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MENTAL CRUELTY AS A GROUND FOR DIVORCE UNDER HINDU LAW

Author: Ishita Sethi, II year of B.Com.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Jindal Global Law School


Abstract

Cruelty can be both physical and mental. While physical cruelty can be proven in court using medical records and injury marks, establishing mental damage can often be more challenging given the legal definition of “cruelty” is based only on court rulings. Only “reasonable apprehension of danger” can be used to describe the mental component of cruelty.

Through the current paper, the author seeks to delve into the legal and historical context of mental cruelty as a ground for divorce under the ambit of Hindu Law. The research highlights how mental cruelty is still somewhat an abstract concept and how the judiciary has interpreted the concept with the help of various cases wherein mental cruelty was cited as a reason for divorce. Furthermore, it has been discussed in the paper how refusal to indulge in sexual intercourse can amount to marital rape is problematic. Contentions against mental cruelty on women and the emerging concept of cruelty on men is examined, with a discourse on why the establishment of mental cruelty as a ground for divorce is pivotal.


Introduction

The manner in which religious practices were once carried out has undergone an unprecedented change in India, a nation of many different faiths and sects. Marriage was considered a necessary union between two individuals in Hindu households and their practices, which until recently, were largely based on outdated conventions. It was not just a business deal for Hindus, but rather a religious partnership between two families. The Scriptures suggest that they believed the All-Powerful had arranged a union of seven births.

Hindus were expected to follow the ashram system, which required them to visit numerous ashrams during their lives. The four ashrams were Brahmacharya (student), Grihasta (housekeeper), Vanaprashtha (forest dweller), and Sanyassa (abandoning the world). According to common belief, Grihastha was the most significant ashram.

This framework serves as the foundation for many Indian personal laws. Attempts to codify Hindu personal law stretch back to 1920, albeit reluctantly. Correct codification, on the other hand, occurred in 1955 and 1956, after Congress passed four major acts. The legislation in question were the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act of 1956, the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, and the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956. Religious Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs are all legally classified as Hindus and hence subject to the aforementioned regulations.


Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 on Mental Cruelty

It is relatively easy to assess or interpret whether a person has been physically abused. However, the negative effects of mental cruelty are difficult to see with the naked eye because it is impossible to read another person’s mind. Most of the time, the victim of mental cruelty is obliged to remain with the other party because they find it difficult to prove mental cruelty in court. In reality, it has a significantly greater impact on the victims’ lives than physical brutality, although it appears to be widely overlooked.

Cruelty was never considered as a reason for divorce and was only used in circumstances of judicial separation. The aggrieved party or petitioner had to demonstrate that the cruelty is so severe or painful that it is making it difficult to continue living with their spouse. However, the Supreme Court upheld this in the landmark case of Narayan Ganesh Dastane vs. Sucheta Narayan Dastane in 1975. The court cited the case of Cooper v. Cooperand held that in the cases of cruelty,

very slight fresh evidence is needed to show a resumption of the cruelty, for cruelty of character is bound to show itself in conduct and behaviour, day in and day out, night in and night out.”

This resulted in an amendment to the Act that included cruelty as a reason for divorce, as well as the establishment of a legal definition of the term cruelty under this Act in 1976.

Given changes in social morals, the 1976 revision of the law made cruelty a reason for divorce. The Court did, however, clarify that courts should only consider matters involving cruelty based on the subject matter of the case. Except for two words added to the act, there was little difference between the grounds for judicial separation and the grounds for divorce after the amendment. This provision gave significantly more weight to proving cruelty as a grounds for divorce than it did to proving it as a ground for judicial separation. Section 10(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 added this reason, and "cruelty" now has its own definition.

Even before the 1976 amendment, in Dastane v Dastane (1975), the Supreme Court considered the issue of judicial cruelty as well. In that case, the court ruled that the wife’s threats to terminate her life, as well as verbally harassing the husband and his father, constituted to mental cruelty, and granted the husband divorce.

Justice YV Chandrachud at the time contended that,

The inquiry therefore has to be whether the conduct charged as cruelty is of such a character as to cause in the mind of the petitioner a reasonable apprehension that it will be harmful or injurious for him to live with the respondent. It is not necessary, as under the English law, that the cruelty must be of such a character as to cause “danger” to life, limb, or health or as to give rise to a reasonable apprehension of such a danger.”


