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Live-in Relationships: Till Life Do Us Part

October 2002
Live-in Relationships: Till Life Do Us Part

Life is an irony. And nothing exemplifies this better than an Indian court bestowing legal sanction on a live-in relationship between a married man and an unmarried woman, even as the West laments its rising divorce rate! The US, with its generation of latchkey children who do not know what ?family? means, now looks towards the East as a role model for monogamous relationships. Society in India, meanwhile, seems hell-bent on crude experimentation.

Last year, a Division Bench of the Allahabad High Court gave sanction to the live-in relationship between one Payal Sharma and a married man. In a habeas corpus petition decided by Justice M. Katju and Justice R.B. Mishra, the court stated that Ms. Sharma being 21 years of age, and therefore a major, had the right to go anywhere and live with anyone, as she chose. In elaborating on the decision, the court stated, ?In our opinion, a man and a woman, even without getting married, can live together if they so wish. This may be regarded as immoral by society, but is not illegal. There is a difference between law and morality.? (Payal Sharma versus Superintendent, Nari Niketan and Others, C MP No. 16876 of 2001.)

Feminist organizations and believers in women?s emancipation have lauded this as a landmark judgment in favor of the woman, because it gives her the choice that marriage supposedly strips her of. She now has the freedom to choose the man she loves, to go wherever she chooses to go, to live with him as long as she likes, to leave him when she wishes to leave, and so on. Reduced to simple logic, she can now call herself a truly liberated woman. In one sense, this is true.

But what if the other partner, the man, happens to be a married man with children to boot? This is precisely the point of debate in the Payal Sharma case. Without going into the legal implications, one can rightly ask, does this absolve the male partner of his filial responsibilities towards his wife and children, which includes living with them under the same roof? In a country that legally punishes bigamy (except for Muslims), how can a Division Bench of a High Court pronounce a judgment that openly violates another law ? the social, legal and filial implications that bind the husband in a Hindu marriage?

?There is a difference between law and morality,? the learned judges said. Even if one concedes for a minute that there is a difference between law and morality, how do the judges explain the contravention of one law by another? What legal parameters have the judges conceived of about the children born out of such live-in relationships, when other children born within wedlock also exist?

Legal luminary NR Madhava Menon, former member of the Law Commission of India and Founder-Director of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, opines that the legal system has been derived by the State from the moral code. It regulates questions such as sexual relations outside marriage, age of marriage, and other similar contentious issues that affect man-woman relationships and therefore, society. ?These views are reinforced by religious interpretations and customary practices which received the binding authority of law,? says Menon. So, the judges were wrong in saying that law and morality are two different things. A murder is both morally and legally wrong. So is a burglary. The entire legal structure is founded on moral principles of right and wrong. An adulterous relationship between an unmarried young woman and a married man is morally wrong. Thus, to give it legal sanction is to deconstruct the entire principle on which law is based.

True, laws need to change and evolve, with new laws replacing the old. So do moral beliefs and principles. But they always go hand-in-hand, and there is no reason why a court will flout morals in a single case that could lead to a general trend ? one with consequences for women and family in particular, and society at large in general.

Feminists who have lauded this judgment are missing the wood for the trees. The ?liberty? granted to Payal Sharma also means a violation of the wife?s right to a life of dignity and self-respect. And an absolute restriction placed on her marital right to live with her husband. It is ?liberty? for one woman at the cost of ?liberty? of another. Besides, when two women are bound to the same man, by marriage or by love, with sex being the lowest common denominator, it amounts to backtracking into the 19th century when a man could have several wives and several mistresses at the same time.

Famous Failures

The history of live-in relationships in India has been a rather skewed one. High-profile live-in relationships draw a great deal more of sustenance from demonstration than conviction. Media attention may show them off as rebels and path-breakers, but a little probing could spell out a different story. Alyque Padamsee, after divorcing Pearl Padamsee, began a live-in relationship with media personality Dolly Thakore. Thirteen years later he walked out, to step into marriage with the much younger Sharon Prabhakar, leaving Dolly to cope with a little son. The son is now an adult who uses two surnames, Thakore and Padamsee. By taking on the surname of the father who refused to ?father? him except biologically, he is actually insulting his mother, who brought him up single-handed. He is also acknowledging the father who did not acknowledge him. Probably because of the mileage he can draw from the Padamsee name. So, what rebellion are we talking about?

