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Marriage and divorce: mental cruelty by the wife

By Rakesh Shukla

In this case of granting a divorce on grounds of mental cruelty by the wife, the Supreme Court seems to have gone out of its way to change the parameters of what constitutes mental cruelty on the part of the woman. It could have far-reaching consequences for future cases

Mental cruelty

The courts are chock-a-bloc full of divorce petitions by women on grounds of mental cruelty by their husbands. Reflecting gender realities in society, it is rare to come across a case involving mental cruelty by the wife. The Supreme Court, in a recent judgment Vishwanath versus Sarla Vishwanath Agrawal (2012(6) SCALE 190) had occasion to deal with the allegation of mental cruelty by the wife.

The husband’s version

Vishwanath and Sarla were married in April 1979 and had two sons. According to the husband, Sarla was arrogant and uncultured. There was a total lack of care and respect on her part for the mother-in-law who was a diabetes patient. Her behaviour was irrational and led to frequent quarrels. Sarla would hide her husband’s motorcycle keys, crumple his ironed clothes, and close the gate to prevent him from going to the factory. It was alleged that she forced her husband and father-in-law to do their own personal work. That she made frequent calls to the factory “for the purpose of abusing and causing mental agony” to her husband. That the husband, on May 1, 1995, finding this “cruelty” intolerable, took his wife to her parents’ house and left her there. He continued to stay in the matrimonial home with their sons.

On July 24, 1995, his wife’s advocate issued an advertisement in a local daily stating that the husband was a womaniser and addicted to alcohol. On October 11, 1995, the wife went to the husband’s house, abused him, her father-in-law and the children, created a violent atmosphere and damaged property. The husband lodged a police complaint with regard to the matter. He included the two incidents in the petition for a divorce on grounds of cruelty.

The wife’s version

The wife denied the allegations and asserted that she had always been respectful of her in-laws. That she and her husband had lived a happily married life for 16 years. And that she had attended to her mother-in-law all the time, with a sense of committed service. That her behaviour did not even remotely suggest cruelty. She denied the allegations of hiding motorcycle keys, closing the gate, or ringing the office to abuse her husband. She alleged that her husband joined some computer classes run by a Neeta Gujarati and began spending a lot of his time at the computer centre instead of attending to his own business. The wife was disturbed on learning that her husband was involved with another woman despite having an established family life and adolescent sons. She took serious objection to the intimacy and was compelled to make calls to ascertain his whereabouts. Their relationship became bitter. The husband did not like this interference, and on May 1, 1995, took Sarla to her parents’ house and left her there. His wife wanted to return to the matrimonial home and stay with her husband and children.

Sarla then came to know that Neeta was living with her husband as his mistress. She went to the matrimonial home to find out and, when she realised that Neeta was in the house, she tried to enter the house but was assaulted. People gathered and the husband lodged a complaint with the local police station. The police arrived and found Neeta in the house. She was escorted to her own house. The wife alleged that her husband had concocted the story about cruelty and filed for a divorce because of his involvement with Neeta.    

The courts

The trial court examined the witnesses and the evidence. It held that there was no material to establish that the wife had troubled the husband and her in-laws. The judgment notes that the husband chose not to examine the servants as witnesses even though they could have provided the best evidence. The allegations of not looking after the mother-in-law were held to be unproven. The court observed that hiding motorcycle keys and crumpling ironed clothes were childish acts enjoyed by the husband and did not constitute mental cruelty. There was no reliable evidence to show that the wife had abused the husband on the phone. It held that the husband and wife slept in the bedroom on the third floor and it could not be said that the husband had been deprived of sexual satisfaction since 1991. The couple enjoyed conjugal relations until May 1, 1995, when the husband took his wife to her parents’ house and left her there. The court held that even if some of these allegations were accepted, they did not constitute mental cruelty but were instead the “normal wear-and-tear of marital life”. The court declared that the plea of mental cruelty made by the husband could not be established.

The trial court observed that the witnesses produced by the wife clearly established that Neeta was inside her husband’s house and that the police came and escorted her to her own home. It found that it was clear from the evidence that Neeta was indeed living with the husband. The allegation that there was violence and the breaking of windows could not be established. The court held that the notice in the daily was mainly about protecting the interests of the sons as the husband was alienating property. Further, the public notice was not unfounded and the question of causing mental cruelty did not arise. The trial court held that the evidence did not establish mental cruelty by the wife and dismissed the application for a divorce.

