Defining mental cruelty

In a recent judgment the Supreme Court attempted to clarify the concept of ‘mental cruelty’ in matrimonial law.

The present case involved a matrimonial dispute between two senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers. Jaya Ghosh was earlier married to Debashish Gupta and had a daughter by him. She obtained a decree of divorce against Debashish Gupta from the district court of Patna. The court awarded her custody of their daughter. Debashish Gupta filed a belated appeal against the divorce. According to Samar Ghosh, Jaya persuaded him to marry her immediately in order to make her first husband’s belated appeal infructuous. Jaya and Samar’s wedding was solemnised on December 13, 1984.

According to Samar Ghosh, soon after the marriage Jaya told him not to interfere with her career. She unilaterally declared her decision not to have a child for two years, and told Samar not to be inquisitive about her daughter and to keep himself aloof from the child as far as possible. According to Samar Ghosh, “there was imposition of rationing in emotions in the arena of love, affection, future planning and normal human relations”.

In February 1985, Samar suffered a prolonged illness. He alleged that even though there was no one to look after him, Jaya left him and went to her brother’s place in Bareilly where her parents and daughter were visiting. That, even after returning to Kolkata Jaya did not meet him or enquire about his health for four days. That he had made every effort to adjust and build a normal family life. He used to travel to where Jaya was posted every weekend, but she showed no interest and was indifferent towards him. Following these visits he used to return dejected, feeling like a stranger in his own family.

Jaya Ghosh was transferred to Kolkata in May 1985. She used to intermittently visit her husband in the apartment allotted to him. The husband had a servant-cum-cook called Prabir Malik. Jaya believed that her daughter was being neglected and maybe even harmed by Prabir. Husband and wife started living separately, from September 1985. In May 1986, Samar Ghosh was transferred out and the flat was allotted to Jaya. In September 1988, Samar Ghosh was posted back to Kolkata and husband and wife started living together.

According to the husband, Jaya never treated the house as a home. She told her daughter that Samar was not her father and instigated her until the child started avoiding him. Likewise, Jaya used to remind Samar that he was not the child’s father and should not talk to or love the child. Though they lived under the same roof for a while, Jaya began to live separately from April 1989 at her parents’ house. She used to come to drop her daughter to school, then visit the apartment, cook food for herself and leave for office. Samar had no alternative but to eat his meals outside.

Meanwhile Prabir Malik, who had taken up a job outside Kolkata, came to visit on August 24, 1990. He stayed the night. On August 25, 1990, Jaya and her father visited the apartment. Jaya took strong exception to Prabir’s presence and started shouting that Samar had no self-respect and that he had no right staying in her apartment. She told Samar to get out of the house. Samar felt extremely humiliated and insulted and left immediately. He went to stay with a friend until he could get an apartment allotted in his name.

Husband and wife started living separately since 1990. According to Samar, his wife refused cohabitation and stopped sharing a bed with him without any justification. He said his wife’s unilateral decision not to have a child amounted to mental cruelty towards him. That he was not permitted to even show normal affection towards the daughter despite being a loving father to the child. That Jaya used to take sadistic pleasure at his discomfiture and plight, and that her behaviour affected his health and mental peace. Samar pleaded that in these circumstances it was impossible to continue the marriage. He filed for divorce.

According to Jaya, the domestic servant Prabir did not look after the welfare and wellbeing of her daughter from her first marriage. That she “was apprehensive that Prabir Malik may not develop affection towards” the daughter. That Samar used to work under the instructions and guidance of his relatives who were unhappy with Jaya and used to interfere in their family matters.

The additional district judge, Alipur, held that the conduct of the wife amounted to mental cruelty towards the husband and granted a decree of divorce. Jaya’s refusal to cohabit with her husband, unilateral decision not to have any children after her marriage to Samar, turning her husband out of the apartment, cooking only for herself, not taking care of her husband when he was ill in 1985, not enquiring about her husband’s health when he underwent bypass surgery in 1993, and humiliating the loyal servant-cum-cook were all held to amount to mental cruelty.

The Calcutta High Court, however, reversed the trial court’s judgment, saying that the husband had been unable to establish mental cruelty. Samar Ghosh appealed and the matter reached the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court examined earlier judgments with regard to mental cruelty by the Indian courts. It also scrutinised English, American, Canadian and Australian judgments with respect to the issue of mental cruelty. The court referred to legal texts like Halsbury’s Laws of England and Black’s Law Dictionary.

The Supreme Court’s judgment observes that there cannot be any comprehensive definition of the concept of “mental cruelty”, given the wide spectrum of human behaviour. Cruelty was held to differ from person to person depending on upbringing, sensitivity, education, family and cultural background, financial position, social status, customs, traditions, religious beliefs and value systems. The concept of mental cruelty was held to be dynamic and changing with the passage of time and the impact of modern culture.

Observing that a uniform standard could not be laid down, the Supreme Court enumerated instances of human behaviour that would be relevant in dealing with cases of “mental cruelty”. The following instances were indicated as illustrative, though not exhaustive, with regard to adjudging mental cruelty:

  1. A husband undergoing sterilisation without medical reasons and without the consent or knowledge of his wife may lead to mental cruelty.
  2. A wife undergoing sterilisation or abortion without medical reasons or without the consent or knowledge of the husband may lead to mental cruelty.
  3. Unilateral decision of refusal to have intercourse for a considerable period without any physical incapacity or valid reason may amount to mental cruelty.
  4. Unilateral decision of either husband or wife after marriage not to have a child may amount to mental cruelty.
  5. Acute mental pain, agony and suffering to a degree that would not make it possible for the parties to stay with each other.
  6. On a comprehensive appraisal of the entire matrimonial life, if it becomes clear that the wronged party cannot reasonably be asked to put up with such conduct and continue to live with the other party.
  7. Mere coldness of manner or lack of affection cannot amount to mental cruelty. However, frequent rudeness of language, petulance, indifference and neglect could reach a degree that makes married life for the other person intolerable.
  8. Feeling of deep anguish, disappointment, frustration in a spouse caused by the conduct of the other over a long time may amount to mental cruelty.
  9. Sustained abusive and humiliating treatment calculated to torture or render miserable the life of the spouse could amount to mental cruelty.
  10. Sustained unjustifiable conduct affecting the physical and mental health of the spouse. However, the treatment complained about and resultant apprehension must be very grave, substantial and weighty.
  11. Sustained reprehensible conduct, studied neglect, indifference or total departure from the normal standard of conjugal kindness, causing injury to mental health or deriving sadistic pleasure could amount to mental cruelty.
  12. Jealousy, selfishness, possessiveness which causes unhappiness, dissatisfaction and emotional upset may not be grounds for divorce on account of mental cruelty.
  13. Trivial irritations, quarrels, normal wear-and-tear of married life would not be adequate for grant of divorce on grounds of mental cruelty.
  14. Few isolated instances over a period of years would not amount to mental cruelty. Persistent ill conduct for a lengthy period, where the relationship has deteriorated to an extent that the wronged party finds it difficult to live with the other party may amount to mental cruelty.
  15. Long period of continuous separation indicating that the matrimonial bond is beyond repair may lead to mental cruelty.

Applying the factors enumerated to the present case, the Supreme Court held the decision of the high court — that mental cruelty had not been established — to be wrong. Listing long period of separation as indicative of irretrievable breakdown, non-caring and lack of enquiry when the husband was ill and had bypass surgery, and lack of emotions or feelings, the apex court agreed with and restored the judgment of the additional district court granting a divorce to the husband on grounds of mental cruelty.



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