Infidelity Isn’t Cruelty

A psychiatrist’s verdict on the apex court’s ruling on whether infidelity amounts to cruelty.

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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“We are of the view that the mere fact that the husband has developed some intimacy with another, during the subsistence of marriage, and failed to discharge his marital obligations, as such would not amount to cruelty”.– Supreme Court of India, September 9, 2013 (Justices KS Radhakrishnan and PC Ghose)


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Yesterday was a remarkable day. What with the political shenanigans following the shameful riots in Muzaffarnagar and the disgraceful antics of the politicians, this judgment of the Apex Court which is likely to have long-term implications did not receive the public scrutiny it merited. Doubtless, it was picked up by a few national dailies but given the potential for profound repercussions, I expected a full scale debate on the national channels followed by a comprehensive analysis by the Fourth Estate in the print media. Nothing of that nature happened, which leaves me feeling perplexed.

I would like to state that I have not read the judgment in detail and only have the press reports to rely upon. The details are as follows: A lady in Gujarat had committed suicide when she came to know of a dalliance between her husband and a female colleague. The family of the deceased lodged a criminal complaint against the husband for aiding and abetting her suicide.  He was convicted by the trial court and appealed to the Gujarat High Court which upheld the trial court judgment. The husband then appealed to the apex court which set aside the trial court judgment and the High Court order.

I am not for a moment suggesting that every case of so called “adultery” by a husband is inevitably a trigger for his cheated wife to attempt suicide. In fact, Their Lordships do address this point as follows:

“Merely being ‘intimate’ with another woman is not sufficient ground for a man to be held guilty of inflicting cruelty on his wife on the charge of failing to discharge his marital obligations”.

Professionally, as a psychiatrist, I have dealt with dozens of cases of depression and hopelessness triggered by spousal infidelity. A large proportion of these individuals did contemplate suicide. Their Lordships are on the mark when they say that we should not automatically see adultery as abetment to suicide seeing as much would depend on the state of marriage. I have had patients who had been in open’ and sham marriages where suicide was not even part of the equation. This, of course, was in the West – I have not come across something like that in India although I had read in the newspapers that it does happen.

For most women in our society, all the positivity that a marital relationship has to offer rests squarely upon the support of the husband and one essential pillar of that support is fidelity within the marriage. Lest I be accused of taking a moral position, I should like to state that my concern is purely sociological and humanistic and the day Indian women acquire emancipatory status, I would perhaps go along with everything Their Lordships have stated. In that regard, the judgment is dangerously premature and has the capacity to create unmentionable chaos in our society.

Their Lordships further remark:

“Harassment, of course, need not be in the form of physical assault and even mental harassment also would come within the purview of Section 498A IPC. Mental cruelty, of course, varies from person to person, depending upon the intensity and the degree of endurance, some may meet with courage and some others suffer in silence, to some it may be unbearable and a weak person may think of ending one’s life.”

True. But the unfortunate and shameful fact is that most of our women have been programmed to take on a weak position. I am not personally acquainted with the details of this case but I would be extremely surprised if the deceased lady was of an emancipated predisposition.

Their Lordships then remark:

“There is no evidence of physical or mental torture demanding dowry.”

I am deeply concerned that only physical/mental torture related to dowry demands could be construed as abetment to suicide as this remark seems to imply.

But it was another comment by Their Lordships which as a psychiatrist I found most disconcerting:

On reading the suicide note, one can infer that the deceased was so possessive of her husband, and was always under emotional stress that she might lose her husband. Too much of possessiveness could also lead to serious emotional stress, over and above the fact that she had one abortion and her daughter died after few days of birth.

From this observation, I am inclined to believe that the unfortunate lady suffered from a known psychiatric condition called morbid jealousy also known as Othello’s Syndrome. If this was indeed the case, she was in an extremely vulnerable state where marital misconduct on the part of her husband was very likely to prove catastrophic particularly if she was not receiving any psychiatric assistance.

All in all, this judgment merits an application for a review by a larger bench. I am flabbergasted as to why this aspect of the case has been ignored by all concerned including women’s rights organisations. Their Lordships have exercised their judicial verdict in all their wisdom but the provision for judicial review exists particularly when there are major concerns and I am all for a review in this case.

There is another angle which in the interest of justice that we would do well to deliberate over. What if the infidelity had been practiced by the female partner and the husband had committed suicide? I have come across a few instances of this as well.

I do not think an instance like that would have been allowed to die down by the likes of khap panchayats even if the courts had taken an identical position.

In the interest of justice, I strongly feel that we do need a larger bench to rule on the matter and I am hopeful that human rights bodies also take cognisance of this ruling and support my contention.

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