for a more informed and discerning public discourse.

While the path toward LGBT+ rights appears to face obstacles, there is optimism in the power of good journalism to illuminate understanding. By dismantling misinterpretations and fostering informed discourse, journalism has the potential to pave the way for societal comprehension. As the dialogue unfolds, it is my belief that, eventually, the Parliament will heed the calls for inclusivity and equity, leading to the reconsideration and amendment of laws that currently stand as impediments to progress. In this way, the evolving narrative of marriage in India becomes not just a reflection of tradition and modernity, but also a testament to the resilience of societal growth and acceptance


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