CHANDIGARH— When Manjit Sandhu, a jail warden in the Punjab Police married her girlfriend Seerat, a former prisoner under her charge, in July 2017, homosexuality was still a punishable offence in India.
That changed last year in September 2018, when the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex. Now Manjit and Seerat want to travel abroad for a much-delayed honeymoon to Canada — only to find that Indian officialdom is not ready to accord LGBTQ couples many of the rights that heteronormative citizens take for granted.
A honeymoon might seem like an indulgence — which it isn’t — but it offers a window into why LGBTQ activists are determined to build on their victory from last year.
A long established history of Punjabis like the Sandhus seeking to travel abroad in search of work has resulted in a deep-rooted suspicion amongst visa authorities.
While Manjit is 48 years old and has a government job, making her less of an immigration threat in the eyes of visa authorities, Seerat is only 22, with few assets of her own.
“It is very difficult to get a visa for Seerat as she is 22 years and does not have a job,” Manjit said. “Also, we do not have much property on our name. All we want to travel to Canada for a week but can’t.”
For heterosexual couples in India, it is often easier to get a visa if they can prove they are married. But India does not recognise gay marriage.
“The passport officials have asked to submit our marriage registration certificate to include my name in her passport,” Manjit said. “But the marriage office at Jalandhar has refused to register our marriage.”
Love and paperwork
The problem with Seerat and Manjit’s paperwork goes much beyond just her passport. As a government employee, Manjit is entitled to include her spouse on her life and health insurance policies and as a nominee on her pension fund.
Yet, these provisions do not apply to same-sex couples, neither do laws of inheritance of property.
“There has been a huge change in the common man’s perception towards our relationship after the SC’s historic verdict on section 377,” said Manjit, referring to the section of the Indian penal code that criminalised gay sex until it was struck down. “But the government seems to have been sleeping over the issue. I cannot even pronounce Seerat as my wife or declare her my official nominee.”
Supreme Court lawyer Anand Grover said the couple would probably have to approach the courts to gain legal recognition.
“Subject to seeing their (Manjeet and Seerat Sandhu) documents of “marriage” in order to get legal recognition of their marriage they will have to initiate litigation,” said Grover.
Meanwhile, a 2012 Punjab state law requiring that all couples mandatorily register their weddings in with the state has created an added complication. Until this law was passed, couples of a particular religion could obtain marriage certificates from their particular religious authority.
Now, Manjit and Seerat’s wedding has the local authorities in a fix.
“We are yet to ascertain as to under which act we can register their marriage,” said Jasbir Singh, the Additional deputy Commissioner, Jalandhar. “While there is no separate provision to register such marriages, we have sough a legal opinion to register their marriage under Compulsory Registration of Marriage Act.”
Meanwhile at the Passport Office at Chandigarh, Regional Officer Sibash Kabiraj said his office was yet to confront such a case.
“We haven’t faced any such case as of now. Also, there is no specific directions issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to deal with such cases. Only when we receive such case, we will seek an opinion from it,” said Kabiraj.
HuffPost India has written to Harmanbir Singh Gill, Regional Passport Officer at Jalandhar and will update the report if receive a reply.
Manjit and Seerat continue to have their hearts set on visiting Canada.