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Licence to Live-in

SC has put a stamp of legitimacy on couples choosing to co-habit rather than marry. But will the court ruling change the social mind-set which frowns upon ‘living in sin’?

entertainment Updated: Jan 26, 2008 23:32 IST

The Supreme Court’s recent judgment on the rights of a woman in a live-in relationship, and children born out of the liaison have left Ashiti Sharma, 29, with mixed feelings. For the last few days, she has been looking afresh at the decision she took against marriage six years ago.“I didn’t want to jump into a marriage. I’m still not sure if I care for that legal stamp to my relationship,” says the Mumbai-based corporate trainer. “Even so, it’s nice to know that the law, if not society, recognises this bond,” says Sharma.

Her live-in companion, Gaurav Singhal, 34, an architect, is equally relieved. “I was married earlier for about a year. It didn’t work out, and my ex-wife didn’t divorce me for a long time,” he says. “Though I love Ashiti, I’m terrified of marriage,” he says, adding that he’s glad the apex court has given a legal standing to their relationship. “Perhaps, we can even think of having children now.”

An increasing number of young professionals aren’t really “settling down” into marriage. Family courts in Mumbai and Thane have found that two out of five couples married since 2002 have decided to split. With more and more marriages breaking up, and with the apex court recognising live-ins, not everybody is queuing up to take the plunge. But it’s not as smooth as it seems.

Dry run
Fell in love, lived together, got married. Now wishing they’d waited some more before taking the plunge. That’s the story of Dushyant Vasu, a 25-year-old Bangalore-based software professional, and Shrishti Tiwari, a 26-year-old photographer. “We lived together for 8-10 months — as a sort of marriage dry run. We survived that, and since she was under pressure from her parents to tie the knot, we got married last December.”

Given the SC ruling, he says they might’ve waited a lot longer to actually get married if the same set of rules were to apply to married as well as living-in couples. “A marriage, after all, is very final. Lives get messy when husband-wives part ways, to say nothing of the stamp of divorce,” says Tiwari.

The law might be on their side, but what about society? Sheetal Mendiratta, 28, is skeptical. She works at a Delhi-based publishing house, and has been living-in with her boyfriend, Rohan, for almost a year. “This is an orthodox Indian society we’re talking about. If you have a child with a partner you’re not married to — no matter what rights and protection the law provides — the child is going to have to go through an assured dose of stigma for no fault of his. I wouldn’t even want to have a child this way, no matter how promising this ruling seems,” she says.

Are we ready for it?
Patricia Oberoi, sociologist with the Institute of Economic Growth, agrees, “Law follows society, society doesn’t follow law.” She adds, “Though the court has accepted that social values are changing, the ruling is ahead of society. Laws don’t really change social mores and practices in India.”

Which is why most women still want a live-in relationship to culminate into marriage. Says Mendiratta, “Getting married to me is about the seal of sanctity given to a relationship.”

Also, while live-ins might be a welcome choice of the new economy, the burden of the ‘socially frowned-upon’ relationship remains on the woman. “Society treats them as ‘fallen’ women, but men face no such character assassination,” says Ranjana Kumari, chairperson, Centre for Social Research. Besides providing the women with protection and rights, the SC judgment, she hopes, will also change the social mindset.

For love of the child
The man and the woman — that’s one part of it. The child is another. What happens when a child comes into the picture? “For one, no child should ever be called illegitimate, as no child chooses to be born,” says Kumari. “But given the ground reality, it’s good that the child from a live-in now has a legal tag,” she says. But that’s on paper. What about real life? For example, what happens when this child has to get admitted in school? “So far, we’ve not come across any such case,” says Gauri Ishwaran, principal, Sanskriti School. “The parents don’t really reveal their marital status, and we don’t insist on a marriage certificate. As long as they can provide security and support to the child, we’re okay with it,” she says. The problem, however, may arise as the child grows older. “Hopefully, by then society will be more evolved,” says Ishwaran.

Miles to go
Coming back to the law, Swarup Sarkar, a member of men’s rights group Save India Family, says, “Live-ins were legitimised in 2006, under the Domestic Violence Act, which gives protection to the woman in such a relationship.” But they need to know how long the couple should be living together for the relationship to be legitimate.

Bangalore-based Vasu says even his bachelor friends are a little confused. “Just the other day, we were talking about how a woman can now demand alimony just because you sleep in the same room,” he says. There are other grey areas too, adds sociologist Oberoi. “How do you prove you’ve been living together — from the child’s birth certificate mentioning the father and mother’s name, with a joint bank account, or with a lease agreement? ”

“Ideally, a legitimate relationship should be one that emerges from a consent between two human beings — and they don’t necessarily have to be a man and a woman,” says Kumari. But for now, the SC ruling is a start.

(Some names have been changed)