Kerala High Court: The Division Bench comprising of A. Muhamed Mustaque and Kauser Edappagath, JJ., held that merely for the reason that the law does not recognise marital rape under penal law, it does not inhibit the court from recognizing the same as a form of cruelty to grant divorce.
Expressing concern over situation as it exists with regard to arranged marriage that is followed traditionally in our country; the Bench stated that the choice for a woman is limited as they simply follow the guidance of parents or elders. The Bench further stated that if marriage is seen as a symbol to project status, without reflecting the values the individuals or society would cherish to profess, we may miss the basic concept required for marriage. Voicing the plight of the respondent in the instant case, the Bench expressed,
“The case in hand depicts a story of the struggle of a woman within the clutches of law to give primacy of choice “not to suffer” in the bondage of legal tie. An insatiable urge for wealth and sex of a husband had driven a woman to distress. In desperation for obtaining a divorce, she has forsaken and abandoned all her monetary claims. Her cry for divorce has been prolonged in the temple of justice for more than a decade (12 years). She still awaits a final bell to answer her prayers and cry.”
Facts of the case
The instant appeal arose from a common judgment allowing a petition for divorce on the ground of cruelty and dismissal of a petition for restitution of conjugal rights. The couple had an arranged marriage and had two children in the wedlock. The appellant-husband had claimed to be a qualified medical doctor at the time of marriage but he never practised as a medical doctor and was rather engaged in the real estate business and construction. The real estate business was not a smooth run for the appellant as he never succeeded in the business.
A case of cruelty was put forward by the respondent-wife on constant harassment and demand for money in spite of the fact that she had been given 501 gold sovereigns at the time of marriage besides car and flat. It was the case of the respondent that the respondent’s father gave Rs.77 lakhs to the appellant on different occasions apart from that the respondent contended that the entire gold ornaments were also misappropriated by the appellant. The respondent also alleged sexual perversion and physical harassment as a part of the cruelty; while the allegations of extramarital relationship were levelled against the respondent by the appellant.
The Family Court had allowed the divorce petition filed by the respondent and the petition filed for restitution of conjugal rights by the appellant was dismissed.
Analyses and Opinion of the Court
Noticing that the appellant’s own father had approached the police with complaints against the him stating that he had been compelling him to give more money, been ill-treating his wife and members of her family, and even threatening his sister and her two children over the phone daily with danger to their lives, the Bench stated that the ‘cruelty’ reflects the character of a person. The Court, therefore, is required to adopt social semiotic approach to analyse the conduct in given situation.
Opining that the demand for money had to be taken into account in the background of the fact that the appellant never cared to provide love and care to the respondent or his children, the Bench was of the view that in the matrimonial life of the appellant and the respondent, the respondent never felt any security or affection or care from the side of the appellant. This, coupled with the fact of constant harassment demanding money, had caused mental pain, agony and sufferings to her.
The physical cruelty and mental cruelty meted out to the respondent had been narrated succinctly in the oral testimony given by the respondent. In spite of the respondent having helped the appellant monetarily in every possible manner, it turned to be a strategy for the appellant to get more money from the respondent and her father in the pretext of his debt using his fiduciary relationship for financial gain and bargain.
Relying on the decision of the Supreme Court in Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh, (2007) 4 SCC 511, the Bench held that the appellant’s licentious and profligate conduct could not be considered as part of normal conjugal life. Therefore, the Bench held that insatiable urge for wealth and sex of a spouse would also amount to cruelty. Similarly, the unsubstantiated allegations of adultery alleged by the appellant also constituted mental cruelty.
Marital Rape as a Ground for Divorce
The respondent had deposed that even during her pregnancy, the appellant abused her and had committed forceful sex when she was sick and bedridden. She also deposed that she was subjected to the worst form of sexual perversion and unnatural sex against her will. The respondent deposed that the appellant even did not spare her for sex even on the day the appellant’s mother expired. She also stated that the appellant forced her to have sex in front of their daughter. Considering that there was no serious challenge against the narration of sexual conduct, the Bench opined that there was no reason to disbelieve the respondent’s version that the appellant often forced her to have unnatural sex.
Opining that a husband’s licentious disposition disregarding the autonomy of the wife is a marital rape, the Bench stated, albeit such conduct could not be penalised, it falls in the frame of physical and mental cruelty. Marital rape, though alien to Indian penal jurisprudence, had been defined in Black’s Law Dictionary 8th Edition as “a husband’s sexual intercourse with his wife by force or without her consent”. Hence, marital rape occurs when husband is under notion that body of his wife owe to him. In modern social jurisprudence, spouses in marriage are treated as equal partners and husband cannot claim any superior right over wife either with respect to her body or with reference to individual status. Treating wife’s body as something owing to husband and committing sexual act against her will is nothing but marital rape.
Right to respect for physical and mental integrity encompass bodily integrity, any disrespect or violation of bodily integrity is a violation of individual autonomy. Therefore, marital privacy is intimately and intrinsically connected to individual autonomy and any intrusion, physically or otherwise into such space would diminish privacy. This essentially would constitute cruelty. Hence, merely for the reason that the law does not recognise marital rape under penal law, it does not inhibit the court from recognizing the same as a form of cruelty to grant divorce. Accordingly, the Bench held that marital rape is a good ground to claim divorce.
Findings and Suggestions by the Court
Considering that sex in married life is the reflection of the intimacy of the spouse and the evidence of the respondent clearly established that she was subjected to all sorts of sexual perversions against her will, the Bench upheld the divorce granted by the Family Court.
The Bench opined, a spouse in a marriage has a choice, a choice not to suffer, which is fundamental to the autonomy guaranteed under natural law and the Constitution. Law cannot compel a spouse to suffer against his or her wish by denial of divorce by the court. Expressing concern over plight of the women caught in such marital ties, the Bench expressed,
“This depicts a sordid tale of a woman losing a precious part of her life in a battle of fate. In a changed scenario of marriage in the society, shifting from the social philosophy to individual philosophy, we are afraid whether the present divorce law on enumerated grounds would stand to the test of constitutionality”.
Observing that fine balancing of individual choice and individual’s best interest is missing in law relating to dissolution of marriage, the Bench made following suggestions to introduce reform in existing law:
- “Paternalistic intervention through legislation must be limited to help and aid parties in taking a decision for their own good. Therefore, the framework of divorce law must be with an objective to help individuals to take a decision on their own affairs.
- The forum provided under law to decide upon the fate of a relationship must be conceded with a power to enable parties to decide on the best possible choice governing their own affairs by themselves and not by wresting the power on a fictional ground to decide on their fate.
- The court should articulate its power in a scientific temper to help individuals to make decisions on their own affairs.
- Modern-day mediation, medical help like psychological and psychiatric, involvement by families and friends etc., would progressively help the parties to take a decision of their own choice.
- Our law also should equip to deal with marital damages and compensation. We need to have a law dealing with human problems with a humane mind to respond.
- Marriage and divorce must be under the secular law; that is the need of the hour. Time has come to revamp the marriage law in our country.”
[X v. X, Mat. Appeal No. 151 of 2015, decided on 30-07-2021]
Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.
For the Appellant: (Party in person)
For the Respondent: Adv. Millu Dandapani