“We would be remiss in not recognising that intimate partner violence is a reality,” Justice DY Chandrachud had said in a judgment shortly before he took over as the Chief Justice of India. Yes, the Chief Justice of India was talking about 'marital rape' and the need for it to be recognised under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.
But in context of the brutal murder of a girl in Delhi, and its ghastly cover-up by her partner, these words couldn’t ring any truer.
After killing Shraddha Walkar, her partner Aftab Amin Poonawala, the man she was in a “live-in” relationship with, reportedly dismembered her body, hid it away, and disposed of it over a period of time. Along with conversation about the gruesome nature of the crime, this has also triggered communal banter, and some are even judging Shraddha for having been in a live-in relationship in the first place.
“Young working females must never overlook their centuries old culture,” one Twitter user wrote, while another added:
“Western culture has ruined Hindu girls.”
Sections of Indian society, as exemplified above, still frown upon consenting adults living together, and refuse to recognise sex as a choice that adults can make and do not deserve to be punished for. The courts, however, view it differently.
HOW THE COURTS PERCEIVE LIVE-IN RELATIONSHIPS
In the judgment cited above, the bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud categorically stated that the benefits of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act extend to unmarried/single women. This is to say that unmarried women can legitimately have sex and also legitimately abort any conception that may have emanated from that act (within a specific time frame). With regard to live-in relationships too, the law is clear.
In Lata Singh vs State of UP (2006), the apex court observed that a live-in relationship between two consenting adults does not amount to any offence, “even though it may be perceived as immoral.”
Reiterating the same, the Supreme Court, in S Khushboo v Kannaimmal, held that live-in relationships fall within the ambit of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
In 2021 the apex court reversed a Punjab and Haryana High Court order that had refused, on moral grounds, to grant protection to a couple in a live-in relationship.
Further, according to Section 2(f) the The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005:
“domestic relationship” means a relationship between two persons who live or have, at any point of time, lived together in a shared household, when they are related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family.’
The courts of the country have reiterated in several judgments that the 2005 Act applies to those in live-in relationships.
Adjudicating a dispute in which the woman had sought maintenance from the man after the live-in relationship ended, the Supreme Court, in 2013, even framed guidelines for live-in relationships under the Domestic Violence Act. But they also held that the guidelines, which included duration of relationship, shared household, sexual relationship and pooling of resources, to not be exhaustive. Further, the court said:
"Live-in or marriage like relationship is neither a crime nor a sin though socially unacceptable in this country. The decision to marry or not to marry or to have a heterosexual relationship is intensely personal.”
Thus, for all practical purposes, a “live-in” relationship such as the one the Delhi murder victim was in, holds legitimacy under the relevant act. It also means that such a person is entitled to protection from domestic violence under the Domestic Violence Act.
WHY THIS MATTERS
This matters because, evidently, the law is ahead of society when it comes to relationships between consenting adults.
It also matters primarily because women in live-in relationships are often scoffed at, looked down upon, ridiculed and scared into silence. It is still hard for a woman in a live-in relationship to publicly air her grievances for fear of the society telling her that “western culture" has ruined her.
They are also often blamed for their choices, as if any abuse that comes their way is a consequence of their decision, as if they are somehow responsible for what they endure. This is not only incredibly insensitive and apathetic but also reeks of woeful misogyny. Further, the impact of such oppressive societal judgment can be fatal.
But as more articulately stated by activist Kavita Krishnan in her blog:
“Usually boyfriends/husband murder women after long periods of domestic violence. If only people reacted to domestic violence and took action to stop it, it could save women’s lives.”
The exact circumstances in Shraddha Walkar's case are not clear as yet, but it is pertinent to remember that similar instances can be avoided if adult women in consenting relationships are reminded that they have protection under the law, that just because what they are doing is socially 'frowned upon', it does not mean they are doing anything wrong. That if they feel they are being abused they can speak up, step away, seek help.
AND MATRIMONY REALLY ISN'T A SAFEGUARD AGAINST ABUSE
It is also worth noting that it isn’t women in live-in relationships alone who are made victims of brutality. As pointed out by Krishnan, the Delhi High Court had in 2014 lamented that a large number of women were murdered in their matrimonial homes, with their husbands being the prime accused.
“It appears that married women in India are safer on the streets than in their matrimonial homes.”Delhi High Court
Upholding the life imprisonment of a man convicted of killing his wife, the division bench of Justices Pradeep Nandrajog and Mukta Gupta had said that “every tenth murder appeal we are hearing has the husband before us as the convicted accused. The victim is the wife and the place of the crime is the matrimonial house.”
According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21), only 14% of women who have experienced any type of physical or sexual violence came out and sought help.
Further, it said that 32% of ever-married women between age 18-49 (those who have been married at least once in their lifetime) have experience physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence. 83% of these reported their current husband to be the perpetrators.
The fact remains that a culture of abuse holds society in its tentacles. Beyond the binaries of live in and matrimony, interfaith and same-faith, upper-caste and lower caste, one has to look at the data, see what it reveals about violence against women, and note that the perpetrators live among us, as do the victims. Anybody can be a victim and literally anybody a perpetrator.
The law recognises live-in relationships, it is high time the society dId too. Instead of exploiting this grotesque crime to further shame women who hope to exercise their autonomy in relationships, we must remember that shame enables silence and silence enables abuse and violence.
(With inputs from NDTV, Daily Pioneer, Times of India and LiveLaw.)