Introduction and Issues Crucial to the Decision of the Court
Domestic violence has been a deep-rooted evil in India wherein weak, vulnerable and innocent women suffer at the hands of men. According to the reliable report of India, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2019 it has been recorded that the estimate goes to somewhat around 30.9% of the cases of all 4.05 lakh cases are registered under Penal Code, 18602 and Section 498-A3.4 This date showcases the prevalence of the domestic violence in India even after stringent laws and Act in place for the safety of women and their children.
This comment elaborates the righteousness of the landmark judgment of Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja,5 which gave a clear understanding of the rights of women in shared household. Crime against women and children has been at a constant surge in India and hence the Court elaborated which ultimately broadened the meaning of “shared household” as per Section 2(s)6 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (“Act of 2005”). Earlier Indian women could only go to the civil courts to avail decree of divorce or could go to the criminal courts under Section 498-A IPC hence, till the year 2005 the remedies for women were limited wherein no emergency relief could be sought by the victim, after the Act of 2005 the scope of remedies for women have increased hence, making the 2005 Act a saving grace for the victims who sometimes suffer as a compulsion and sometimes by the choice of silence in India.
The Court in the present matter dealt with various crucial issues for securing justice for women and their children when they have been subjected to mental and emotional cruelty at the hands of their husband and in-laws. The issues were crucial to understand the definition of “shared household” under Section 2(s) of the Act of 2005 including the interpretation of the earlier judgment of this Court in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra7, and various other questions that would further clear the ambiguity in the interpretation of the Act of 2005 and its earlier application in the judgment by the trial court. These issues were drafted by the Court after prudent hearing of the case and the landmark judgment was delivered on the basis of these issues. The brutality and injustice suffered by women in India will only be curbed by the constant involvement of the judiciary in delivering justice.
Brief facts of the case and lower court decisions
In the present matter, the son of Satish Chander Ahuja (hereinafter “R” or “respondent”) married Sneha Ahuja in 1995 and after the said marriage the couple started residing in the first floor of the residence owned by Satish Chander Ahuja. In around 2014 the couple started to have differences and after that the husband filed a divorce petition under Sections 13(1)(i-a) and (iii)8 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 19559.
Chief Metropolitan Magistrate
Further, the wife, Sneha Ahuja filed an application suggesting trauma under Section 12 of the Act of 2005 impleading the husband as Respondent 1, her father-in-law Satish Chander Ahuja as Respondent 2 and mother-in-law as Respondent 3. In the said application, Sneha Ahuja alleged that she has suffered severe mental and emotional trauma by the respondents.
In regard to the said application the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate passed an interim order that the children or the wife Sneha Ahuja will not be disposed of the said shared household property nor should the respondents alienate such property.
Aggrieved by the interim order passed by the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, the appellant filed a suit for permanent injunction impleading Sneha Ahuja as the sole defendant. Herein, the appellant i.e. Satish Chander Ahuja alleged that he and his wife has been a victim of domestic violence whilst suffering from various heart ailments, hypertension at the age of 76 and hence wants to live peacefully in his self-acquired residence. It was further stated that Sneha Ahuja filed the above domestic violence application to counterblast the divorce petition filed by the husband “R”.
It consequently was proved by the appellant that the residence in the present matter is his self-acquired property by filing required documents under Order 11 Rule 13 CPC10. After duly hearing and recording the present documents the trial court held that the plaintiff is decreed for relief of permanent injunction as prayed for and further asked Sneha Ahuja to vacate the premises of Satish Chander Ahuja within 15 days.
Delhi High Court
Aggrieved by the above judgment Sneha Ahuja filed regular first appeal in the Delhi High Court. The Delhi High Court held11 that the trial court erroneously passed the decree based only on the fact that whether the property in question was a “self-acquired” or “shared household” and gave no regard to the fact that the domestic violence case was still pending adjudication and determination by the court. Aggrieved by the judgment of Delhi High Court the present appellant, Satish Chander Ahuja filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of India.
Supreme Court: A landmark judgment
The Supreme Court whilst pronouncing the judgment12 gave regard to the objectives of the Act of 2005 which is to safeguard the rights of the aggrieved women of India.
Firstly, the Court deciphered the terms “means” and “includes” as mentioned in the definition of “shared household” under Section 2(s) of the Act of 2005. The Court while relying on Bharat Coop. Bank (Mumbai) Ltd. v. Coop. Bank Employees Union13, Pioneer Urban Land & Infrastructure Ltd. v. Union of India14, South Gujarat Roofing Tiles Manufacturers Assn. v. State of Gujarat15 and Karnataka Power Transmission Corpn. v. Ashok Iron Works (P) Ltd.16 stated that the term “includes” is interpreted to enlarge, broaden and expand the meaning of the sentence and hence the second half of the definition in Section 2(s) is exhaustive and all-inclusive. Thus, the Court stated that “shared household” does not just mean the household property of the joint family of which the husband is a member of or has a share in but has a wider scope of interpretation.
