A recent Supreme Court (SC) judgment, involving a couple, Radhika Singh and Loli, has led to speculation over its implications for the status of live-in relations in Indian society. The media has tended to focus on the fact that the judgment held that 'if a man and a woman live together and cohabit for a long spell as husband and wife, there is a presumption of a valid marriage between the two'.
From this can it be extrapolated that now live-in relations have acquired the status of marriage in India? Can the SC judgment be seen as a legal stamp on relations otherwise treated as outside the ambit of law? Some perceive the judgment as an invitation to bear children outside marriage, while there are others who are expressing the clearly misplaced concern that such a judgment could be the basis of even a flat-mate seeking alimony.
It is worth pointing out that in this instance - Singh and Loli - we are hardly witnessing the making of a new law. The judgment is based on the existing legal provisions and this is not the first time such a ruling has been given. The judgment itself cites several previous instances in which the courts have ruled in a similar fashion. Moreover, the SC has, in fact, restored a 22-year-old judgment of the trial Court in this case.
A closer look at the specifics of the case - Tulsa & Others vs Durghatiya & others - reveals that primarily it is not so much about non-marital relations between the couple but about a property dispute within the extended family. Consequent to Singh's death, one of his brother's children questioned the right to his property exercised by Loli and her children on the grounds that she was not married to him.
It was further claimed that Loli was previously married to one Mangal Katchhi and had started cohabiting with Singh before Mangal had died. The different parties to the case, however, did not question the fact that Singh and Loli had lived together as husband and wife for 30 years and that the two had borne several children together. Radhika Singh had also given away his two daughters in marriage, as upper caste men are expected to. In view of these facts and in the absence of any strong evidence supporting the contention that Loli had started living with Singh prior to Mangal's death, the Court ruled in favor of regarding the Singh-Loli relationship as that of marriage.
The judgment cites Section 114 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, which permits the Court to presume the existence of any facts which it thinks are likely to have occurred. It is suggested that 'the act of marriage may be presumed from the common course of natural events and the conduct of parties as they are borne out by the facts of a particular case'.
It is also important to remember that in this instance Singh had no other wife or child through any other relationship, which is often a complicating factor in such cases. Another recent SC judgment is enlightening in this regard.
Vidyadhari & others vs Sukhrana Bai & others involves a dispute over succession. Both Sukhrana Bai, the first wife of Sheetaldeen, and Vidyadhari who lived with Sheetaldeen for 20 to 25 years after he ceased to live with Sukhrana, sought a succession certificate from the court after his death.
Vidyadhari had been made a nominee in the Provident Fund and also had four children from Sheetaldeen unlike Sukhrana. Here, it is significant that the SC did not accept Vidyadhari's claim to succession as the trial court had. Instead, it ruled in favor of her children on the one hand and Sukhrana on the other, who would have claim to one-fifth share of the property. This, despite the long-term live-in relation Vidyadhari had with Sheetaldeen.
There is a strong tendency in Court decisions to recognize the genitor's obligation towards children borne of any long- or even short-term relations, marital or otherwise. In a two-year-old judgment - Savitaben Somabhai Bhatiya vs State of Gujarat & others - the SC granted maintenance to a child born out of a married man's second marriage but did not recognize the legitimacy of the relation even though there was enough evidence to prove that the second wife had no knowledge regarding the previous marriage of the man. The judges even treated the case as 'a classic example of the inadequacies of law in protecting a woman who unwittingly entered into relationships with a married man'.
The gist is that while the judgment in the case of Radhika Singh and Loli is notable, it hardly follows that marriage, as an institution, has now become superfluous. The other cases discussed indicate that marriage has to do with so much more than the relation between a man and a woman. Whenever there is conflict of interests, the existing laws are used in many possible ways to adjudicate situations, which are by no means unambiguous.
If the major concern of live-in couples is such rights and claims, it might be in their best interest to ensure that the law is on their side. There is something incongruous about shunning the legality of marriage on the one hand and desiring the protection of law on the other.
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