According to Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, “Bigamy is the offense of marrying another while the first marriage persists and such bigamous relations are illegal and the second marriage is void ab initio”. “As per section 17 of the aforementioned act, any marriage solemnized by the husband during the subsistence of that marriage, despite his conversion to another religion, would be an offence triable under section 17 of this act, read with section 494 IPC.” For a long time, married men whose personal law prohibited bigamy have resorted to the unhealthy and immoral practice of converting to Islam in the hope of condensing a second bigamous marriage, assuming that such conversion would allow them to marry again without having their first marriage dissolved.
The case we’re discussing today represents a watershed moment in Indian legal history. The case Lily Thomas vs. Union of India & Ors is significant because the Supreme Court ruled in this case that second marriages without prior divorce from the first marriage are null and void, and “men were converting to Islam to solemnize the second marriage but all of this was considered void unless and until first marriage was dissolved according to the Hindu Marriage Act otherwise the husband would be liable for bigamy under section 494 and 495 of Indian Penal Code.” This was because converting to Islam would not dissolve the first marriage, and the Husband would be accountable to all responsibilities as he would have been before converting to Islam. Such a decision was significant because men were resorting to such acts and tactics which have no interest in what Islam preaches but to marry and have more than one wife.
India is a secular country. Every citizen in India has a right to convert and follow any religion of his/her choice. But is this right to change the religion absolute? What if the motive behind this religious conversion is not the devotion in the other religion but something else? Would this conversion qualify as legitimate even if it is done for selfish motives? This is the question that the landmark judgment of Lily Thomas vs. Union of India raises.
Smt. Sushmita Ghosh, wife of Shri G.C. Ghosh had filed a Writ Petition in this Court stating that she was married to Shri G.C. Ghosh by the Hindu rites and customs of marriage on 10th May 1984. Mr.Ghosh told his wife on April 1, 1992, that she should accept her divorce by mutual consent since he had converted to Islam to remarry, and he had already planned to marry a lady called Vanita Gupta, a divorcee with two children, in July 1992. Shri G.C. Ghosh also submitted a Certificate issued by the office of the Maulana Qari Mohammad Idris, Shahi Qazi certifying that he had accepted Islam out of his free will and consent. The wife of Mr. Ghosh informed her father and aunt and told them about her husband’s conversion and the reason behind his conversion being the intention to remarry. They all attempted to persuade Mr. Ghosh and talk him out of the marriage, but it was futile, and he urged that Sushmita consent to her divorce or face having to deal with a second wife. According to the petition, Mr. Ghosh converted to Islam primarily for the sake of re-marriage and has no genuine faith in Islam. He does not observe the obligatory Muslim procedures, nor has he changed his name.
- Issue of Uniform Civil Code under Article 44 of the Indian Constitution was raised. It is a proposal to formulate such laws on marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other personal matters that can apply to all citizens following different religions. But this obstructs the right of the citizens under Article 25 to practice religion since each religion has its own personal rules.
- Can a Hindu or non-Hindu husband convert to Islam solely for the second marriage? What is the validity of the first and the second marriage?
- What is the legal action against the husband for second marriage if he converts his religion? Should he be prosecuted under Section 494 of IPC?
The question thus raised for the Court was that if a non Muslim converts himself to Muslim without any real change in belief and only for marrying twice, would the marriage after conversion be declared void?
Arguments Advanced from the side of Petitioner:
- Petitioner’s first issue was that since “marriage is a sacred union then taking recourse to the act of religious conversion to Muslim with the principle aim to commit the act of marrying again as Muslim personal law allows it is an attempt where the women freedom of facing such bigamous marriage and such betrayal is violative of Art.21(right to life and liberty).”
- Lily Thomas pleaded before the court that just like the Hindu Marriage Act, male Polygamy should also be declared unconstitutional and invalid.
- It was pleaded before the court to apply the Uniform Civil Code to deal with complex vast socio-legal issues that were arising due to various religious personal laws.
- Petitions were filed before Supreme Court and various High Courts by Muslim women to declare male polygamy unconstitutional.
- It was urged before the court to make amendments and required insertion and removal of various sections in Muslim personal law with the change in time and polygamy should be prohibited because it is harmful to the integrity and liberty of women who are forced to live in such relationships. To have Uniform Civil Code so that no personal religious law makes a fundamental right violation.
Arguments advanced from the side of Respondent:
• The respondents in all of the preceding petitions make the same claim: that after converting to Islam, they can have four wives regardless of whether the first wife is Hindu or not. “As a result, they are not subject to the application of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Section 11 of which makes bigamous marriage void, as well as Section 17 of which renders them guilty of bigamy under Section 17.”
On 5th May 2000, the bench of Justice Saghir Ahmed and Justice R. Sethi gave the judgment that the marriage performed under Hindu Marriage Act is not dissolved by a change of religion. The court held, “ Renunciation of Religion does not end the civil obligations or the matrimonial bond, but it is a ground for filing divorce under Section 13 and judicial separation under Section 10 of Hindu Marriage Act. The Hindu law supports ‘monogamy’. Therefore, Second marriage is void under Section 11 and 17 and it is an offense under Section 494 and 495 of the Indian Penal Code.
