Although there are rules that legitimise live-in relationships in India, women still face numerous unresolved issues in intimate relationships and are fighting a never-ending battle for the right to live with dignity. In addition to being unaware of their legal rights and other legalities in a live-in relationship, they also experience domestic violence and social shame.
THE brutal murder of Shraddha Walker that captured the nation’s attention has brought public attention back to the state of live-in relationships in India. Walker, 26, was butchered into 35 pieces by her boyfriend Aaftab Amin Poonawala in May last year in the Mehrauli region of Delhi. For weeks, Poonawala stored her body parts in a 300-liter refrigerator before deciding to dispose of them across the city. Her death was discovered six months later after her father lodged a missing person complaint.
Walker and Poonawala had an abusive relationship, as confirmed by her friends and her family, who are still fighting for justice. Walker’s family resisted her marriage to Poonawala since he followed a different religion. She then chose a live-in relationship after feuding with her family. Walker chose not to seek assistance when her live-in relationship became abusive because she had no one to turn to and was unaware of her rights.
Her friends informed the police that she always worried about losing her life. As a result of one of these abuse incidents, she was even hospitalised. After this, she also registered a complaint against Poonawala, but no action was taken by the police.
In the aftermath of Walker’s brutal murder in the capital city, people who were already skeptical of premarital cohabitation have begun to rethink live-in relationships and raise questions on its legality. On the other hand, live-in relationships are growing more frequent among young people. According to a research paper, 75 per cent of the youth consider live-in relationships to lead to a better mutual understanding before marriage.
Since there is no legal framework enacted governing such relationships, a section of society still believes that a live-in partnership is illegal and does not have the same rights as a marriage. Although there are rules that legitimise live-in relationships in India, women still face numerous unresolved issues in intimate relationships and are fighting a never-ending battle for the right to live with dignity.
In addition to being unaware of their legal rights and other legalities in a live-in relationship, they also experience domestic violence and social shame. The rights of a woman who is in a live-in relationship have, however, been upheld by Indian courts through the years.
What is a live-in relationship, and is it lawfully permitted?
A live-in relationship is a combination in which two people of any gender live under the same roof or in a shared residence, with or without the intention of creating a contract for the arrangement. The jurisprudence of live-in relationships roots back to 1929, when in its Mohabhat Ali versus Mohammed Ibrahim Khan judgment, the Bombay High Court ruled that a couple’s prolonged cohabitation is sufficient ground for presuming marriage. Courts have frequently invoked this defence to uphold the rights of women who have been abandoned by their male partners.
In 2013, a domestic cohabitation between an adult man and an adult female who are not married is how the Supreme Court described live-in relationships inIndra Sarma versus V.K.V. Sarma. According to the Indian Penal Code, it is also unlawful for a married man to get into a domestic relationship with an unmarried adult female.
The legality of a live-in relationship arises from Article 19 of the Constitution, which protects the right to free speech and expression, and Article 21 of the Constitution, which protects the right to life and personal liberty. Live-in relationships involving same-sex partners are also legal.
In 1929, the Bombay High Court ruled that a couple’s prolonged cohabitation is sufficient ground for presuming marriage. Courts have frequently invoked this defence to uphold the rights of women who have been abandoned by their male partners.
Living together not only allows a couple to get to know one another without entering into a legally binding commitment, but it also spares them the complexity of family expectations and stretched legal proceedings if they decide to get a divorce later.
What distinguishes a live-in relationship from a marriage?
Marriage and living together both are legal but have various psychological, ideological, emotional, and societal implications. Marriage is a legally recognised and socially accepted relationship, currently domestically recognised only between a man and a woman, that is governed by laws, norms, conventions, beliefs and attitudes that outline the partners’ obligations and grant legitimacy to their children (if any).
Marriage establishes spouses’ rights and responsibilities to one another. Due to India’s distinctive culture, numerous laws have been established that define the steps and regulations for officiating marriages according to the many religions.
Nowadays, couples may seek to experiment with other ways of living. In Khushboo, the Supreme Court ruled that although cohabitation is viewed as sinful by society, it is not illegal under Indian law since it is protected by Article 21 of the Constitution.
In the case of Kamini Devi versus State of UP (2020), the Allahabad High Court granted protection to a live-in couple and stated that when two adults decide to live together, nobody, which include their parents, has the authority to interfere in their living situations and that such an agreement among them is not illegal. If anyone, however, interferes with their peaceful living, it will be an infringement of their fundamental right to life and liberty.
What are the rights women should be aware of in live-in relationships?
There is no particular law governing live-in relationships, but the Indian judiciary has established jurisprudence over the years via a series of judgments in this regard. According to the Supreme Court decision in Badri Prasad versus Dy. Director of Consolidation (1978), live-in partnerships are allowed in India but subject to conditions such as marriage age, consent, and mental health.
In Khushboo, the Supreme Court ruled that although cohabitation is viewed as sinful by society, it is not illegal under Indian law since it is protected by Article 21 of the Constitution.
