Another step on a long journey
The landmark judgment passed this week by the SC is a long-overdue step in protecting women from violence and mistreatment in their marital homes. Under the judgment, the SC finally attended to the all-important widening of the term 'shared household' under the Domestic Violence Act. In the original ruling, a woman that has lodged a complaint against her husband and/or in-laws under the act could only have the right to residence to her marital home only if the husband solely or jointly owns the house. Now, the Court has widened the definition by stating that an aggrieved woman can claim the right of residence to any house she has lived in with her husband or live-in relationship, even if the house belongs to the parent-in laws, the husband's relatives or even a tenanted premise where they lived together. The only way to remove a woman who has so claimed her right of residence is for the owner of the property in question to file an eviction suit against her.
The bench focused its attention on further clarifying the meaning of 'living together' as well. Merely casual living at different places cannot reasonably constitute an intent to have a shared household. It is this intent that must be looked into, as per the bench, to decide whether a particular living arrangement equals a shared household.
Above all, the SC bench emphasised upon why such clarifications were desperately needed. While domestic violence is rampant across the nation, it remains the least reported form of violence. This in large part has to do with the victim's relative state of helplessness as compared to the perpetrator. Often, the first question that is asked by women who are being induced to register a case under domestic violence is some variation of 'where will I go afterwards?' Indeed this helplessness to act against those who shelter and feed her becomes a major reason why such cases are not brought forward or are prematurely ended as the victim is targeted by her in-laws.
The ruling itself was in response to an appeal by one Satish Chander Ahuja that challenged a Delhi Court decision of 2019 regarding his daughter in-law's right to residence in his house even though she was in the process of divorcing his son. The petitioner had further asserted that the house did not belong to his son but rather to him.
Unquestionably, such a ruling was always required but it is also indisputable that it is required even more in our current times. Since the pandemic and the subsequent global lockdowns began, the UN has warned of a 'shadow pandemic' unfolding in the background. Worldwide, instances of domestic violence saw a particularly sharp uptick during this period. In India, the National Commission for Women noted that the number of domestic violence-related complaints they received nearly doubled from 123 to 239 between the period of March 23- April 16. During the same lockdown period, As mentioned previously, the spike in domestic violence cases is not unique to India. Many international bodies acknowledged the drastic increase in such cases. Ashwini Deshpande, an economist and a professor at Delhi's Ashoka University was quoted by BBC as saying, "The abuser feels frustrated and angry because of lack of control due to the constraints imposed by the lockdown. This prompts him to exercise greater control by abusing his partner and/or children, often with violence." What is specific to the India context is that such cases are known about but rarely enter the official record. it was revealed recently that 86 per cent of women who experience domestic violence in India do not report it and an astounding 77 per cent of the victims do not even mention the incident itself. Oxfam had even noted that the initial months of lockdown saw the NCW data showing a monthly decrease in complaints being registered. Subsequently, after May when lockdown relaxation began, the numbers picked up significantly.
While there are still many barriers that may prevent the full reporting of domestic violence cases in India, particularly during the pandemic, the new SC ruling is a much-required step in the right direction.