This should warm the heart (I deliberately use the word ‘heart’ rather than the one I would normally use) of my future lawyer Ashok. This should also be of interest to those of my readers interested in the very complex society that India is. The most gratifying part for me is that our Justice (Judicial) system is working! I wish that I could say the same about our Legislative and Executive systems.
A news item in The Calcutta Telegraph, brought to my notice by Anil, has this to say.
Women should not be left to lead a life of vagrancy. This seems to be one of the chief messages of the Supreme Court ruling on the maintenance of women deserted after living with and depending on a man for a long time, even if the relationship had not been one of legal marriage. The court ruling is in line with recent legislations placing the live-in partner within the purview of rights and claims to duty granted to legally wedded wives. Its generous scope, however, obscures two interesting points. One is the emphasis on vagrancy. It offers a sudden glimpse of the helplessly dependent status of many women and points to their lack of education, of exposure, skills and of control over their own lives. The just ruling has behind it a protective impulse. In terms of principle, this is a movement, intellectually, away from the ideal that all are equal before the law. Not that the law can help it. A law can only respond to a given situation, and this situation has been created by long years of indifference to constitutional directives: a social situation produced by political apathy. “Someone” has to take care of a deserted woman, the court has reportedly said. Mindful of the dignity of women, the court also referred to the old notion that women are the source of all strength. The ruling itself proves how distant the reality is from the ideal.
The second interesting point lies in the particular case. The widow of an older brother was ‘married off’, by custom rather than by law, to a brother much younger, as is the convention in many communities, especially in the north of India. With the turbulent entry of modern ideas, the traditional safety nets for widows in the family are beginning to fail. The younger brother in this case refused to maintain the older wife after he married according to his wish. The silent acceptance of bigamy within the family as a strategy for security is no longer working, for sharing the resources with a traditional burden is not a priority anymore. Hence the court’s ruling regarding the continuity of maintenance. A woman ‘married by custom’ is not really the same as a live-in partner. Although the ruling on maintenance will help many women in different situations, in this particular case, it is basically ensuring protection for a woman left in the lurch by her marital family.