Although law cannot change society, it can be made to help the dispossessed. That is what is heartening about the recent note from the law ministry, which has been put up for cabinet approval. It recommends that a woman deceived into marrying an already-married man or a man whose divorce has not been completed by the due process of law should be paid alimony if she decides to leave him after discovering the falsehood. The recommendation unpacks a common form of double betrayal that women, especially among the less privileged classes, are often subject to. The law against bigamy was propounded to prevent sham second marriages. The trick now is to pretend that a first marriage does not exist or has been legally dissolved, and then to refuse support when the “wife” decides to leave. Worse, the trick makes the path of desertion very smooth. The law ministry should not only be lauded for its perceptiveness, but also for going beyond pure legality in order to ensure that the woman is not punished for having been deceived. Normally, the “wife” and offspring in a bigamous marriage would not have any claims to maintenance. That is, the man who deceives and destroys lives goes scot-free. To correct this imbalance, the law ministry has suggested changes in the necessary laws.
It is a good time for such a recommendation in many ways, and it can be hoped that the necessary follow-up will take place. The court has over the years shown greater awareness of issues connected with gender imbalance, and the change being suggested is in the spirit of certain rulings that the higher courts have made. For example, in a divorce case, the Supreme Court had ruled that maintenance need not be limited to the mandatory amount decided by law, but should include a consideration of the standard of living enjoyed by the woman before her divorce. In other words, the woman should not be made to suffer financially when a divorce takes place. Such rulings and recommendations go beyond the letter of the law and aspire to the spirit of justice, because they take into account the real situation of women in society. Given that leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre have repeatedly and vociferously declared their desire to correct gender injustice, no doubt the cabinet will give the recommendation a sympathetic hearing.