Reining in Mercenary Husbands, but Endangering Women’s Rights
A husband cannot be allowed to strike a morbid bargain with his wife, the SC has ruled.
The Supreme Court has come down hard on a man seeking to divorce his wife suffering from breast cancer. The husband had claimed that he would pay for her treatment only if she agreed to the divorce.
In the 2 December order, the apex court ruled that a husband is duty-bound to pay for the medical treatment and accompanying expenses of his wife who is facing near-certain death.
More significantly, when a Hindu marriage is judicially and legally recognised as an inviolable sacrament and not a contract, the court made a bold move by applying contract law principles to a matrimonial dispute.
The ruling isn’t without its share of warts, but nonetheless, marks a significant milestone in Indian jurisprudence.
The Supreme Court has ruled that a husband cannot get away without paying for his cancer-stricken wife’s treatment.
In its reasoning however, the order stated that a husband is a Hindu wife’s God.
We applaud the court’s move to uphold the wife’s rights and for treating a marriage as a contract. But we also point out that the court’s language partially undoes the good deed.
A Marriage Entails Contractual Obligations
For years at end, India’s top court has insisted that all marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act are essentially sacred arrangements, and even if wives are inflicted with cruelty (such as marital rape), they are bound to discharge their conjugal obligations.
It is here that the court makes a welcome departure, by applying the principles of the Indian Contract Act to a matrimonial dispute which arose between a Hindu couple.
A husband, by virtue of tying the wedding knot, is legally and morally obligated to look after his wife, and cannot be allowed to use this as a bargaining tool, the court held.
In this particular case, the husband contended that paying a lump sum for his wife’s cancer treatment was a just and valid consideration for getting divorce. Almost, as if it was the alimony he is supposed to pay under the law.
But the court disagreed, and ruled that a husband has a “pre-existing duty” to take care of his wife, and this includes paying for her medical expenses in case she is unable to meet them by herself.
Whether spouses in a marriage owe “duties” to each other is a debatable proposition, especially in an age where more and more voices are speaking up for gender equity in all spheres of life.
However, few can dispute the fact that certain immutable considerations flow from the relationship, and the court accords them contractual status. This is beneficial because a contract has a higher legal standing than subjective societal norms.
A Good Deed, Partially Undone
Although the court has done well to fortify a wife’s legal rights, it makes an observation which reeks of sexism. Justice MY Eqbal, who wrote the Order, states that for a Hindu wife, her husband is her God and she is bound to render selfless service and show profound dedication to him.
This seems to be lifted straight out of the Manusmriti, a treatise which has achieved notoriety for justifying women’s servitude to men.
In future, husbands could use this observation to their advantage and compel their wives to stay confined in unhappy and cruel marriages. More so, because the courts have a long history of giving more importance to the sanctity of the institution of marriage than the rights of women.
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