According to Section 20(1)(d) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, women have the right to supplementary maintenance in addition to the maintenance they are already entitled to under other laws. The 2005 Act, which also addresses women who live in a home with a current partner and are in a live-in relationship, was created to protect women from broad forms of violence that take place in a domestic setting.
A woman has the right to file a complaint under the Act if she experiences physical, emotional, verbal, or financial abuse. A woman in a live-in relationship is entitled to all available remedies that are available to married victims of domestic violence.
The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, was amended in 2005 to protect women’s rights to ancestral property. This guarantees her rights to inherited and self-earned property, irrespective of her marital status. The claim to the parental property will therefore pass to all women, whether they are married or in a live-in relationship.
On June 30, 2008, the National Commission for Women made a recommendation to the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development to include women who cohabitate with their partners in the term “wife” within Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (‘CrPC’). The suggestion aimed to equalise the connection between a live-in couple and a couple who are legally married, as well as to unify the legal protections safeguarding women from domestic abuse.
The Union Government in 2000 formed a committee under the chairmanship of Justice R.V. Malimath to recommend amendments in India’s criminal laws. Following the recommendations of the Malimath Committee report, section 125 of the CrPC was amended in 2001 which ensured that the financial needs of the woman should be met by the companion if she is unable to sustain herself or the couple became estranged.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that a man and woman would be regarded as legitimate parents if they had been living together for a significant amount of time and had children. In the case of S.P.S. Balasubramanyam versus Suruttayan (1993) the Supreme Court declared that if a man and a woman live together under one roof for a long period, they will be regarded as husband and wife.
A woman in a live-in relationship is entitled to all available remedies that are available to married victims of domestic violence.
As a result, the children born from a live-in relationship are also legal. Despite the fact that children from live-in relationships are not entitled to support under personal laws, they are protected by section 125 of the CrPC.
The Supreme Court intervened and granted legal rights to children born out of the relationship between two live-in partners in Tulsa & Ors. versus Durghatiya & Ors. in 2008. Section 16 of the Hindu Marriage Act gives children born outside of marriage legality in terms of property rights. This indicates that these children are the legitimate heirs to both inherited and self-acquired property.
In Indra Sarma, the Supreme Court had held that not all live-in relationships may be considered marriages. If a person is already married, he or she is not permitted to live with another partner since it would be adultery. The court made it quite clear that it was up to the legislature to consider this matter and provide a framework.
Even though judicial measures have attempted to provide some protection for women in live-in relationships, there are still numerous legal vacuums that need robust legislation.
Why are live-in relationships still a taboo?
The idea of live-in relationships has sunk in and become widespread in urban Indian as modernity is growing. Society must comprehend that maintaining a relationship without being married won’t be detrimental but help the youth to decide what they want. Forcing women into relationships they are not ready for, may have negative effects on both women and their families.
Prior to accepting live-in relationships, society must first normalise premarital sex. Although the judiciary has attempted to legitimise live-in relationships in India, much more has to be done. A proper legal framework should be developed to address the concerns of such relationships in order to safeguard the dignity of the partners, regardless of their gender.
When an adult chooses a live-in relationship, parents should not fear or blame their offspring or the other partner, shutting off all communication with their child, but instead should maintain constant communication. People who have lost contact with their parents frequently learn to suppress their emotions and refrain from talking about their concerns.
Live-in relationships are a very individualised and subjective matter that may or may not be successful for everyone. Being in a relationship that offers very little security might be concerning, especially for women who may experience harassment and fear.
The fundamental problem is that there are no safe spaces protecting women, and women are raised in such a condition that they fail to recognise warning signs in the name of love. Establishing more safe spaces for women is the need of the hour.
There have been plenty of negative commentary about Walker’s actions. The moral police have gone too far in using this case to propagate their chauvinism against educated women who enjoy freedom by blaming the grisly murder on the “liberalism” of live-in relationships. The fundamental problem is that there are no safe spaces protecting women, and women are raised in such a condition that they fail to recognise warning signs in the name of love.
Establishing more safe spaces for women is the need of the hour. We must also stop romanticising and fetishizing those who commit acts of sexual harassment and assault. Walker’s death is tragic because she was unable to find safety while still holding on to her belief in real love. Victim-blaming on social media and the “love jihad” aspect needs to be stopped immediately as they are sad implications that portray a lack of shared empathy. Walker should have got a lot better in life.
If you are in a live-in relationship, always remember that failing to report any abuse, whether it be physical or psychological, out of fear that society would hold you responsible may frequently lead to a more serious crime. Be courageous enough to leave the situation and speak out against any abuse you may be suffering.
A victim of abuse finds it difficult to express how they feel because they are caught in an abusive cycle. The abused victim returns to the abuser for affection, much like a drug addict. By altering their own behaviour, they try to end the abuse as women are frequently not believed when abuses are made public.
It is high time that rather than criticising the choices of a woman and how she should have lived her life, society should start accepting everyone’s decision, regardless of their marital status or other personal preferences.