Old enough

When the gaze of the country seems to be turning backwards rather than forwards, the courts sometimes sound a note of hope. The Kerala High Court has ruled in the case of a 19-year-old girl living with her 18-year-old male partner that as adults they are free to live together. The girl's father had instituted a habeas corpus case, claiming that the girl was being held captive. The high court has made clear that habeas corpus cannot be used to intervene in the relationship of two consenting adults. This cannot be stressed enough at a time when fathers take recourse to the writ of habeas corpus to assail the independent decisions of adult daughters. The high court also referred to the legislative recognition of the live-in relationship, which the girl's father was refusing to accept. The crux of the case was the fact that the boy is 18, while the age of marriage for men is 21 years. The high court ruled that since the boy, being 18, had attained majority, he could live with a partner without marriage. In a similar case earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled along the same lines. Ironically, that judgment had overridden the Kerala High Court's decision that the couple be separated.

While all this is good and forward-looking, the human situation needs to be considered too. The Kerala High Court is right in applying the law of majority and invoking the lawfulness of live-in relationships by consenting adults in the case under consideration, but the judgment does not address the question the girl's father has about the legal status of a child born to live-in partners. If boys are not allowed to marry until they are 21 by the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, but have the right to live with a partner from 18 onwards since they are adults, should a separate provision be formulated for children born in this period? It is not merely an issue of names of parents on official documents: the mother's name can suffice, according to law. There are other considerations, including inheritance, that cannot be overlooked unless there is a radical change in social and legal arrangements. But, most important, if a boy is not considered fit to marry before 21, for whatever reason, what makes him fit as live-in partner and potential father of a child after 18 and before 21? All these aspects have to be clarified. By bringing such reasoning into public discourse, legislation may help prompt changes in society's expectations and responses too.


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