The government, last week, moved to ease up the legal process for obtaining a divorce. It did so by proposing to include “irretrievable breakdown” as one of the four grounds to legally justify a nuptial break-up. At the same time, it has inserted caveats against possible misuse of the new flexibility in law. Accordingly, it will now move a draft Bill in the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament to amend the existing laws.
The proposed changes will apply to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, which also covers Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, and the Special Marriage Act, 1954. At present, divorce can be obtained under Hindu marriage laws on grounds such as adultery, cruelty, desertion, frustration arising from specific circumstances and mutual consent.
Not only is the decision of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) progressive, it is also a tacit acceptance of the rapidly changing social reality, particularly in urban India, of rising divorce rates (according to the 2001 census, it is less than 1%, as opposed to 40% in the US) that often, due to the rigidity of existing laws, escalate into protracted and bitter legal battles. Not only does this lead to blocking of critical court time, it is also the basis for greater social disharmony.
Judgements, some most recently, by the apex court have implicitly and explicitly signalled to the government to amend the laws to include irretrievable breakdown as a ground for divorce. The Law Commission, too, has unequivocally endorsed the same change twice. To be sure, this is the second attempt by the government, coincidentally both of which have involved the Congress party, to revamp the laws. The last effort was in 1981, which was, however, rejected by Parliament. Twenty-nine years later, it does seem though that the momentum for change has acquired a critical mass and proposed changes should go through.
The proposed changes in legislation come in the backdrop of a similar proactive stance taken by the UPA in dealing with the contentious issue of homosexuality. It displayed enormous political courage to not oppose the high court ruling, which overturned section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing homosexuality; the Supreme Court is presently hearing the challenge. Similarly, the previous UPA regime amended the Hindu succession laws to ensure equal inheritance to siblings regardless of their sex.
All of this suggests that the UPA is among the most progressively inclined governments of modern India. Strangely though, it is a facet the government’s spin doctors rarely dwell upon.
Are India’s divorce laws antiquated? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org