The husband went in appeal against the dismissal. The first appellate court analysed the evidence and held that mental cruelty had not been made out. It too dismissed the appeal. The husband made a second appeal to the high court. The high court held that there were concurrent findings of fact by the courts below and dismissed the appeal. The court observed that the marriage had irretrievably broken down and perhaps the Supreme Court could exercise its power to do complete justice and grant a divorce.

The Supreme Court ruled out granting a divorce on grounds of irretrievable breakdown of marriage. Generally, courts in appeal do not interfere if two courts below them have reached the same findings with regard to the facts. In an extraordinary departure, the apex court chose to re-open the issue of grant of divorce on grounds of mental cruelty by the wife.

The Supreme Court held that crumpling ironed clothes, hiding motorcycle keys and locking the gate was harassment. In the context of the relationship between the husband and Neeta, the court noted that the husband had been discharged in the case filed by his wife for marrying again during the lifetime of the spouse. Observing that the allegation seemed more suspicion than fact, the court examined the October 11, 1995, incident.

According to the wife’s testimony, she arrived at the house and wanted to see her father-in-law who was not well. After she entered, her father-in-law got up and went upstairs. She was not permitted to go upstairs. The father-in-law came down later and slapped her. The court said the father-in-law’s behaviour and the testimonies of her sons did not support the wife’s allegation about relations between her husband and Neeta. Common sense indicated that it was unlikely that both the father-in-law and son “acceded to the illicit intimacy with Neeta”. According to the wife, the newspapers reported that the father-in-law slapped his daughter-in-law, and that Neeta was in the house. The judgment concluded that the incident of October 11, 1995, and the evidence did not establish that the husband was having extramarital relations with Neeta Gujarathi.

At the instance of the wife, a case of cruelty against the husband, father-in-law and other relatives was lodged. The court noted that they had been acquitted in the said case and that there had been no appeal. The judgment concluded that the wife’s allegations were false. It declared that such an act created mental trauma in the mind of the husband as no one would like to face criminal proceedings based on untruthful allegations.

The court held that the plea in the application for interim maintenance, that Vishwanath was a womaniser and drunkard, was bound to create mental agony for the husband. The judgment holds that publication in a daily that the husband was a womaniser and alcoholic would cause trauma, agony and anguish in the mind of any reasonable man. The apex court held that the facts clearly “establish a sustained attitude of causing humiliation and torture on the part of the wife to make the life of the husband miserable”. The judgment observed that given the mental pain, agony and suffering, the husband could not be asked to live with the wife and granted a divorce on grounds of mental cruelty.

The Supreme Court does not just decide individual cases but declares the law, which is binding on all courts. In the present case, the apex court seems to have gone out of its way to change the parameters of what constitutes mental cruelty on the part of the woman. The husband being acquitted in a case of cruelty has been held to mean that the allegations were untruthful. Proving a fact in court is a difficult task. It is fairly common not to be able to establish things in court even though the events may actually have occurred. An allegation not proved in court does not necessarily mean that the allegations are false. This flawed logic has been extended to imply that this caused mental trauma to the husband as no one likes to face criminal proceedings based on untruthful allegations. In a similar vein, the discharge of the husband in the case for marrying during the spouse’s lifetime has been used against the wife.

The trial court has the benefit of having an opportunity to observe the demeanour of witnesses in reaching findings of fact. The trial court arrived at the conclusion that hiding motorcycle keys and crumpling ironed clothes were playful childish acts enjoyed by the husband. The Supreme Court, without enjoying this benefit, held that these acts constituted harassment. The proposition laid down in the judgment that acquittal in a case means mental trauma to the husband are unsustainable in law and is bound to work against women subjected to cruelty but unable to establish it in court. Putting aside the flawed proposition in the present case, hiding motorcycle keys and crumpling ironed clothes cannot be said to amount to mental cruelty, thereby constituting grounds for divorce. 

(Rakesh Shukla is a Supreme Court lawyer)

Infochange News & Features, July 2012