Last week, Justice Kailash Gambhir of the Delhi High Court overturned a lower court's ruling and granted divorce to a woman and ruled that doubting a spouse's character could amount to mental cruelty and that it could be reason enough for divorce.
This is yet another step in acknowledging psychological torture within a marriage — a form of violence which legal and mental health experts say we are getting more sensitised to as a society.
According to legal experts, earlier, 'mental cruelty' was clubbed along with physical, financial or economic forms of cruelty to make a case. Says Pinky Anand, Supreme Court lawyer. "Cruelty as a ground for divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act was more about physical violence. Down the line, mental cruelty has become a plain ground for divorce and is no longer about just stray instances."
Mental cruelty is described as psychological aggression resulting in verbal, dominant or jealous behaviour that causes trauma to the victim.
According to the Hindu Marriage Act, mental cruelty has been broadly defined as conduct that inflicts such mental pain that the sufferer cannot live any more with the perpetrator. It goes on to note that the cruelty may be mental or physical, intentional or unintentional. It states: "If it's physical, it's a question of fact and degree. If it's mental, the enquiry must begin as to the nature of the cruel treatment and then as to the impact of such treatment on the mind of the spouse."
The Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act 2005 broadened the definition. It includes "verbal and emotional abuse" — insults, ridicule, humiliation and name-calling, specially on inability to bear a child. It also brings within its ambit "repeated threats to cause physical pain to any person in whom the aggrieved person is interested".
On the rise
Of late, cases of mental abuse have become frequent and more complex. As says Supreme Court lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi: "We are getting more cases that include a mix of, say, adultery and watching pornography — leading to mental agony for the spouse."
For those who have suffered mental cruelty, the emerging nuances in the understanding of it are welcome. "It's torturous if you use emotions to your advantage and hurt your partner," says Delhi-born Amrita Jain, 29, who recently got a divorce. "When my ex-husband would pretend that he was depressed in order to get away with whatever he did, it was cruel. I felt drained and completely stopped thinking about myself."
Such not-so-straightforward cases are on the rise, Jain feels, ascribing it to the fact that "people have started living complex lives". Lekhi says such cases are increasing because "people in India are getting more individualistic." Whatever the reason, the courts are taking note of the change.
Defining the term
Experts say that mental cruelty is behaviour over a period of time that dehumanises another person, causing them trauma — or, as Dr Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, puts it, "that which can cause emotional distress in a person who has had a normal state".
For example, says Lekhi: "A person refusing to speak to the spouse: he or she is not abusive or violent, but if this leads to depression, mental ill-health, not being acknowledged, then it amounts to mental cruelty."
In the landmark Samar Ghosh vs Jaya Ghosh case in 2007, the Supreme Court, focussing on "sustained behaviour", held that "that a few isolated incidents over a period of years will not amount to cruelty" . It said that "mere coldness or lack of affection cannot amount to cruelty" but made allowance for the fact that "frequent rudeness of language, petulance of manner, indifference and neglect may reach such a degree that it makes the married life for the other spouse absolutely intolerable".
More recently, earlier this year, the Delhi High Court said that "mental cruelty is not as easy to establish as physical cruelty, the impact of it has to be deliberated upon" while ruling on a case recently where a husband got divorce from his wife in a trial court on the grounds that she used to taunt him for being a clerk and quarrelled with him over petty issues. The Delhi High Court ruled that "an angry look, a random quarrel, a sugar coated insult or a taunt cannot lead the court to grant a decree of divorce."
On the other hand, in May, the Bombay High Court ruled that keeping a mistress amounts to inflicting mental cruelty on the wife — 16 years after Chandrakala committed suicide, the six month jail term awarded to her husband Ratan Jagzap wazs upheld on grounds of subjecting her to cruelty.
Mental cruelty continues to be not so easily definable and can be interpreted differently. But as sociologist Shiv Visvanathan points out: "While earlier, mental cruelty was part of any cruelty, that's changing as women's rights become more open and women's stresses are being professionally recognised. So it'll get easier for people to win a case."
Women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research, calls mental cruelty the most "gruesome form of cruelty" because it "damages a person's personality which could lead to depression or insanity". She says: "Any form of deprivation, like troubling the kids to teach the wife a lesson, showing her family in a bad light, and of course the age-old badgering for dowry are forms of mental cruelty where the woman starts feeling depressed… Unlike mental cruelty, physical and economic cruelty is identifiable more easily."
Kalpana Mehta of Saheli Women's Resource Centre says our laws are "nuanced, given that psychological cruelty is a complex issue." According to her, "What we need is more gender sensitisation and implementation."
Applying the law
While there's no one interpretation of the legal term, most experts see it as sustained behaviour which includes actions that have been repeated over a period of time. What is changing, however, is that more and more nuances are being added to what can be considered cruelty. For instance, Dr Shetty says: "If a woman by nature is an introvert, doesn't like to dress up and party with her husband, he could see this as an act of omission — 'denying the normal pleasures of life' — while all this may be perfectly acceptable for a man who likes a shy wife. Then incompatibility or 'anger of a depressed spouse' may be seen as cruelty."
Cultural differences may come into play while identifying pyschologically abusive behaviours. In western societies, experts say, the concepts of space, freedom and choice are strong. Even raising your voice at the spouse could be a legitimate reason, while in India anger is still widely tolerated.
Widening the application
While mental cruelty is largely seen in the matrimonial ambit, our laws cover it in other areas too. Lekhi says there are provisions within the Domestic Violence Act for issues such as sexual harassment at workplace as mental cruelty, too. Even ragging in institutional institutions is treated as systematised form of human rights abuse, as embodied in the Indian Constitution.
Delhi-based child rights activist Enakshi Ganguly says instances of a child being humiliated in class by his teacher, or a girl being discriminated by her family must also be treated as mental cruelty offences. In the US, for instance, mental cruelty is treated as 'behavior that causes mental agony to another person' and includes relationships such as employee-employer, master-servant too. Physical violence is not necessary.
There are also those who take the definition too far. "I've seen cases of people taking things to silly levels — such as 'my husband hasn't bought me a mobile phone', 'he got angry because I was talking to my mother for a long time' says Anand. Our courts hold that divorce should be granted if the situation is intolerable, not on the basis of minor differences."
Justice lies in the fine balance — and finding it is an ongoing quest.