Married or no, women maintenance a must - Deserted long-term live-in partner entitled to support, says apex court
OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT
New Delhi, Sept. 25: The Supreme Court has said that any woman in a long-term live-in relationship is entitled to maintenance if deserted.
It is immaterial whether the woman was legally married to the man or not, the court said. What matters is whether she was completely dependent on him for sustenance.
“Women can’t be left vagrant. Right to life (guaranteed under the Constitution) includes the right to live with dignity. It is not possible to live with dignity when a woman has no food and leads the life of a destitute,” said Justice A.K. Ganguly, sitting with senior judge G.S. Singhvi.
Justice Singhvi added: “Someone has to take care of her if she is not able to, just to prevent vagrancy.”
“Leaving women to vagrancy threatens social stability and public order,” Justice Ganguly underlined. Women are, after all, the source of all power, he said.
The two judges were hearing the petition of a woman, Chunmuniya, who claimed that after her husband Ram Sharan died on March 7, 1992, she was “married” off to his younger brother Virendra Kumar Singh Kushwaha, as was the practice in her caste. Among some communities in northern India, the widow of an older brother is forced to live with any surviving brother. The marriage was performed simply by doing a katha, she said.
Virendra, who was 10 years younger than Ram Sharan, deserted her in 1996. She moved an application for maintenance on March 26, 1997, but he married another woman in 1998 while it was pending.
A family court upheld Chunmuniya’s plea for maintenance. But Virendra went to the high court denying that he had been married to her. He claimed she had fraudulently inserted her name as his wife in the family register with the panchayat to get a share of the property.
The high court ruled in his favour on November 11, 2007, saying Chunmuniya had not been able to prove marriage. Invocation before a sacred fire and saptapadi were the two ceremonies essential to the validity of a marriage, it said, setting aside the family court order. Chunmuniya then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court decided that the issue needed consideration and appointed Altaf Ahmad and P.S. Patwalia as the amicus curiae to assist the judges in deciding the issue. Both contended that the law could be interpreted to include all such women in the definition of “wife” to enable them to get maintenance.
Ahmed said that if a woman marries under personal laws, she immediately gets several rights and obligations. Those who do not, do not get any rights. “If such dependent women are provided for, this trend (of living-in) will also be discouraged,” he contended.
The bench agreed that the status of a wife need not be a pre-requisite for getting maintenance before reserving orders in the case. A prolonged domestic relationship resembling marriage is enough to entitle a deserted woman to maintenance, it observed.
Patwalia said that living-in was a fast-catching “urban phenomenon” which the law must address. “Here, the man has no obligations or responsibilities of any kind. Let the law reach out to them,” he said.
The bench also expressed anguish over the use of such words as “illegitimate” children and “other woman” in various laws and blamed the “patriarchal” mindset of law-makers for this. “The use of the word illegitimate stigmatises these children the day they are born,” Justice Singhvi said.
At another point, the court criticised law-makers for enshrining Rs 500 as the maximum maintenance per month in a 1973 law. “Whoever fixed the amount was miserly,” the judges observed. The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, enshrines this as the maximum maintenance for all dependants — wife and children.