As I made my way through a heavily-crowded Nehru Place market on a Monday morning, I overheard a young couple discussing the possibility of being in a ‘live-in’ together. ‘You know I think I want to move in with you,’ says the pretty and demure twenty-something girl as she clutches the thirty-something man’s hand beside her. It seems a kind of new-age-romance revisited. He remarks, ‘I think it’s a great idea!’ and they gleefully walk on. That I heard this conversation just a few days after the Supreme Court judgement on live-in couples came out, wherein the law doesn’t treat this relationship as ‘a crime or sin,’ is an interesting coincidence. But there’s a lot more to this than merely dabbling in some legally-sanctioned liberal thought.
Neelam and Rajat have been in a live-in for more than a decade. Even though their parents till date are uncomfortable with the idea, they insist that this is a choice they made and are loving it. Rajat juggles between his parent’s home and Neelam’s house, especially tough are weekends. The two go out on holidays together and spend time like a married couple. Rajat argues, ‘I do not believe in the institution of marriage. If I care and love someone I don’t need a legal stamp to prove it. My parents were upset with my decision but now they seem to have made peace with it. Also I feel in a live-in people always work harder on the relationship and do not take each other for granted as compared to a marriage.’ The couple stayed in Delhi for two years after which they relocated to Kolkata where they have been living ‘happily ever’ since.
Another couple – Rahul and Geeta – residing in Delhi have a similar story to tell. After having faced enough problems from landlords across the city for being unmarried and living together, they have at last managed to survive the society’s ire and also be with each other despite the odds. ‘Live-in is still a new concept in India. No one is comfortable with it, but people are learning to cope with it and accept it in some ways,’ says Rahul. As a live-in couple does social scepticism and disapproval matter to them? ‘I don’t think it does to those who live-in with some degree of maturity and understanding and not because of other fancy reasons. In fact, it is the supreme scepticism towards marriage which leads them to opt for a live-in,’ he says.
These are just a few cases, but there are various other kinds of existing relationships at present – be it heterosexual or homosexual live-in, or a live-in arrangement wherein one of the partners is married to another person, or both partners moving out of previous marriages and living together. Any and everything is happening at the same time in our society which is experiencing a massive churn and is in a constant flux.
When we analyse the legal implications in case of a live-in (say heterosexual, with both partners unmarried) then it is quite similar to the rights that a woman possesses as a wife in case of a legal marriage. The recent judgment given by Justice AK Sikri explores a very interesting case wherein one of the partners (the man) in the live-in relationship is married and the woman who was reportedly unaware of this, seeks compensation after separation.
Explaining this case, Supreme Court advocate MR Shamshad says, ‘In the case where one of the party is married, in other words if the husband is having a live-in with another woman and he hasn’t disclosed the fact that he is already married, then the Supreme Court has laid out rules to safeguard the woman’s interests. The apex court has said that a man lived with a lady and kept her in the dark about his marital status before abandoning her. In such a case, if she claims for compensation or maintenance, the man will have to pay. This is because the very purpose of section 125 of the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code) is to protect the interest of the woman. This particular provision is thus applicable in such a case because the man did not reveal the fact that he was already married. Purposive definition has to be given in the case of using section 125 CrPC. Most of the women who undergo such experiences are from vulnerable sections of society, so when section 125 of CrPC is invoked in such cases, it serves the larger role of delivering social justice as well.’
‘On the other hand, if the man at the outset of the live-in relationship has made it clear that he is already married and even then if she continues to stay with him in the same set-up, then that will have different consequences,’ adds Shamshad.
An earlier judgment given by Markandey Katju in October 2010, elucidates the legal rights of live-in partners. The judgment clearly says ‘a relationship in the nature of marriage is akin to a common law marriage’, even though the two might not be ‘formally married.’ For a live-in to be proved in the court the two must ‘hold themselves out to society as being akin to spouses’, ‘they must be of/above legal age to marry’, they should be ‘qualified to enter a legal marriage’ and must have ‘voluntarily cohabited’ and seen to the world as spouses ‘for a significant period of time.’ It clearly says that all these factors have to be fulfilled for a live-in relationship to avail benefits of a marriage entailed under the Act of 2005.
Explaining implications of this judgment Shamshad says, ‘If two people have stayed together for a substantial period of time and given an impression to the society at large that they are staying together as a couple, then two things would happen – one that if this couple splits then just like in the case of a married couple, the husband would have to pay maintenance, similarly the man in the live-in a relationship will also have to do so. In case, there has been a violation of norms under the domestic violence act, then they will be applied to him as if he is the husband and the house they stay in will be treated as a matrimonial house. All the provisions of domestic violence will be applied in such a case. In the third stage, if a child is born then the man cannot shirk his responsibility. The child may be entitled to all the rights similar to a child born of wedlock.’
Ayesha Kidwai, one of the founders and active members of Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment at Jawaharlal Nehru University, feels, ‘It is up to people to be in a live-in relationship and if they are in one then the focus should be that if the two separate because of any reason then the woman should have the right to compensation in the same way as a married couple does’. She goes on to say, ‘In case there is domestic violence in the live-in relationship, then it needs to be addressed in a similar manner as it would be in case of a marriage. The rights of the woman in such a case should be the same as in the case of a marriage. If a live-in couple goes ahead and has a child then the rights of the child should be similar to one born in a marriage. There shouldn’t be a given to certain kind of privileges to only a kind of conjugal relationship.’
Ranjana Kumari, women’s rights activist and director of Centre for Social Research and member of National Mission for Empowerment of Women, explains the vulnerability aspect for a woman who enters a live-in relationship. ‘Firstly, there is no law which has been framed for live-in relationships in our country as in this case no legal marriage exists. Without a legal marriage under the Hindu law, there is no provision for women to avail legal rights similar to a married woman in case of a live-in. While in the case of the domestic violence law of 2005, the woman, even in a live-in set-up, can seek protection and ask for compensation. In case there is a child born out of a live-in, then it is not an illegitimate child. This child can be born out of any kind of relationship but won’t be termed as illegitimate.’
‘We must understand that the concept of live-ins is still new in India and is being gradually accepted. It is somewhat only acceptable in certain sections of the society. In a way it is the male behaviour which is accepted because men have been known for ages to have kept women outside marriage as well. So, if a woman chooses to get into a live-in she should be ready to pay the price for things if they decide to separate. Ideally a woman should step in a live-in in only when she is sure that the man is true to her. He should be an honest man who loves her, similarly for the man. Even now, this concept is still in the process of being recognised and accepted in our society,’ explains Kumari.
(Names of live-in couples have been changed on request)