Special Marriage Act, 1954 on Cruelty

According to Section 27 (d) of the Special Marriage Act of 1954, “cruelty” is defined as any conduct or behaviour by the respondent towards the petitioner that results in physical or mental suffering, endangers the petitioner’s life or health, or renders it impossible for them to live with the respondent after the marriage has been solemnised. Additionally, the definition of cruelty under the Special Marriage Act bears resemblance to the definition under the Hindu Marriage Act.


Indian Divorce Act, 1869 on Cruelty

Cruelty to the husband was not regarded as a legal basis for filing for divorce prior to the passage of the Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act of 2001. However, the wife could ask for a divorce due to the husband’s cruel actions as well as his adultery.

According to the amended provision of Section 10 of the Act, the petitioner shall be deemed to have a just and reasonable basis for seeking a divorce if the respondent has treated the petitioner with such cruelty as to give rise to a reasonable fear in the petitioner’s mind that it would be harmful or injurious for the petitioner to continue living with the respondent.


Indian Penal Code, 1860 on Cruelty

In addition to the existing personal rules, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code makes it illegal to treat women cruelly. It is clearly stated in the clause that any spouse or relative of a husband who subjected a woman to any type of cruelty was subject to a maximum three-year sentence in prison as well as a corresponding fine.

It is important to highlight that the criminal offence of cruelty to women, as defined by the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, is not subject to bail, is cognizable, and is not compoundable. This law’s scope extends to mental cruelty as well, including torture and deviant behaviour, in addition to physical cruelty. It is important to remember, nevertheless, that Section 498A of the IPC only offers remedies for women who have suffered abuse at the hands of their spouses or family. Sadly, this provision does not offer similar recourse to men who have been victimised by their spouses’ acts of cruelty, especially mental cruelty.


Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 on Cruelty

The Indian Parliament passed the powerful Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA) with the noble intention of protecting women from the evil of domestic abuse and enhancing their right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Under the protection of this significant law, any act of domestic violence committed against a wife is severely punished, with a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a maximum fine of Rs. 20,000. This stringent regulation emphasises how serious domestic violence is and how vital it is to safeguard the most vulnerable members of society from its devasting effects. The PWDVA offers innumerable women who have up to now endured in silence a legal framework through which they can seek restitution and live lives of respect and dignity, serving as a beacon of hope for them.


What constitutes as mental cruelty?

In any of the legislations, Parliament did not provide a comprehensive definition of mental cruelty. As a result, the judiciary has come to understand the phrase based on how it has been construed throughout the years, when the courts have formed grounds for awarding relief for both physical and mental cruelty.

The Courts have had various discourses regarding the “intention” part in context with mental cruelty. In Shobha Rani v Madhukar Reddi, the court contended that the context and setting in which the word ‘cruelty’ is employed in the Section 13(1)(i-a) of Hindu Marriage Act suggests that intention is not a required component of cruelty. Similarly, the Bombay High Court found in the case of Bhagwat v. Bhagwat that the husband did not intend to be cruel to his wife, but his actions were cruel. He was suffering from schizophrenia; however, his intentions were nonetheless cruel and hence was convicted.

In the case of Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh, the Apex Court gave their contentions as to what constitutes as mental cruelty. They gave certain illustrations to determine what and what not comes under the ambit of mental cruelty:

(i) In light of the parties’ entire married existence, extreme mental pain, agony, and suffering that would make it impossible for the parties to live together could fall within the broad criteria of mental cruelty.

(ii) A thorough examination of the parties’ whole marriage history reveals that the situation is such that the offended party cannot fairly be expected to put up with such behaviour and continue to live with the other party, then it would constitute as mental cruelty.

(iii) While mere coldness or lack of affection cannot be considered cruelty, frequent rudeness of language, petulance of manner, apathy, and neglect can reach a point where the married life for the other spouse is completely intolerable and would thus lead to mental cruelty.

(iv) The act of mental cruelty is a state of mind. If one spouse feels deep anguish, disappointment, and frustration due to the conduct of the other for a long period of time, this may lead to mental cruelty.

(v) Mental cruelty is also abuse and humiliation which is intended to torture, discommode, or otherwise make the spouse’s life miserable.

(vi) A spouse’s persistent unjustifiable behaviour actually affects the physical and mental health of the other spouse. There must be an extremely grave, substantial, and weighty danger or apprehension resulting from the treatment complained about for it to fall under the scope of mental cruelty.

(vii) Mental cruelty can also be constituted by sustained reprehensible conduct, studied neglect, indifference, or total departure from conjugal kindness resulting in mental injury/sadistic enjoyment.

