Justice Markandey Katju: Matrimonial cases in India

Justice Markandey Katju

By Justice Markandey Katju–

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

In the first half of the 20th century, divorce was almost unknown in India. In fact, it was not even legally permitted among Hindus (it was first permitted by the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955), and even among Muslims, for whom it was permitted by the sharia law, it was rare.

India had one of the lowest divorce rates in the world, but in the last few decades this has increased rapidly. Today, Indian courts are flooded with cases of divorce, maintenance, child custody, etc, and such cases often double every few years.

How did this happen ?

To explain this drastic change, one must go back in time. Up to the first half of the 20th century, most people, particularly in rural areas, where 85% of India’s population lived, were married in childhood, the boy being 14-15 years old and the girl being 13-14, and their life partners were chosen by their parents.

Thus they grew up together (usually in a joint family) and became friends, not just husband and wife. At that very young age, one’s personality is flexible, so there was no problem adjusting and adapting. Hence, divorce was rare.

Today, the situation is different. Both boys and girls are much older when they marry. On average, I’d say the young man is around 27 or 28 while the woman is around 25 or 26. Sometimes, both are highly qualified, and are professionals.

Dating, as practised in Western countries, is still uncommon in India, and the way one gets married is usually this: the girl’s parents invite the boy and his parents for tea at their home, and the boy and girl are sometimes left alone for a short time in a separate room to talk with each other and assess each other.

They may meet again a few times, and then they are asked by their parents if they are agreeable to get married. If they agree, they go ahead with the wedding.

Once married, they realise they are living with a stranger. At their age, their personalities become rigid, they are no longer flexible, and they may have different interests and ambitions, and may find each other incompatible.

In earlier times, women were financially dependent on their husbands, and had to put up silently with whatever treatment they got from their husbands or in-laws. Now they don’t tolerate any ill treatment. This, and other factors such as infidelity, ego clashes, etc, often result in divorce proceedings, claims for maintenance, child custody battles, etc.

Another cause for this phenomenon is rapid urbanization of India. In former times, most Indians (about 85%) lived in rural areas. Now, about 40% live in cities and towns. The financial hardships in these places, and other factors such as shortage of proper housing, often contributes to the marriage breaking up, and an increase in divorce cases is more witnessed in urban areas, even in smaller towns.

Many wives separate from their husbands without a legal divorce (which often takes years to obtain as Indian court proceedings are usually protracted), as they prefer separation to life long abuse.

Where is all this heading to no one can predict. But this much is evident: Indian society, particularly the relationship between men and women, is changing rapidly, and in the years to come this trend is going to grow exponentially, for better or for worse.

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