A recent judgement of the Supreme Court has once again thrown the spotlight on the socio-legal characteristics of divorce in India. The facts of the case: Rakesh and Deepa (names changed) were married in 1992 and had a daughter in 1993. The marriage was plagued with many issues and ended up in the family court with the husband asking for a divorce. Since the decision of the family court was unacceptable to the wife she appealed in high court and thereafter the husband appealed in the Supreme Court. Although there were many reasons for the breakdown of the marriage one of the main issues was the wife's insistence on the husband abandoning his parents and living separately with her.
The other prickly issues in the marriage were the wife's threats of committing suicide and also haranguing the husband about an affair she thought he was having with the maid.
The Supreme Court bench of justices Anil Dave and Nageswara Rao ruled in favour of the husband and granted him a divorce on grounds of "cruelty" as defined under Section 13 (1) (ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act 1955.
"The wife wanted the husband to get separated from his family. The evidence shows that the family was virtually maintained from the income of the husband. It is not a common practice or desirable culture for a Hindu son in India to get separated from the parents upon getting married at the instance [sic] of the wife, especially when the son is the only earning member in the family. A son, brought up and given education by his parents, has a moral and legal obligation to take care [of] and maintain the parents when they become old and when they have either no income or have a meagre income. In India, generally people do not subscribe to the western thought, where, upon getting married or attaining majority, the son gets separated from the family. In normal circumstances, a wife is expected to be with the family of the husband after the marriage...
A son maintaining his parents is absolutely normal in Indian culture and ethos in a Hindu society, it is a pious obligation of the son to maintain the parents. If a wife makes an attempt to deviate from the normal practice and normal custom of the society, she must have some justifiable reason for that and in this case, we do not find any justifiable reason, except monetary consideration of the wife. In our opinion, normally, no husband would tolerate this and no son would like to be separated from his old parents and other family members, who are also dependent upon his income. The persistent effort of the wife to constrain the husband to be separated from the family would be torturous for the husband and in our opinion, the trial court was right when it came to the conclusion that this constitutes an act of "cruelty."
The judgement has set the cat amongst the pigeons and will have far-reaching implications. On one hand the judgement would protect elderly parents from being thrown out of their homes by their daughters-in-law. On the other hand, we can't hold back time; the marital preference has definitely shifted to nuclear families where the husband and wife live on their own, without the presence of in-laws.
I think a half-way meeting point would have been ideal in the judgement, where if the husband and wife are economically self-sufficient they could perhaps buy or rent a place near the in-laws' home so you have the best of both worlds—inter-dependence rather than independence. Perhaps in-laws too can shift their mind-set from being parents-in-law to just parents.