Urban India backs legal shield for live-in couples

April 16th, 2008 - 9:59 am ICT by admin  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, April 16 (IANS) Meena Bhattacharya, an executive with an MNC, says light-heartedly that her boyfriend Tanmay Mukherjee, with whom she lives in Noida on Delhi’s outskirts, has not been throwing his weight around ever since January. That was when India’s Supreme Court ruled that couples cohabiting together for a long time - the instance cited by it was 30 years - could be treated as husband and wife and their children would not be branded illegitimate.

Says Tanmay, an image consultant, in a serious tone: “The ruling definitely protects the dignity and life of the woman in a country like ours where the gender balance and attitudes are so lopsided.”

The legal spotlight is suddenly on live-in relationships that are becoming acceptable in the big cities of conservative India. Traditionally marriages are fixed up by families of brides and grooms, and in rural India specially couples don’t even get a chance to interact before the wedding.

But clearly things are changing, at least in urban areas.

On April 4, a high court ruling placed a mistress on a par with the wife under the Domestic Violence Act - it meant the companion of a married man could complain if her partner or his family harassed her.

Lawyers, celebrities and couples living together say the rulings - both of the Supreme Court and the high court - fit well into the evolving society of India.

They welcome the verdicts despite “the grey areas in the legal statutes” which are silent on several issues like break-ups, property division and child custody of a mistress or a woman living together with a man outside wedlock.

“The judgments that two adults who choose to live together and are committed to their relationship should have certain rights fit well in an evolving society like India. But we have to see how it works out in the long run,” Delhi-based lawyer Sushil Bajaj told IANS.

“The Domestic Violence Act already recognises live-in relationships because a woman is entitled to protection in case of abuse. But all these legal statutes are the rights of a married woman, which have been expanded to include the woman living in with a man.”

But there is nothing special or specific for “live-in” partners - particularly the woman, said Bajaj.

According to him, in an evolving society there are all kinds of relationships and if two adults choose to live outside wedlock, they must have certain rights, liability and protection. “It is perfectly normal,” he said.

According to television and screen actress Archana Puran Singh, living in is essentially a cosmopolitan trend. The actress, who lived with her husband Parmeet Singh for several years before marrying him, said that in smaller cities, societal pressure would never allow such a trend to flourish.

However, a US study says nearly 40 percent women break up after 10 years of living together with a man and rarely do live-in relationships last a lifetime.

Model-turned-film actor Milind Soman feels that anything that gives more power to women is welcome. “Women in India are the most abused, be it within or outside marriage. Globally women need equal rights. There should be no imbalance. I am all for it,” the actor, who was in the capital last week told IANS.

But he has a problem with the Supreme Court ruling. “The judgement defeats the very purpose of live-in relationships. Marriage in itself is an institution, so why bother to live together if a couple wants to marry. If a live-in relationship becomes legally valid, then what happens to marriage as an institution?

Argues Bangalore-based novelist Shinie Antony: “What happens in case of a bigamous relationship? In south India, where the practice of ‘chinnaveedu’, or taking a younger second wife, is prevalent among men, the younger woman is often left at the mercy of the older wife and the man’s family after the husband’s death. The second marriages often do not have legal sanction.

“In a country like India, which has lot of moral airs, such women are looked down upon and are often branded concubines. The judgment does not say anything about their rights and entitlements,” Antony said, when asked for reactions.

Actress Suchitra Krishnamoorthy supports both the judgments but feels that living in is an initiation into matrimony in India.

“Couples must have a strong reason to live together outside wedlock, though personally I would always advocate marriage,” Krishnamoorthy told IANS on phone from Mumbai.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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