What constitutes ‘cruelty’ in marriage changes with passage of time, says SC


A view of Supreme Court of India Complex. File.

A view of Supreme Court of India Complex. File.

The Supreme Court has said rapid changes in modern life have made what constitutes ‘cruelty’ in marriage fluid.

A judgment by a Bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and M.M. Sundresh noted that the boundaries of what constitutes cruel conduct in marriages shifts depending on human behaviour, capacity or incapability to tolerate the conduct complained of, etc.

The court was hearing an appeal for a decree of divorce for a couple who have been living separately for over a decade. The wife, represented by advocate Dushyant Parashar, accused her husband of pathologically suspicious conduct while the man said the woman was in an adulterous relationship leading to the birth of a child. Each had accused the other of cruelty.

‘No uniform standards’

The judgment, authored by Justice Sundresh, said there are no objective standards the courts can depend on while testing the allegations of cruelty made by one spouse against the other. There is no test of reasonableness. In a marital case, there are no uniform objective standards, only “this man or this woman”, the court noted.

“Each case may be different… A new type of cruelty may crop up in any case,” the September 6 judgment recorded.

“The human mind is extremely complex and human behaviour is equally complicated. Similarly human ingenuity has no bounds… What is cruelty in one case may not amount to cruelty in the other case. The concept of cruelty differs from person to person depending upon his upbringing, level of sensitivity, educational, family and cultural background, financial position, social status, customs, traditions, religious beliefs, human values and their value system,” Justice Sundresh wrote.

The court even defines cruelty as “the sum total of reprehensible conduct or departure from normal standards of conjugal kindness that causes injury to health, or an apprehension of it”.

The verdict said even the concept of ‘mental cruelty’ does not remain still throughout the years. “It changes with the passage of time, impact of modern culture through print and electronic media and value system, etc… What may be mental cruelty now may not remain a mental cruelty after a passage of time,” Justice Sundresh said.

However, the judgment cautioned courts against stigmatising women in divorce cases.

Justice Sundresh said a “relatively more elastic and broad approach” ought to be taken while examining a case in which a wife seeks divorce. The threshold of what constitutes a cruel conduct may differ between a man and a woman. “What is cruelty for a woman in a given case may not be cruelty for a man,” the judgment said, granting a decree of divorce to the couple.


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