Secondly, the Court thoroughly analysed the judgment of the Supreme Court in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra17 wherein the Court specifically emphasised that the interpretation in the said case was not a correct interpretation and lacked the legal intent of the drafters. The Court further held that the words “lives or at any stage has lived” does not mean any place they have lived fleetingly including any relative's residence, if the definition is broadened to this extent then that would entirely destruct the motive of the Act and would lead to chaos. The living has to have some form of permanency and should have the intention of the parties to accept the premises as “shared household” property.
Thirdly, the Court concurred with the Delhi High Court's judgment and held that the decree of the trial court was unsustainable as the power under Order 12 Rule 6 18 CPC is discretionary and due to that the trial court must have not given the impugned judgment. The Court in this reference relied on Himani Alloys Ltd. v. Tata Steel Ltd19, S.M. Asif v. Virender Kumar Bajaj20, Section 26 21 of the Act of 2005 and further relied for interpretation of the said Section 26 on Vaishali Abhimanyu Joshi v. Nanasaheb Gopal Joshi22.
Fourthly, the Court opined that the plaintiff in the domestic violence case can be treated as “respondent” as per Section 2(q), of the 2005 Act for the sole purpose of determining the rights under Sections 17 23 and 19 24 read with Section 26 of the said Act of 2005. The Court relied on Hiral P. Harsora v. Kusum Narottamdas Harsora 25 wherein the Court struck down “adult male” and further held that for a person to treated as a “respondent” as per Section 2(q) of the Act of 2005, it has to be proved that person arrayed as respondent has committed an act of domestic violence on the aggrieved.
Fifthly, the Court while relying on Order 1 Rule 10,26 CPC held that the husband is not a necessary party or a party with the view of the fact that no relief has been claimed against the son of the plaintiff. But the Court further gave regard to Sections 17, 19 and 16 27 of the 2005 Act wherein for the purpose of fulfilling the right of alternate accommodation and maintenance under the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 195628 the husband is a necessary party.
“Woman now has a right of residence in the property owned by father-in-law as per the 2005 Act.”
This case has been a turning point for securing justice and rights of women and children aggrieved by domestic violence in India and the author subsequently believe it to be a righteous decision by the Hon'ble Justices. Even in the judgment the Judges particularly put specific reliance on the objectives of the 2005 Act wherein securing the rights of the aggrieved woman and children has been the core object and purpose of the legal drafters.
The issues framed by the Supreme Court were of utmost importance but the core understanding and interpretation of the term “shared household” under Section 2(s) of the Act of 2005, overruled various judgments hence making the decision in Satish Chander Ahuja v. Sneha Ahuja29, a landmark judgment. If the Judges would have relied on prior decisions of the Courts in interpreting the meaning of “shared household” then that rightly so would have created a havoc and chaos. The Court by drifting away from the earlier interpretation gave a new hope to the aggrieved woman in India.
The irony is that the definition of “shared household” has been interpreted by the Court in such a manner that would broaden and yet make it limited than the earlier interpretation of the term. Where before the term was interpreted in a literal manner giving no regard to the legal understating and object of the Act of 2005.
It is pertinent to note that the Court disregarded the judgment in S.R. Batra v. Taruna Batra30 as that would only lead to confusion and chaos in the justice-delivering system. Wherein the Court interpreted and expanded the definition is such a direction that would make any casual place of stay by the couple a “shared household” as per Section 2(s) of the 2005 Act. If this was legal intent of the drafters then the parties would ask for a right of residence in any of the relative's homes where they have resided fleetingly together even as a guest which would shatter the whole idea and object of the Act of 2005. The present case sheds light on the fact that broadening the extent of a definition can sometimes lead to more problems than providing prudent solutions. Hence, in the present case the Judges made a clear distinction as to what will form the exhaustive meaning of the definition and gave importance to the intent of the parties to reside in a place with certain permanency rather than just a casual stay. Herein the parties stayed in the self-acquired property of the father-in-law since their marriage which took place in 1995 that shows the “intent of parties to reside in the said residence with certain permanency” making it the “shared household” of the parties.
It is further prudent to note that after this decision the wife would be entitled to right of residence even in the property of father-in-law as per the Act of 2005 making it a landmark judgment which has opened new dimensions for woman and their security. This case has proved to be a pillar which will open new pathways to a more liberal and safe environment for aggrieved woman and children in India.
This judgment paved new pathways for the Act of 2005 but still the condition of women in India is not remotely close to getting any better. Women still are suffering from various brutalities at the hands of their husbands, in-laws, brothers and so on and so forth.
Relying on the statement by the court in the instant matter, the progress of society is still a far-fetched dream in India, there is still a need for more landmark judgments wherein the court regards women as equal and liberal as men. Protecting the rights, liberty and security of women in India must be the core object while deciding not just the matter of domestic violence but also other crucial questions of law.
† Author is a lawyer presently working in the corporate legal department of a company and can be reached at <email@example.com>.
4. Ministry of Home Affairs, NCRB Report Statistics, Vol. 1, available at <https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/CII%202019%20Volume%201.pdf> (visited on 6-2-2022).