Legalising live-in relationships
Two proposed changes in our laws could change Indian society forever. One is the the law criminalizing homosexualtiy which has been with us since British Rule. It’s good to hear that it might finally be scrapped. Today the government will argue the case in the High Court.
The second proposal, to make maintenance necessary for a woman abandoned after a steady live-in relationship, has been mulled over for some time now and is more controversial. Last year women in live-in relationships were legally protected under the domestic violence act and in January 2008, the Supreme Court validated long-term live-in relationships as “marriages”. I am not sure what that is supposed to mean, but I think it means that the Supreme Court is taking a moral stand as bigamy is illegal in India (except for Muslims) and there is certainly no proposal to make bigamy legal.
Since then the National Commission for Women (NCW) has “sought a change in the definition of ‘wife’ which deals with maintenance” and has recommended that women in live-in relationships “be entitled to maintenance if the man deserts her”.
And now, in Maharashtra at least, the state cabinet has given “its green signal to protect the pecuniary interests of the other woman. If the Centre okays this proposal, this will become law. There is bound to be a cascading effect on other states.
There has been outrage against this proposal as it is thought to be inimical to women, although the intention is just the opposite. Some believe that it will encourage people to go in for such relationships as there will be a legal sanction. The CWC (Child & Women’s Welfare) on the other hand feels that it will protect the financial interests of abandoned women.
About the protests against this new proposed law, I am not sure what the protesters are against…live-in relationships from the moral point of view or live-in relationships from the angle of financial damage caused to the legal wife. I suspect the outrage is against both, although I think it is important to make a distinction between the two.
Today more and more couples from the upper classes are choosing to live without marriage. Usually such couples are both single, working, and are financially independent. The fact that they are choosing to live without marriage usually means that they have chosen to defy society and if a relationship like this breaks up it is unlikely that the woman will be in dire straits. I do not think that an educated, financially independent woman needs financial protection in case she is ditched, although she certainly needs acceptance from society, during and after such a relationship. But if the protesters feel that the proposed law will encourage these relationships and are outraged, well, I don’t have much sympathy with this point of view.
The second type of live-in relationship is when a man keeps two or more “wives”. This was a common practice in ancient times but today these relationships have gone underground. In many such cases all the “wives” are financially dependent on the man. It is one thing for a financially independent woman to go in for a live-in relationship (whether as a second woman or first), and quite another for a financially dependent woman to do so. I feel sorry for any woman who has got into a second “marriage” or live-in relationship thinking that it could well be a permanent arrangement…but when it comes to bestowing on her financial rights I am not comfortable with it.
I would prefer it if the court decides these incidents of abandonment on a case-to-case basis because some women deserve maintenance if they are thrown out after living with a man for years. There have been cases where the courts have ruled in favour of the other woman when it comes to maintenance and I have no discomfort with that. To make a blanket law is another matter.
There are arguments that this proposed law could be misused. Law experts have said that such a law “would enable the ‘mistress’ to get the status of a legally married wife in all matters, including share in property, inheritance, maintenance”. This is certainly not the intention of the law and in fact it the proposed law has a good intention – to help thousands of financially dependent abandoned women.
So while this law may be “revolutionary” and attempts to get live-in relationships out of the closet, it could cause harm to the legal wife. I have not heard of any other country in the world which makes bigamy illegal but allows for maintenance of a live in partner.
There is another criticism of this proposal – that it will encourage men to stray and will overall encourage live-in relationships as it gives a legal stamp of approval to the whole thing. Well, I think the only worry would be in those cases where men go in for a second “wife.” Will the law affect a man’s behavior when it comes to mistresses? Well, men have been keeping them from the beginning of time and will continue to do so, regardless of the law.
But I wonder if such a law could make a man think twice about living with a woman as his wife because now he would have to pay for her upkeep even after they break up? Just as men might hesitate to jump into marriage knowing the financial commitment involved, they might think twice before committing themselves to a long-term “live-in” relationship if they have to support the woman (and children). So while I am against such a law, I cannot help but wonder if such a law will discourage men from keeping mistresses or getting into long term live-in relationships? If it is so, it is certainly good for the first wife if there is one, but it is hard to decide whether indeed there will be such an effect. Therefore I decided to use a new feature on wordpress to ask your views. It’s a poll.
(Photos are copyrighted to me)
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