Now comes into effect a Central legislation, which makes punishable all kinds of domestic violence—physical, sexual, emotional and economic—perpetrated by husbands or live-in partners against women.
This, indeed, is a welcome advancement of the cause of the Indian woman’s emancipation from a chauvinistic, patriarchical and male-dominated society, and it takes one’s thoughts back to 1955 when, by a similar progressive statute, husband-wife relationship was placed on an even statutory keel by the enactment of Hindu Marriage Act. Though, the kind of legislative benefits it unveiled, woefully, still remain a mirage for a vast number of Muslim women for the sheer reason that they owe their earthly existence to those minority community families which continue to remain inextricably tied down to obscurantist religious diktats, at times at variance with one another depending on how Quran is interpreted and by whom.
Thankfully, the newly enforced criminal law against domestic violence places the Muslim women beyond the religious handicaps that they suffer in matters that are governed by their rigorously enforced personal law.
Thanks also to Imrana who, though being at the lower stratum of Muslim society, picked up rare courage and thumbed her nose at the rigidly dogmatic custodians of Quran to show how the battle for Muslim women’s liberation could be pushed ahead even while standing atop a tottering pedestal, and that too in the midst of a high-voltage cacophony of dissuading, and sometimes frightening, ‘no-no’ from the self-styled custodians of Muslim personal law.
In between, one also hopes fresh waves of breeze from those committed to the cause of gender equality for Muslim women, a sine qua non of a free democratic polity, would continue to advance Muslim women’s cause, as did the recent statement of Shabana Azmi in London, who asserted with her characteristic guts that Quran nowhere prescribed ‘purdah’ for Muslim women.
Meanwhile, the law, as codified by the Hindu Marriage Act, governing the marital bond between Hindu husbands and wives, has, over the past half century, continued to win constructive interpretation from the Indian judiciary.
As happened recently when the Supreme Court of India took a holistic view of the term ‘cruelty’, listed as one of the grounds for seeking divorce under Section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act.
The exhaustive verdict, which the apex court delivered in the case of a bitterly estranged couple, Naveen Kohli and Neelu Kohli, focused on the meaning of multi-dimensional term ‘cruelty’ in the changing context of marital relationship in Hindu society. It spoke about the parameters to determine what kind of ‘cruelty’ by a spouse would lead to the grant of an inevitable decree of divorce to the other spouse.
Usually, ‘cruelty’ is understood to be referring to mere ‘physical’ cruelty, but it is not just so within the meaning of the term used in the Hindu Marriage Act.
“Physical violence is absolutely not essential to constitute ‘cruelty’, and a consistent course of conduct inflicting ‘immeasurable mental agony and torture’ may well constitute cruelty,” ruled the Supreme Court.
Indeed, a down-to-earth concept which now finds its well-deserved place also in the recent law on domestic violence against women.
‘Cruelty’, ruled the Supreme Court, “could emanate also from ‘mental cruelty’, and it may consist of ‘verbal abuses and insults by using filthy and abusive language’, leading to constant disturbance of mental peace of the other spouse”.
Cruelty, however, the court made it clear, must be something ‘more serious’ than ‘ordinary wear and tear of married life’. But then, when does ‘cruelty’ complain of really sound the final bell for the grant of a divorce decree?
“When the aggrieved spouse has been treated with such cruelty that it causes a ‘reasonable apprehension’ in his or her mind that it would be ‘harmful’ and ‘injurious’ for him or her ‘to live any more’ with the other party,” ruled the court.
This judicial yardstick, coming from the country’s highest court, tells it all about ‘cruelty’ as a ground for divorce, and those, including estranged couples, their families, lawyers and judges, wanting to know more of it could well turn to 2006(1) SCCD, page 457, and 2006 (4) SCC, page 558.