Estranged Hindu couples seeking a hassle-free divorce will no more have to play the waiting game with India’s highest court finally sparing a thought for spouses caught in the legal rigmarole of the holy deadlock.
Legal eagles, culture vultures and social activists have all welcomed the Supreme Court’s path-breaking verdict asking family courts to waive off the six-month cooling-off period stipulated in the Hindu marriage Act if the warring spouses have mutually agreed to untie the knot.
The judges, however, will dissolve the marriage only if the husband and the wife have lived separately for at least one year before filing the divorce petition and also buried the hatchet over alimony and custody of children.
The lower courts have also been directed not to prolong the agony of the antagonistic couples simply wanting out if there is not the ghost of a chance of the two partners kissing and making up.
“Family courts should not come in the way of the couples already browned off by prolonged litigation and should now follow the apex court’s order to immediately grant divorce,” says Gujarat High Court advocate Gopinath Amin, adding that speedier separation orders will drastically reduce the huge backlog of pending cases.
Indeed, in the subordinate courts, considered the backbone of the country’s justice delivery system, the number of unresolved cases hanging fire has shot up from 26 million in 2014 to some 30 million now. Divorce appeals in family courts in Kolkata zoomed by a staggering 350 percent between 2003 and 2011 and doubled in Mumbai during 2010-2014.
Divorces, rooted in cruelty, adultery, desertion, etc., have increased by 40 percent in the 21st century, what with the pace of divorce in India being 13 per 1,000 marriages, though it is much less than the United Kingdom’s 500 break-ups in 1,000 occasions of wedding bells.
At least 4.2 million Indian women were either separated or divorced in 2011, and the numbers would only have increased since then. But in many cases, the harassed housewives, instead of resorting to mudslinging and washing their dirty laundry in public, silently grin and bear it and stay with an abusive and violent partner rather than calling it quits.
Some helpless and hopeless women even think of taking the extreme step of ending their life. Many of them whose marriages are on the rocks walk into Anju Seth’s Saath suicide prevention center for help and its true-blue volunteers have a tough time sweet-talking them into summoning up their courage to move on in life.
Though India is not known for alarming rates of divorce or separation, marriages are still highly constrained by patriarchal socio-cultural norms what with families calling the shots rather than the individuals who enter into wedlock, and women rarely have any autonomy in spouse selection. After all, uncertain legal status and lack of rights put them in a pretty pickle.
World-renowned classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai, an activist who uses arts for women’s empowerment and societal education, told Al Arabiya English that the institution of marriage was not compatible with free-spirited, independent women and the construct gave entitlements only to the man, overt or covert.
“It is high time women plucked up their courage to leave exploitative and unhappy marriages with the support of laws”, says Sarabhai, who last week raised a record $1.3 million for India’s underprivileged women through her spell-binding performance for a US-based NGO.
Describing as “progressive” the Supreme Court’s waiver doing away with the six-month wait for divorce, Ruzan Khambatta, a spirited campaigner for uplift of women, said that greedy families traumatize brides for dowry to such an extent that the torture finally ends in divorce as the torn-down women stuck in bad marriages just want to get out of the daily grind of leading a horrid life.
National Crime Record Bureau reports show that as many as 24,771 dowry deaths were reported in India during 2012-2014 with Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Rajasthan accounting for most deaths in that order. According to the ministry of Home Affairs, some 100,000 dowry-related cases are registered every year all over India.
In sum, marriage and divorce are very personal matters of two individuals and two families. Therefore, as Ronak Gandhi of Loving Centre for Transformation, says, there should be some guidelines but not absolute rules because each person is unique and each relationship is unique.
“I hope that one day we can create a utopian world on earth where love, joy and happiness are motivators for our life. Till then, this judgment on splitsville is one step towards the heaven on earth”, said Gandhi who regularly conducts workshops for motivating down-and-out women and has counselled countless harried housewives bent on pulling the plug.