(viii) To grant a divorce based on mental cruelty, the conduct must go far beyond jealousy, selfishness, possessiveness, which can cause unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

(ix) Divorce based on mental cruelty cannot be granted for trivial irritations, quarrels, or normal wear and tear of marriage.

(x) Several isolated incidents over a long period of time do not constitute cruelty in the context of married life. Where the relationship has deteriorated to the point where, due to the acts and behaviour of a spouse, the wronged party finds it extremely difficult to live with the other party any longer, the ill-conduct may amount to mental cruelty.

(xi) Sterilisation surgery may be considered mental cruelty if a husband undergoes it without the consent or knowledge of his wife and without any medical reasoning, or a vasectomy or abortion without any medical reasoning may be regarded as mental cruelty if the wife undergoes it without her husband’s consent or knowledge.

(xii) If a person unilaterally refuses intercourse for a prolonged period without valid reason or physical incapacity, it may amount to mental cruelty.

(xiii) After marriage, either spouse unilaterally decides not to have a child from the marriage, then that would lead to mental cruelty.

(xiv) After a long period of continuous separation, the matrimonial bond may be considered irreparable. Although there is a legal tie between the couple, the marriage is merely a fiction. Whenever the law refuses to sever that tie, it violates the sanctity of marriage and disregards the feelings and emotions of the parties. Mental cruelty may result in such situations.

This list, however, is not exhaustive.

Another source of contention is the Supreme Court and several High Court judgements ruling that denying sex constitutes mental abuse. The court has authorised this idea, but it has yet to rule on the subject of marital rape. Although marital rape has not yet been criminalised, it is a form of mental cruelty against a wife. This shows a lack of respect, dignity, and sensitivity towards his wife, as well as a violation of her right to life and freedom under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The woman cannot be considered as someone “who has no control over her body and has no right to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband.” The Delhi High Court in 2022 acknowledged certain petitions which sought to criminalize marital rape which was then filed to the Supreme Court wherein Justice Shankar held that exception 2 to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code is not in violation of the Indian Constitution.

However, it must be stated that acts that psychologically harm a spouse fall under the category of mental cruelty. Putting a wife under duress by forcing her to have sexual intercourse with her husband breaches her constitutional rights. Such a heinous conduct not only causes the spouse significant psychological distress, but it also jeopardises the fundamental foundations of human dignity and respect enshrined in our Constitution. Marital rape is defined as seeing the wife’s body as something owed to the husband and participating in sexual practises against her will. The right to respect for physical and mental integrity includes the right to bodily integrity; any disrespect or violation of bodily integrity is a violation of individual autonomy.


Mental Cruelty against Men

The law regarding a wife’s cruelty to her husband is less clear than the law about the opposite. Given that men continue to have an advantage over women in our society, it can be challenging for women to accept that they are treating their husband cruelly. Due to the wife’s repeated acts of mental cruelty, Indian courts have taken note of this multiple times and permitted divorces for the husbands.

In the case of Mrs. DeepalakshmiSaehiaZingade v. Sachi RameshraoZingade the petitioner/wife falsely accused her husband of having a girlfriend, which was later proven incorrect in court. As a result, was held that the woman was mentally cruel to her husband. Similarly, in Kalpana v. Surendranath, it was noted that a wife’s refusal to make tea for her husband’s friends was deemed to be harsh to her husband by the court, thereby it was considered a ground for divorce on the account of mental cruelty.

Additionally, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Narendra v. K. Meena that cruelty would be committed if the wife pressured the husband to live apart from his elderly parents or from the joint family without providing a valid reason or justification.

In the case of Smt. Anita Gaur v. Sri Rajesh Gaur, on May 12, 1999, the pair was wed using Hindu customs. Husband established a business after the couple relocated to Mumbai, and they had two kids. However, the wife’s behaviour changed, and priceless items started to disappear. She had borrowed money and made purchases using credit, it was discovered. The couple escaped to Dehradun when the husband was threatened by the lenders. In a village meeting, the wife admitted her error, but their disagreements persisted. The husband’s divorce was allowed by the court because the wife’s actions were deemed to be mentally cruel against him.


Why is mental cruelty as grounds for divorce important?

