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Cruelty: A Ground for Dissolution of Marriage and Its Imprint in Criminal Law

Marriage is a significant aspect of Indian culture and cruelty has always been a topic of concern. In the past, cruelty was not a valid reason for divorce in India. However, after the 1976 amendment, cruelty was added as one of the/grounds/for divorce under section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. Traditionally, in India, it was believed that a woman's sole purpose in life is to serve her husband after marriage.

Therefore, cruelty was not a reason for divorce. Marriage is based on customs and customs play an essential role in Indian society and are a source of law as defined in Article 13(3)(a)[1] of the Indian Constitution. However, only customs that are enforced are considered valid. Despite facing cruelty, women were expected or we can say ordered to stay loyal and obedient to their husband. We all have come across the concept of "patiparmeshwar"/in the Indian context., with such a perspective it is not easy to ask for divorce, no matter what the ground is.

Adding a discussion on how this imbalance contributes to cruelty and the need for legal protections for spouses would help readers understand the broader societal implications of the topic.

Meaning of Cruelty

IPC section/498A defines 'cruelty'/as:
  1. any wilful/conduct which is of such a nature, as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide, or to cause grave injury, or danger to life, limb, or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or
  2. The term "harassment of a woman" is used to describe any behaviour towards a woman that is intended to force her or someone related to her to comply with an unlawful demand for property or valuable security. It can also be due to her or someone related to her failing to meet such a demand.

When cruelty is used in relation to human behaviour, it becomes difficult to define. In the context of matrimonial duties and obligations, cruelty refers to conduct that adversely affects one spouse.[2] Generally, cruelty involves mental or physical harassment between spouses. The behavior that constitutes cruelty should be severe and grave in nature. It's important to note that physical violence is not the only factor that constitutes cruelty. A continuous process of ill-treatment, mental torture, or physical torture towards a spouse can also be regarded as cruelty.[3]

Types of Cruelty

Under section 13(1) (i-a) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 either of the spouses can solemnize their marriage on the ground of cruelty.

Cruelty is classified into two categories, mental cruelty and physical cruelty.
  1. Mental Cruelty: Mental cruelty, as defined under section 13(1) (i-a), refers to any conduct that causes the other party such mental pain and suffering that it becomes impossible for them to live together. In simpler terms, the behaviour must be so severe that it makes it unreasonable for the parties to coexist. Proving mental cruelty can be challenging since it's a state of mind caused by the other spouse's patterns of behaviour. It usually cannot be established through direct evidence but rather is inferred from the facts and circumstances of the case.
  2. Physical Cruelty: Physical cruelty refers to acts that put the physical health of one of the parties in a marriage in danger, which can include causing bodily injury or giving reason for such injuries. This can include actions such as assault, hurt, and grievous hurt as defined under Sections 351, 319, and 320 of the Indian Penal Code from the year 1860.

Cruelty, a ground for dissolution of marriage

It has been reported that the main reason for the dissolution of marriage in married life is cruelty. The following are the essentials of cruelty:
  1. Physical cruelty refers to the use of physical torture, assault, grievous hurt, abetment of suicide, or any other act that may result in bodily harm to another person. It can even lead to death, whether intentionally or unintentionally. One of the reasons for spousal abuse is for illegal purposes, such as dowry death under section 304B of the Indian Penal Code. Mental cruelty is another form of abuse that includes constant taunting, and mental torture by either spouse or in-laws. Acts of violence that are grievous and inexcusable in nature can be considered cruel. However, it's important to note that the same conduct may not be considered cruel in different circumstances. Therefore, it is the petitioner's responsibility to prove that specific behaviour resulted in cruelty towards them. No assumptions should be made in such matters.[6]
The question is whether a "second wife" or a woman in a live-in relationship can file a complaint under section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The Supreme Court of India has ruled that a second wife can file a complaint under section 498A of the IPC.[7] However, the court has also held that a woman in a live-in relationship is not entitled to file a complaint under section 498A.[8]

Indian Legislation related to Cruelty

According to Section 13(1) (i-a) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, either spouse is permitted to marry on the basis of cruelty. The concept of cruelty being a ground for the dissolution of marriage has its roots in Criminal Law. Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 states that a husband or a husband's relative who subjects a woman to cruelty can be punished with imprisonment for a maximum term of three years and is also liable to pay a fine.

According to Section 113A of the Evidence Act, 1872, if a woman commits suicide within seven years of her marriage and it is proven that her husband or any of his relatives subjected her to cruelty that led to her taking this extreme step, the court can presume that the husband or his relative abetted the suicide.

Ingredients of Section 498A
  1. The woman must be married;
  2. Subjected to cruelty or harassment;
  3. Either the woman's husband or his relative must have committed the cruelty or harassment.[9]
Case Law
In Sanjay Kumar Rai & Ors v State of Jharkhand Ors, 2023, the Jharkhand High Court has ruled that failing to provide adequate medical assistance to a spouse in order to compel them for dowry constitutes cruelty under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This landmark decision underscores that neglecting a spouse's medical needs, especially with the intent of coercing them for dowry, is a form of cruelty punishable under the law. Section 498A IPC specifically addresses cruelty by a husband or his relatives towards a wife, including any wilful conduct that is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to her life, limb, or health.

In Ranjan Das vs State of West Bengal, 2023, the Calcutta High Court's bench ruled that day-to-day bickering between spouses would not amount to cruelty as demarcated under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code.

Cruelty is a significant issue in India, particularly concerning mistreatment towards women after marriage. There have been reported cases of husbands and in-laws intentionally or unintentionally harassing and torturing their wives. However, it is worth noting that sometimes women also engage in such behaviour with the aim of causing trouble or controlling their husbands and in-laws. It would be helpful to include real-life examples of cases where cruelty has led to divorce or legal action, as demonstrated by the judgments given by honourable courts.

  1. law: includes any ordinance, order, bye-law, rule, regulation, notification, custom or usage having in the territory of India the force of law.
  2. Shobha Rani v. Madhukar Reddi MANU/SC/0419/1987; 1988 AIR 121; 1988 SCR (1)101
  3. Rutuparna Sahu, 'Cruelty as ground for divorce' (blog ipleaders, 24 Feburary 2020) Cruelty as a ground for Divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act ( accessed 22 April 2024
  4. V. Bhagat v. D. Bhagat (Mrs.) A.I.R. 1994 S.C.710 (1994) 1 S.C.C.337
  5. Neelam Kumari v. Gurnam Singh A.I.R. 2004 P.&H.9
  6. Professional Book Publishers, 'Marriage and Divorce' (2023)63
  7. A. Subash Babu v. State of A.P., (2011) 7 SCC 616
  8. Unnikrishnan v. State of Kerala, 2017 SCC OnLine Ker 12064
  9. U. Suvetha v. State, (2009) 6 SCC 757
  10. Tejaswi Pandit, 'Cruelty to Women' (SCCONLINE, 3 December 2018) accessed 22 April 2024

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