Thursday afternoon I was wondering if our feeling of supreme confidence about the judicial protection women would get in India was misplaced. In what to me seems a controversial decision, the Supreme Court of India has tried to spell out in what situations and under what circumstances a woman living with a man, without being legally married to him, would qualify for maintenance and protection.
Those inclined to look at the silver lining could say that at least now it has been spelt out about what kind of a live-in relationship would qualify to be considered in the nature of marriage. The court lays down four conditions.
What’s more, there should be proof in the form of evidence. So legal eagles say it is a wake-up call to women in vulnerable situations to start collecting evidence that they could need at some time to seek legal protection.
The apex court has also said that merely spending weekends together or a one-night stand would not make it a domestic relationship. So if work or other reasons keep the couple in different cities over the week and they only meet over the weekend, that would not be seen in the nature of a marriage.
“That men have extra marital relationships is a reality. Can you imagine the pandemonium and social turmoil society would be thrown into if mistresses and keeps were given the rights and sanctity of a wife or a long-standing live-in partner? What would happen to the man and the family?” asks a friend who fancies himself as a social realist.
But I wonder if our presumption about the power equation that a woman labelled as a `mistress’ or a `keep’ enjoys vis-a-vis the man is not pre-conditioned by our social and cultural bias. And that is why it bothers me when the apex court spells out that “If a man has a ‘keep’ whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and or as a servant, it would not, in our opinion be a relationship in the nature of marriage.”
Feminists would say the use of the language, the reference to a woman as a `keep’, who is `maintained financially’ and `used’ mainly for sexual purpose smacks of commodification of a woman, turning her into a sexual object. An interpretation that narrows and looks through coloured glasses the many shades that a live-in relationship, sexual or even platonic, could have.
To me, the woman who is financially dependent and gets `used’ for sexual purpose or as a servant is precisely the person who would need protection under the law. What an irony that she should be excluded.
The apex court has, in the case that was being argued, ruled that Patchaiammal, who claimed to have married Velusamy and is said to have lived 14 years with him, will not be entitled to the maintenance of 500 rupees that the Madras High Court and a matrimonial court had granted her.
That’s because Velusamy had challenged the two court orders on the ground that he was already married to one Laxmi and Patchaiammal was not married to him though he lived with her for some time. And since Laxmi was not given a chance to be heard, the directions passed by the lower court was ruled as erroneous and the matter would go back to the matrimonial court to examine whether Laxmi was the legally wedded wife of Velusamy.
So the court has interpreted section 125 of CrPC relating to maintenance, and said that besides a legally-wedded wife, dependent parents and children alone are entitled to maintenance from a man.
What’s interesting is that the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act of 2005 had expanded the scope of maintenance by using the expression ‘domestic relationship’ to include not only the relationship of marriage but also a relationship ‘in the nature of marriage’. Parliament did not use the expression `live-in relationship’.
The Supreme Court admits that it is conscious that the view it is taking would exclude many women who have had a live-in relationship from protection under the 2005 domestic violence Act. But it has said that since the expression has not been defined in the Act, the court thinks it is necessary to authoritatively interpret what qualifies to be called a relationship in the nature of marriage.
Optimists can rejoice that for the first time, the scope of alimony has been extended to include `palimony’, which means a long-term pal who is not a legal spouse can also be entitled to maintenance.