The court had held that if after conversion, a hindu husband performs second marriage then such conversion is fraudulent. That’s why, such a marriage would be declared void.
As far as the issue of Uniform Civil Code is concerned, it was observed that applying an Uniform Civil Code would do injustice with the personal laws like Sharia, Hindu Marriage Act etc. But it was also clarified that the wrong done under any personal law will also invite criminal punishment. 
Conclusion and Way Ahead:
The case of Lily Thomas vs. Union of India is a landmark case because it helped to avoid the use of the fundamental right of practicing any religion for the selfish motive of bigamy. Though the Court remained silent on the issue of uniform civil code for all the citizens, the Supreme Court took a great leap forward by making it illegal to marry another lady after converting to Islam if the first marriage is not nullified. The judgment is also important because in those days the men who belonged to a religion that prohibited polygamy were practicing such conversions for second marriage. This issue was outlawed by the Supreme Court in the case of “Mudgal v. Union of India”, 1995, and the judgment in “Lily Thomas vs. Union of India” further strengthened the former ruling. It has been too long a long time since the Lily Thomas judgment yet a few inquiries actually stay unanswered concerning transformation and the execution of the Uniform Civil Code.
The judgment has so far been a significant one. But there are still some issues that need attention regarding the conversion and the Uniform Civil Code. The headlines of polygamy under the curtail of religious conversion are still evident. A prominent Hindu politician who was already married disappeared and came after one month after marrying someone else claiming that he has converted to Islam, which makes his marriage lawful. Similarly, an army physician serving in Afghanistan married a girl after converting to Islam without telling her about his first marriage. There are even more such cases that go unnoticed, which makes it necessary to turn this landmark judgement into binding legislation.
The other issue that came to light is the lack of a comprehensive and long-lasting framework to deal with the issues about the conflict between Personal laws and Penal laws. The recent bill on Triple Talaq throws light on the confrontation between personal laws and the penal provisions. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019 makes the pronouncing of ‘Triple Talaq’ a criminal offense. Some Muslim critics opposed the bill by saying that it interferes with Muslim Personal laws.
Similarly, the recent issue of Love Jihad has made headlines after the death of a student, Nikita Tomar who refused to convert to Islam. The subsequent passing of the Anti Conversion bills by different state governments like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh has further raised the need of introducing a uniform civil code for the whole country. The demand is raised on the ground that the personal laws hinder interfaith marriage and a Uniform Civil Code will not only help in solving interfaith problems but also help in bringing equality for women. 
Thus, it is seen that in a secular country like India, the intervention of the Judiciary to avoid misuse of Fundamental Rights is a necessity. The judgment will remain significant not only in the context of immoral religious conversions but also in safeguarding women from the unjust behavior of their husbands. A good suggestion by the law commission is to introduce a section in Hindu Marriage Act that prohibits marriage even after changing religion if the first marriage is not dissolved. The violation of the law will attract punishment. The issue of the Uniform Civil Code remains a controversial issue. The supporters of this uniform code emphasize that it will bring uniformity and help in getting a better solution to issues dealt in personal laws like marriage, divorce, inheritance etc. On the other hand, minority religions like Islam face the threat of imposition of a Hindu majority-dominated code that will overrule their personal laws. These issues certainly need attention because having a codified law for all the religion will prevent conversions done with ill motives. But winning the trust of all the communities will remain a challenge. This challenge needs to be overcome so that ‘we can move in the right direction together.’ It can be concluded that the personal laws have not remained personal anymore and a proper step in bringing an efficient mechanism to deal with such issues is the need of the hour.
 Asmita Sahay, “Lily Thomas vs. Union of India & Ors.” LAW TIMES JOURNAL (June 11, 2021, 6:30 P.M), lawtimesjournal.in/lily-thomas-vs-union-of-india-ors/.
 Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Acts of Parliament,1955 (India)
 Supra Note 1
 Aditi Singh, Case Summary: Lily Thomas vs. Union of India & Ors,LAWLEX.ORG (June 11, 2021, 5:16 P.M), https://lawlex.org/lex-bulletin/case-summary-lily-thomas-vs-union-of-india-ors/23257.
 Prachi Bharadwaj, “Remembering Adv. Lily Thomas, Supreme Court’s Senior Most Woman Advocate.” SCC BLOG,( June 11, 2021, 3:45 P.M) www.scconline.com/blog/post/2019/12/10/remembering-adv-lily-thomas-supreme-courts-senior-most-woman-advocate/.
 “Bare Acts Live.” Www.bareactslive.com, www.bareactslive.com/LCR/LC227.HTM.
 Aarefa Johari, “Demands for a Uniform Civil Code Are Back and Women’s Groups Continue to Oppose It. Here’s Why.”SCROLL.IN (June 11,2021. 3:00 P.M.)
Vidhi Periwal ( Batch of 2020 – 2025)
Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala