Surprisingly, India, a country characterised by dowry deaths and honour killings, seems to be moving faster than liberal western democracies on family law, and gender law in general. It reminds one of the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson’s observation: “Whatever you can say rightly about India, the opposite is also true.”
Last year, a couple in the Venetian suburb of Mestre moved court to evict their son, 41, who held down a decent job but still expected Mom to cook and clean for him. They got an eviction order, ending a decade of uncertainty over the rights of mammone, or Italian Mama’s boys. In 2002, a court had ruled that they could impose on their parents forever. But when the Venice issue came up, a cabinet minister had dramatically proposed legislation to turf all grown-up children out of their parents’ homes.
It’s taken the Indian system much less time to settle the question. This week, the Bombay High Court ruled that grown-up offspring can live with parents, but only with their consent. A straightforward and fair position.
Consider another case from admirably progressive Sweden: Stieg Larsson, author of a series of bestsellers starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, died in 2004, leaving behind an invalid will. Under Swedish law, his multimillion dollar estate, including an invaluable unfinished novel, went to his next of kin, his father and brother, from whom he had been estranged for years. It was denied to his life partner Eva Gabrielsson because they were not married.
They had lived together because Swedish law requires married couples to make their address public. Since Larsson was a liberal activist and outspoken authority on far right groups in Scandinavia, this could have been life-threatening. And so, on a technicality, the woman who had lived with Larsson for three decades was denied her right. Interestingly, it wouldn’t have happened in India, where the Supreme Court has ruled that for all legal purposes, including inheritance, a long-term live-in relationship is indistinguishable from marriage.
Last year, law-making on gender and family was fast-tracked with the establishment of the Planning Commission’s Working Group on Women’s Agency and Empowerment. Its report for the Five Year Plan, which is about to begin, sketches out an agenda that will send a shiver down the erect spine of the patriarchy. Measures proposed include fast-track courts for crimes against women and strengthening the Dowry Prohibition Act by imposing caps on wedding expenses and gifts according to financial capacity. Radical action is necessary, since reported crimes against women are rising by 30%, the rate of early marriage is falling by just 5% and women own only 11.3% of bank deposits.
But let us leave these high issues to our able policymakers. And let me leave you with a joke from my college days about family values and Indian men. How do we know that Jesus was Indian? Because: (a) He did not leave home before He was 30, (b) He believed His mother was a virgin, and (c) His mother thought He was God. Of course, by the same logic, Jesus could have been Italian, Chinese or Jewish. Maybe the whole world needs strong medicine in the area of family law.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal