Indian brides account for 41 per cent of the toll of murdered women globally. (Photo: iStockphoto)
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Not So Happily-Ever-After, Yet India has a Low Divorce Rate

In the Hindu pantheon, husband is pati parameshwar, or a woman’s ‘supreme godly husband’; he is Lord Vishnu in the human form. But most Indians, particularly women, are groaning under the fetters of a stupid illusion of perpetuity of marital relations that has not been seriously challenged, intellectually or legally.

The divorce rate in India is so low – about 13 in 1,000 marriages, against 500 in 1,000 marriages in the UK – that it arguably looks fishy. Nor do things look brighter in reports of the household census as it is bereft of data on how families are organised – be it around married or unmarried couples or single individuals.

In the absence of official statistics, perhaps the bellwether is the number of divorces granted by the family courts. It increased by 350 per cent between 2003 and 2011 in Kolkata, and doubled in Mumbai between 2010 and 2014. Meanwhile, thousands of divorce petitions have piled up in family courts across the country.

Snapshot
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The Breakups

  • The rate of divorce in India is about 13 per 1,000 marriages against 500 in 1,000 marriages in the UK.
  • Divorces granted by the family courts increased by 350 per cent between 2003 and 2011 in Kolkata, and doubled in Mumbai between 2010 and 2014.
  • Thousands of divorce petitions have piled up in family courts across the country.
  • ‘Permanent alimony’ granted by courts to wives is around 10 per cent of spouse’s income.

In a Broken Marriage

Under the Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act, a divorce is a blessing for the wealthier partner. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Under the Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act, a divorce is a blessing for the wealthier partner. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Why has the supposedly unbreakable Hindu marriage turned so fragile, and yet rolled up in a tight pack so it doesn’t crack into pieces?

The obvious reason is the high cost of divorce, particularly for the wife, in a country notorious for gender inequality. Under the Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act, a divorce is a blessing for the wealthier partner, as assets like the house, the car and the savings are likely to be in his name. It’s usually “his”, because following a change in the Income Tax Act in 1984, gone is the old practice of registering property in the name of the homemaker wife to avoid the income-tax department’s attention. The wife, therefore, may have nowhere to go after divorce, except to her parents’ home where too she is unwanted, particularly by her brothers, who are claimants to paternal property.

Throughout the western world, wives have equal claim to matrimonial property and even live-in partners have identical claims when the partnership ends, provided there was a ‘cohabitation agreement’ between them.

Divorce in India hardly goes uncontested (unlike in the West) because wives know that agreeing to a divorce is like throwing away the last lifeline. The ‘permanent alimony’ granted by courts to wives after divorce is generally around 10 per cent of spouse’s income. But in a land where less than four per cent people file income-tax returns, determining income is not an easy job. Nor is there any certainty that the husband will honour his commitment for child security. Beside, a divorcee woman is permanently stigmatised.

It is for such fears that women drag on divorce proceedings. But it can be equally painful for the husband. If the wife has got used to see her estranged husband as a permanent source of income, he can never treat the marriage as a closed chapter and move on. Nobody knows how many such unfortunate couples are caught in the limbo of broken marriages.

Iron Clad Marriage Laws

The existing Indian law gives the spouse no claim on the matrimonial property (Photo: iStockphoto)
The existing Indian law gives the spouse no claim on the matrimonial property (Photo: iStockphoto)

The basic shortcoming in the existing divorce law is two-fold: it allows divorce only on specific grounds like adultery, cruelty, insanity etc., although there can be many other reasons why a couple might like to end their relationship; moreover, the existing law gives the spouse no claim on the matrimonial property.

In 2013 the UPA government got approval from the Rajya Sabha to amend the Marriage Laws Bill, which sought to make the“irretrievable breakdown of marriage” a valid ground for divorce. The amendment allowed the wife to oppose the grant of a divorce on grounds that it could expose her to grave financial hardship. Further, the court was also granted the power to decide how much of the husband’s immovable property should be given to the wife for her maintenance and that of the children, if they are in her custody.

The NDA government, after receiving over 70 applications from ‘men’s rights’ groups, some of which are linked to the RSS, has stalled the bill. Opponents of the bill believe that an easy divorce could encourage more couples to cohabit before marriage and create a society of loose morals. Union Law Minister Sadananda Gowda has constantly raised the bogey of “grave and far-reaching” consequences as a reason to put the bill on the back burner.

But the ‘ideal’ world of an iron clad marriage law, as it exists now, is unique in a different sense. In 2012 over 1.4 dowry deaths per 100,000 females were reported in India, against 3.4 homicides per 100,000 women worldwide, according to a UN report. That makes Indian brides account for a full 41 per cent of the global toll of murdered women.

That’s some ‘men’s right’ indeed.

(The writer is Delhi-based veteran journalist.)