One’s right to dignity and freedom is severely breached by cruelty towards their spouse. In various nations, including India, domestic violence affects thousands of people every year. The Indian Constitution guarantees the right to live with dignity, which is a fundamental component of the right to life. Violations of this right cause bodily, mental, and emotional suffering. Due to urbanisation and weakening family structures, India’s divorce rate has been increasing each year. IPC Section 498A complaints have also increased correspondingly since the turn of the century, according to the National Crime Investigation Bureau.

Given these problems, it is imperative to have precise mental cruelty legislation. Instead of leaving the word hanging, legislators must provide solid foundations as to what exactly mental cruelty is, and under what circumstances it can lead to becoming a ground for divorce. Once the concept of cruelty is established, it will be up to the judiciary to decide whether a particular act qualifies as cruelty or not, considering the specifics of the case, the parties involved, and other relevant factors.

Furthermore, it is crucial to remember that domestic violence disproportionately affects women, despite concerns that some laws are discriminatory. For instance, women have historically been subjected to marital rape without being able to take legal action. For the purpose of advancing gender equality and ensuring that women’s rights are upheld, laws that particularly protect women from such types of violence are essential.

Despite numerous verdicts elucidating what may constitute mental cruelty, the lack of a definitive explanation has resulted in its assessment in trivial cases, as demonstrated in the Kalpana v. Surendranathlawsuit. Incongruous definitions of mental cruelty, on the other hand, have delayed its identification, resulting in some situations where it should have been established but was not, including cases of marital rape, which falls outside the realm of mental cruelty. Because Hindu personal rules are based on traditional schools of thought and stigmatise divorce, judges are hesitant to demonstrate mental cruelty unless it is practically immoral to allow the union to continue. This scenario, along with a lack of consistency in determining what constitutes mental cruelty, has hurt those seeking legal protection for spouse mental suffering. A consistent understanding of mental cruelty would rationalise such situations and provide a more relevant basis for determining whether divorce is needed in individual cases.


  1. Conclusion

In Hindu Law, the idea of mental cruelty has been an emotive subject, especially in relation to whether it qualifies as grounds for divorce. Although there is no standard definition, the Supreme Court has offered some guidance by establishing a reasonableness standard and taking into account subjective factors. In evaluating mental cruelty, additional aspects including cultural and traditional beliefs have also been considered. It’s critical to keep in mind that every case is distinct and necessitates a thorough examination of the relevant facts and circumstances. Examining the potential effects and reform options for Hindu law in the future is made possible by the current debate regarding the acknowledgment of mental cruelty as a reason for divorce. There is a need to rethink and reframe the reasons for divorce in Indian society as mental health and emotional wellbeing become more crucial.


End Notes

1. Manupatra (no date) Manupatra, Articles. Available at: https://articles.manupatra.com/article-details/CRUELTY-AS-A-GROUND-FOR-DIVORCE-ANALYZING-THE-SPHERE-OF-MENTAL-CRUELTY (Accessed: April 30, 2023).

2. Narayan Ganesh Dastane v. Sucheta Narayan Dastane (1975), 1975 AIR 1534

3. Cooper v. Cooper (1966) 144 N.W.2d 146

4. Dastane v Dastane (1975) AIR 1975 SC 1534

5. Section 27 (d), Special Marriage Act, 1954

6. Section 10, Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act, 2001

7. Section 498A, Indian Penal Code, 1860

8. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

9. Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

10. INDIAN CONST. art. 21

11. Shobha Rani v. Madhukar Reddi, (1987) 1988 AIR 121

12. Bhagwat v. Bhagwat (1993), 1994 AIR 710

13. Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh, (2007)

14. Indian Penal Code, 1860, S. 375 exc 2

15. Editor_4 et al. (2021) [marital rape] ker HC: Is marital rape a form of Cruelty? can it be a ground for divorce? HC examines, SCC Blog. Available at: https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2021/08/10/marital-rape/#:~:text=Treating%20wife’s%20body%20as%20something,a%20violation%20of%20individual%20autonomy. (Accessed: April 30, 2023).

16. Mrs. DeepalakshmiSaehiaZingade v. Sachi RameshraoZingade (2009) AIR 2010 Bom 16

17. Kalpana v. Surendranath, (1985) AIR 1985 All 253

18. Narendra v. K. Meena, (2016)

19. Smt. Anita Gaur v. Sri Rajesh Gaur, (2020)

20. 498a for NCW - feministlawarchives.pldindia.org (no date). Available at: http://feministlawarchives.pldindia.org/wp-content/uploads/498A-Report-for-NCW-final.pdf (Accessed: April 30, 2023).

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