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BONANZA FOR THE ‘OTHER WOMAN’

Rajesh Kalra, a 29-year-old software engineer, arrived in a taxi on a rainy Sunday with a red Sony laptop and two large suitcases and moved in with colleague Smita Mitra three years ago. Their whirlwind romance continued in the Salt Lake flat owned by Mitra’s father, a senior civil servant, away in New Delhi. In their office and beyond, Kalra, a Chandigarh native, and Mitra, 25, were an ‘item’ — a couple who lived together without getting married. Their friends believed that it was a matter of months before their marriage would be solemnised. But instead of walking down the aisle, they slowly drifted apart even as they gorged on biryani and pizza, sipped on red wine, entertained friends, bought flowers for each other and slept together on a king-size bed.

Matters came to a head two months ago. Kalra walked out on his live-in partner, apparently following a row over his crush on a friend’s wife. He flew off to Mumbai, leaving behind a shattered Mitra to pick up the pieces.

Mitra’s family, friends and colleagues say that Kalra got away too lightly although he was allegedly at fault. They say that he washed his hands off the affair, picked up his laptop and suitcases and took the first available flight out of the city without so much as a ‘by your leave’. They accuse him of exploiting her emotionally, physically and financially and dumping her as soon as he landed a better job in Mumbai. After all, he would no longer need rent-free accommodation and a woman’s services in Calcutta.

“The parallel that comes to my mind is that of throwing away a used condom. He threw me into the bin when he felt that I had served his purpose. How I wish I could take him to court. I have been wronged but I cannot bring him to justice because I do not have legal legs to stand on,” Mitra laments between tearful fits and temper tantrums, trying to come to terms with her ‘public and personal’ humiliation. Kalra refuses to take her calls.

But now there is good news for Mitra — and bad news for Kalra. If the National Commission for Women (NCW), the central government’s women’s rights watchdog, has its way, Mitra, and others like her, will soon be legally empowered to extract their pound of flesh from the men who desert them. A landmark amendment mooted by NCW boss Girija Vyas, under section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), puts women in live-in relationships on a par with wives as far as alimony is concerned.

But Vyas’s sensational recommendation to the Union ministry of women and child development to pile pressure on the Union law ministry to take immediate steps to overhaul Section 125 of the CrPC (which deals with maintenance) has triggered a fierce debate. Many dissenters are outraged that women ‘living in sin’ should be equated with the legal wife.

Section 125 provides for the upkeep of wife, children and parents, who cannot maintain themselves. But at the moment only wives who have either been divorced or have obtained divorce themselves, or are legally separated and have not remarried, can claim maintenance. But Vyas wants the definition of “wife” to be amended to include women in live-in relationships, making them eligible for alimony as well. And that’s not all. She also wants children of couples in live-in relationships to be entitled to maintenance like children born in wedlock.

Elaborating on the commission’s controversial vision, Yogesh Mehta, law officer of NCW, New Delhi, says, “We are advocating alimony for live-in partners in the spirit of recent Supreme Court verdicts upholding the rights of the so-called ‘other woman’. In 2005, Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice S. H. Kapadia famously commented on the inadequacies of the law in protecting a woman who unwittingly entered into a relationship with a married man. There is another judgement stating that a live-in relationship is as good as marriage. Moreover, recent enactments like the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act treat live-in couples no differently from married ones. Our objective is to harmonise and blend various laws in tune with the orders of the apex court.”

Mehta adds that no human relationship is bereft of emotional attachment. “Living together can take its toll. A woman is liable to feel vulnerable in the arrangement, particularly if her partner is not as committed as she is. And the chances of a man dumping a woman are high. This moved us to recommend the amendment to Section 125 to cover women in live-in relationships who are not protected by the law of the land,” he explains.

Hyderabad-based Uma Challa, president of the intriguingly-named but hyperactive All India Forgotten Women Forum, has appealed to anybody who is somebody to stop Vyas in her tracks. “A live-in relationship is the preferred arrangement of men and women who want to avoid legal formalities governing their union, separation or the bond itself. Bringing such an arrangement within the purview of law is ridiculous and legally untenable,” argues Challa. She claims that a woman who lives with a man outside wedlock generally has “loose morals”. “Giving her legal recognition would only encourage more and more such women to move in with men without marrying them, thus posing a grave challenge to society,” she maintains.

The amendment proposed has sparked a debate among women activists too. Observes Paromita Chakravarti, joint director of Jadavpur University’s School of Women’s Studies, “The proposed amendment is part of a larger movement striving to recognise unconventional relations involving heterosexual or homosexual partners. Such attempts remind us that many relationships, including sexual ones, are at odds with our existing legal framework but we must be liberal enough to recognise them. However, its implementation may not be as easy as perceived.”

Even lawyers seem to be startled by the amendment proposed. Sardar Amjad Ali, senior Calcutta High Court advocate, who is a bit sceptical about the recommendation, feels that as a lawyer he would not mind accepting a brief from a woman in a live-in relationship suing her co-habitor for alimony. But before signing off, Ali adds wryly, “I personally feel that this brainwave of NCW is going to be a social hazard. It will promote adultery and promiscuity. It’s bound to face a lot of opposition because moral values still rule Indian society, particularly institutions such as marriage and family.”

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