Evolving Concept of ‘Mental Cruelty’ as a ground for Divorce under Hindu Law

“Parties to a marriage to a marriage tying the nuptial knot are supposed to bring about the union of souls. It creates a new relationship of love, affection, care and concern between the husband and wife. According to Hindu Vedic philosophy, it is sanskar  a sacrament; one of the sixteen important sacraments essential to be taken during one’s lifetime. There may be physical union as a result of marriage for procreation to perpetuate the lineal progeny for ensuring spiritual salvation and performance of religious rites, but what is essentially contemplated is a union of two souls. Marriage is considered to be a junction of three important duties i.e. social, religious and spiritual.”

– Apex Court Observations in A. Jayachandra vs Aneel Kaur (2004)

Definition of Cruelty

It is well-settled that the expression `cruelty’ includes both physical cruelty; and  mental cruelty.

The concept of cruelty has been dealt with in Halsbury’s Laws of England , Vol.13  as under-

“The general rule in all cases of cruelty is that the entire matrimonial relationship must be considered, and that rule is of special value when the cruelty consists not of violent acts but of injurious reproaches, complaints, accusations or taunts. In cases where no violence is averred, it is undesirable to consider judicial pronouncements with a view to creating certain categories of acts or conduct as having or lacking the nature or quality which renders them capable or incapable in all circumstances of amounting to cruelty; for it is the effect of the conduct rather than its nature which is of paramount importance in assessing a complaint of cruelty. Whether one spouse has been guilty of cruelty to the other is essentially a question of fact and previously decided cases have little, if any, value. The court should bear in mind the physical and mental condition of the parties as well as their social status, and should consider the impact of the personality and conduct of one spouse on the mind of the other, weighing all incidents and quarrels between the spouses from that point of view; further, the conduct alleged must be examined in the light of the complainant’s capacity for endurance and the extent to which that capacity is known to the other spouse”.

Under the Hindu Marriage Act,1956 the legal conception of cruelty and the kind of degree of cruelty necessary to amount to a matrimonial offence has not been defined.

Apex Court’s Role in Development of Concept of Cruelty

Over the years, the concept of cruelty has expanded by the higher judiciary. In the catena of cases as below, the Hon’ble Apex Court has laid down that no strict definition of cruelty may be drawn and it differs with time, case and the circumstances.

In Sirajmohmedkhan Janmohamadkhan v. Haizunnisa Yasinkhan & Anr., (1981) 4 SCC 250, this Court stated that the concept of legal cruelty changes according to the changes and advancement of social concept and standards of living. It was further stated that to establish legal cruelty, it is not necessary that physical violence should be used. Continuous cessation of marital intercourse or total indifference on the part of the husband towards marital obligations would lead to legal cruelty.

In Shobha Rani v. Madhukar Reddi, (1988) 1 SCC 105, the Court examined the concept of cruelty. It was observed that the term `cruelty’ has not been defined in the Hindu Marriage Act. It has been used in Section 13(1)(ia) of the Act in the context of human conduct and behavior in relation to or in respect of matrimonial duties or obligations. It is a course of conduct of one spouse which adversely affects the other spouse. The cruelty may be mental or physical, intentional or unintentional. That conduct which is complained of as cruelty by one spouse may not be so for the other spouse. There may be instance of cruelty by the unintentional but inexcusable conduct of any party. The cruel treatment may also result by the cultural conflict of the spouses.

If it is physical, it is a question of degree which is relevant. If it is mental, the enquiry must begin as to the nature of the cruel treatment and then as to the impact of such treatment on the mind of the other spouse.

The context and the set up in which the word ‘cruelty’ has been used in the section, seems to us, that intention is not a necessary element in cruelty. That word has to be understood in the ordinary sense of the term in matrimonial affairs. If the intention to harm, harass or hurt could be inferred by the nature of the conduct or brutal act complained of, cruelty could be easily established. But the absence of intention should not make any difference in the case, if by an ordinary sense in human affairs, the act complained of could otherwise be regarded as cruelty. The relief to the party cannot be denied on the ground that there has been no deliberate or wilful ill-treatment.

In Gananth Pattnaik vs. State of Orissa, (2002) 2 SCC 619 it was observed as under:

“The concept of cruelty and its effect varies from individual to individual, also depending upon the social and economic status to which such person belongs. “Cruelty” for the purposes of constituting the offence under the aforesaid section need not be physical. Even mental torture or abnormal behaviour may amount to cruelty and harassment in a given case.”

In Samar Ghosh vs Jaya Ghosh,  (2007) 4 SCC 511, the Apex Court observed as under-

The concept of mental cruelty cannot remain static; it is bound to change with the passage of time, impact of modern culture through print and electronic media and value system, etc. etc. What may be mental cruelty now may not remain a mental cruelty after a passage of time or vice versa. There can never be any straitjacket formula or fixed parameters for determining mental cruelty in matrimonial matters. The prudent and appropriate way to adjudicate the case would be to evaluate it on its peculiar facts and circumstances.

Circumstances/State of affairs held to constitute mental cruelty

Date of decision Case Facts that constituted the act of mental cruelty
14 September, 1981 Sirajmohmedkhan Janmohamadkhan v. Haizunnisa Yasinkhan & Anr. Proved impotence of the husband and his inability to discharge  his marital  obligations
12 November, 1987 Shobha Rani vs Madhukar Reddi on Demand for dowry
10 January, 2002 G.V.N. Kameswara Rao vs G. Jabilli  Non-cooperation and the hostile attitude of the wife
 11 July, 2002 Parveen Mehta vs Inderjit Mehta Continuance denial to consummate the marriage by wife and failure to disclose her heath condition before marriage
2 December, 2004 A. Jayachandra vs Aneel Kaur Ill treatment and abuse by the wife etc.
26 March, 2007 Samar Ghosh vs Jaya Ghosh Refusal to cohabitate and unilateral decision not to have any child , living separately for more than a decade
7 November, 2008 Suman Kapur vs Sudhir Kapur on Over focus on her career and no interest in performing marital obligations and continuing marital relations with the husband

There cannot be any comprehensive definition of the concept of ‘mental cruelty’ within which all kinds of cases of mental cruelty can be covered. The above cases show that the concept of cruelty differs from person to person depending upon his upbringing, level of sensitivity, educational, family and cultural background, financial position, social status, customs, traditions, religious beliefs, human values and their value system.

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Bhumika Sharma

She is currently a Research Scholar, (PhD) at Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla. She finds peace in research and writing on a variety of social issues. She believes in the power of education and awareness to deal with various problems.

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