Live-in relationships in India are legal but taboo - Hindustan Times
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Live-in relationships in India are legal but taboo

By | Posted by Krishna Priya Pallavi, Delhi
Nov 04, 2023 02:09 PM IST

The idea of live-in relationships is considered a cultural taboo. Despite progressive laws, tradition and morality continue to have an iron grip on society.

When Priya Naresh and her partner decided to move in together in 2019 they did not expect to be turned away by landlords simply because they were an unmarried couple. "Our broker would clearly tell us that landlords do not wish to rent out apartments to an unmarried couple even though we were two consenting adults," she told DW.

Live-in relationships are not illegal in India, but lawmakers have often condemned the idea. (Yogesh S. More/IMAGO)
Live-in relationships are not illegal in India, but lawmakers have often condemned the idea. (Yogesh S. More/IMAGO)

In India, the idea of live-in relationships is considered a cultural taboo. Despite progressive laws, tradition and morality continue to have an iron grip on how society functions and treats women.

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An unending challenge of finding a home

It took Naresh and her partner three months to find a home.

However, within a few months, the couple decided to live separately after Naresh was subjected to aggressive moral policing by the landlord and his family.

The couple waited to get married before moving back together. "I was too traumatized from those three months," said Naresh.

Similarly, Apoorva Bose, who is a program coordinator at the United Nations, said she too faced similar issues while looking for homes in the upmarket neighborhoods of India's capital New Delhi.

"In our case, we told the landlords that we were engaged. One of the factors that forced us to consider getting married quickly was that it would be easier to find a house," she said.

(Also Read | Building secure relationship with an avoidant partner: Expert shares tips)

Live-in relationships are not illegal in India, but lawmakers have often condemned the idea.

Law versus lawmakers

Last year, India was gripped by the story of a dreadful murder in New Delhi.

In November 2022, police found that 28-year-old Aftab Poonawala had strangled his partner Shraddha Walker, cut her body into pieces and stored them in a refrigerator before scattering the body parts across the city.

After Poonawala was arrested, the public conversation quickly pivoted from women's safety to a debate on whether women should engage in live-in relationships or not.

A few days after the murder came to light, India's Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Kaushal Kishore put out a press statement questioning Walker's character.

He suggested that it was the act of "living-in" before marriage that led to the crime and added that "educated girls should not get into such relationships."

Despite members of the opposition demanding his resignation, Kishore continues to remain in office.

What is the legal position on live-in relationships?

India does not have any laws that directly address a live-in partnership.

The concept of live-in relationships was legally recognized for the first time in 2010 while discussing the safety of women and said that women who were in live-in relationships are protected under the domestic violence law.

Twelve years later, the nation's Supreme Court strengthened the legitimacy of live-in partnerships by recognizing that children born out of such situations are entitled to rights under a co-parenting agreement and have a right to inherit property.

The apex court has often reiterated that if "two consenting adults of heterogenic sex" choose to live together, it "does not amount to any offense."

These statements are rooted in the constitutional idea that "no person can be deprived of his life" or "personal liberty."

Personal versus constitutional morality

However, Shreya Munoth, a Delhi-based attorney, explained that despite the Supreme Court taking several progressive positions, many Indian judges rely heavily on their own moral compass while dealing with cases of live-in relationships.

"The problem is that any order passed regarding live-in relationships is entirely dependent on the moral judgment of the judge hearing the case," said Munoth and added, "This becomes a big issue in cases where couples seek protection from the state."

For instance, in October 2023, a court refused to grant police protection to a couple who said that they were feeling unsafe after the girl's family filed a case against the man for "kidnapping" their daughter.

The woman told the court that as an adult she had every right to decide her future and live together with her partner.

The court said that the couple cannot be taken seriously unless they "decide to marry." The judges hearing the case went on to call live-in relationships a mere infatuation which tends to be "lacking stability" and "sincerity."

For many young couples who want to live together in India, the reality remains grim. Very often, they have to hide it from their own families and sometimes even workplaces.

Lawyer Munoth said that apart from the necessary attitudinal shift in society, "the problem is that we don't have any anti-discriminatory laws in place and so couples can be harshly judged and badly discriminated against for wanting to live together."

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