Most other such relationships have brought forth nothing but heartbreak, and in some cases, even nervous breakdowns. Parveen Babi not only lost a very successful career in films, but also her mind when Kabir Bedi suddenly left her to fend for herself. Sushmita Sen reportedly had a nervous breakdown after her break-up with Vikram Bhatt, who is a married man. Rahul Roy?s live-together relationship ended when his career nose-dived, while Suman bagged prime modeling assignments. Both later married different partners. Kabir Bedi and Protima Gupta were one of the first live-in couples in Mumbai to openly flaunt their relationship. But they later decided to marry and what happened to their son Siddharth as the result of his parents? sexually permissive lifestyles is public knowledge. A genius in computers, he cut himself totally out of family and society, and migrated to the US, only to commit suicide at a very young age.

Rajesh Khanna?s live-in relationships might have traumatized Dimple at the time. But it did not stop Anil Ambani from marrying a woman with a ?colorful? past. (So much for the virgin-mode mandatory for Indian brides in the marriage market!) When he married Dimple many years ago, Rajesh did not bat an eyelid while giving the royal ditch to long-time live-in girlfriend Anju Mahendra.

Among ordinary people too, things have been either quite mundane, or sometimes sad, when it comes to live-in relationships. The ?mundane? relationships ended in marriage, which means there was nothing ?rebellious? about them to begin with. A few sad ones even ended in death. Tarun Banerjee, a Kolkata lawyer, quotes the case of a 25-year-old woman who committed suicide when her live-in relationship began to crack up. By then however, she had given birth. Today, her parents are left to look after the child. They are now trying to gain legal custody from the father, a battle which, given custody laws in India, they are sure to lose.

True that a child born out of wedlock is now entitled to his father?s legacy. But what if he has to share it with the legitimate children born within marriage? Besides, he is not heir to the inherited property of his father, though the legal children are. The child has to live under the shadow of social stigma because we still live in a society that recognizes marriage and does not recognize live-in relationships, especially when one of the partners is already married with a separate family.

Freedom without


Are couples who opt for live-in relationships different from normal couples who conform to the social and legal laws of monogamy? ?Yes, they are,? says Dr. Somnath Banerjee, a Kolkata-based psychiatrist. ?People who do not believe in conforming to social norms at all, people who are used to clandestine sexual relationships, people who are abnormally headstrong, all have the inclination to get embroiled in live-in relationships. Then there are those who wish to enjoy sexual freedom without the responsibilities of marriage. Such people almost always get into live-in relationships. If either partner is unmarried, they marry as soon as they feel responsible. Or, they break off and the relationship could end on a sour note. ?Let?s carry on as long as it lasts,? is the attitude. Some get involved only on the basis of sexual desire for each other. But finally, it boils down to the philosophy of freedom and enjoyment minus responsibility.?

When asked to respond to the decision of the Allahabad High Court in the Payal Sharma case, Gillian Rosemary D?Costa Hart, the Anglo-Indian representative in the West Bengal State Assembly pointed out, ?I personally do not believe that live-in relationships present society with a healthy, social environment. They do not permit the children born of such relationships to have a happy childhood. Marriage carries with it an aura of respect, never mind the fact that we know it to be a fa�ade in many cases. The fa�ade can be broken through and remedied by law and social action. But where the relationship itself has no social or legal sanction, it cannot earn respect. And children are its worst victims. I consider it wrong to artificially impose a Western concept of a man-woman relationship on the Indian mindset and expect radical results. Because live-in relationships are, in any case, temporary.?

Says Tarun Banerjee ?The financial framework of live-in relationships has not been explained at all. How would such a relationship differ from marriage if the law sanctions both? How would the financial needs of the couple be looked after? If the man has to look after his companion?s needs, in what way then, does she have a status different from that of a legally wedded wife? If the man happens also to be married, how would he divide his financial responsibilities between his wife and his companion?? are some of the disturbing questions he poses and to which, right now, we have no answers.

Gujarat for a long time had something called a Maitri Karaar ? or ?friendship contract? ? entered into voluntarily between a man and a woman which decreed that the woman would exercise no claim on the man during or after the relationship beyond ?friendship.? The man in such relationships was always married and the woman was a single woman who was also responsible for the upkeep of her parental family. Since she knew that she could never marry, she and her family willingly consented to such a contract because this was the only way she could enjoy a physical relationship with a man. No questions asked! When the story of the Maitri Karaar blew up in the media many years ago, it was declared illegal and the ?contract? was not even worth the stamp paper it was typed on. It was a sort of eyewash for a married man to take on a mistress from a respectable family.

Doesn?t Payal Sharma?s story have the same implications?

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