Delhi-based couple Om Prakash, 65, and Kunti, 58, seemed like the epitome of marital bliss. They lived in a sprawling south Delhi mansion, their two sons were settled in the US and their beautiful daughter had married an industrialist. However, rather than enjoy a blissful retirement and the company of grandchildren, the couple is currently embroiled in an acrimonious court battle over familial property and money. The husband and wife separated six months ago.
Disconcerting as the trend is, a phenomenally high number of couples in India are heading towards splitsville. According to figures from the National Crime Bureaus (NCB) and pan-India courts, divorce rates in most Indian metros - and now even small cities and towns - have ratcheted manifold over the last decade, with neither age nor sex deterring a couple's separation. In fact, middle-aged couples account for a substantive 40 per cent of squabbling spouses.
Interestingly, more women prefer to call it quits now (65 per cent) - the highest recorded number ever. The Capital is leading the divorce brigade with 9,000 cases filed per year, a near ten-fold increase over 1,000 cases filed as recently as the 1990s and one or two in the '60s. Since 1991, Kerala - the country's most literate state, lush with money from the Gulf - has registered a 300 per cent upward spiral in divorce cases per year, while Chennai and Kolkata both record a 200 per cent increase. Affluent states like Punjab and Haryana, too, have witnessed an increase of 150 per cent in divorce cases.
Indians are globally viewed as people with tenacious familial ties. Why, then, are Indian marriages breaking up?
According to social trend observers, India is caught in a socio-economic tsunami, manifesting itself in tenuous relationships and in a sharp rise in the culture of individualism and bedroom acrimony. The whittling down of the family structure, economic empowerment of women and a lack of will to do damage control when things go awry in a relationship, are collectively impacting matrimonial longevity in India today.
"Also, an increasing number of urban Indians are questioning the sanctity and validity of the institution of marriage," elaborates sociologist Stuti Das, affiliated with Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. "Women are earning very well nowadays, so they seek equal status in a marriage. If that doesn't happen, they'd rather break free than play second fiddle. And because of economic empowerment, women don't feel insecure unlike earlier when they were totally dependent on the trio of father-husband-son." Das adds that divorce is no longer viewed as a social stigma in the Indian social milieu. This endows upon squabbling couples a license to begin afresh with new partners whenever their old relationships fail.
Most divorces these days, say marriage counsellors, happen largely due to two factors - incompatibility and adultery. Rapidly altering social mores, the need for instant sexual gratification and an increasing proximity between colleagues due to longer hours at the workplace have dramatically altered the dynamics of an Indian marriage. According to Delhi-based divorce lawyer Geeta Luthra, "People don't want to invest much time and energy in bad marriages now. That's why relationships have become so brittle these days." She adds that most couples who come to her for counselling are in their 20s and 30s, an age when they have fixed notions about marriage. "Any attempt to change the mindset is met with rebellion and divorce."
Take the case of Indu Chatwal, 27, a call centre employee and her husband Amit, who tied the knot three years ago. Despite erratic work hours, Amit expected Indu to do all the housework and take care of his ailing parents as well. Indu managed the precarious equation for a couple of years, but threw in the towel when two quick promotions required her to spend longer hours at work and she could not cope with the domestic situation The couple has now parted ways.
Aarti and Vikas Chabra, both 33, underwent a similar experience. Due to Vikas' frequent job-related travelling, Aarti was saddled with housekeeping, kids and professional pressures. "No matter how much a man helps at home," opines Aarti, "his role will always be peripheral. The buck stops with the woman. No wonder women crack up under the tremendous load these days."
Concurs Das, "With rapid modernisation, while a woman has had to spread herself very thin domestically and professionally, a man's responsibilities have more or less remained the same. This is the biggest grouse amongst bickering couples these days."
With divorce petitions inundating the courts, the government is trying to do its bit by creating a slew of Crime Against Women cells and special matrimonial courts for the speedy disposal of such cases. Marriage bureaus - which provide free matrimonial counselling - have also been set up as a corollary.
To expedite cases further, five matrimonial courts (headed by an additional sessions judge) have been created in Delhi alone. Under such cases, if a couple moves a petition for separation with mutual consent, the legal separation for a Hindu, Parsi and Sikh couple (Muslims and Christians come under the purview of separate laws), can come through in about 10 to 12 months. However, if a joint petition is moved under Section 13-B (1) of the Hindu Marriage Act, and affidavits are filed to the effect that the duo have been living without any physical intimacy, then a speedy divorce can be granted within six months.
"Contemporary divorce cases are a curious reflection of our times. While on the one hand, they offer a glimpse of the changes in traditional, family-centric societies like India's, they're also accentuating the point that Indian women aren't prepared to take things lying down any more. That for relationships to succeed, women will have to be treated on an equal footing by their partners," concludes Das.