In a ruling that could stir a major controversy, the Supreme Court of India on Thursday said that a Hindu husband could divorce his wife on grounds of cruelty if she tried to separate him from his 'pious obligation' to live with his elderly parents and look after them.
According to a report in The Hindu, a bench of Justices Anil R Dave and L Nageshwara Rao said that after her wedding, a woman becomes a part of her husband's family and thus could not seek to separate her husband from his parents to 'enjoy his income'.
The judgement, which was passed on 6 October, takes a strong moral view of the case, invoking values that could be perceived as decidedly patriarchal.
The 14-page judgement in the case of Narendra Vs K Meena is peppered with lessons in moral and social behaviour such as:
"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... 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."
On the definition of 'cruelty' to the husband
In the concerned case, the ruling states that the wife behaved 'cruelly' towards her husband by her attempts and threats to commit suicide.
"No husband would ever be comfortable with or tolerate such an act by his wife and if the wife succeeds in committing suicide, then one can imagine how a poor husband would get entangled into the clutches of law, which would virtually ruin his sanity, peace of mind, career and probably his entire life. The mere idea with regard to facing legal consequences would put a husband under tremendous stress. The thought itself is distressing."
While the Supreme Court acknowledged that a wife trying to commit suicide, or succeeding in killing herself, would be a great source of 'distress' for the husband, it did not mention the events or causes that led to the wife in this particular case to take such an extreme measure.
According to a report by the BBC, published in April this year, the increasing number of suicides by housewives in India is directly related to women's changing expectations after marriage.
Another study pointed out that household conflicts in many such cases usually arise between "poorly educated mothers-in-laws and better-educated, insubordinate daughters-in-laws".
Perception of the relationship between a married woman and her parents
While the judgement says it is a man's 'pious obligation' to take care of his parents and not break up a family, it did not comment on whether the same responsibility rests on women as well with respect to their own parents.
In its homily on the workings of Hindu society and family system, the bench did not clarify if it is also the wife's 'pious obligation' to take care of her parents. However, though there are precedents on this subject, such as this Bombay High Court judgment which had said a married daughter is obliged to support her parents in case she happens to be the sole provider in her family.
Most reactions on social media were indignant, questioning the rights of women, specifically the bench's presumption that a woman must leave her parents after marriage and the lack of any mention of her own responsibility towards them.
Here's the complete judgement copy as uploaded by Live Law.
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