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Divorce: Look who's in denial
Rising divorce rates are a reality in India but some MPs are still calling it a western concept. They suggest mending it rather than ending it.
Two weeks ago when the Rajya Sabha took up for discussion a Bill seeking the inclusion of "irretrievable breakdown of marriage" as grounds for divorce, the debate shone a light on our MPs' views on women, marriage and "Indian culture", some of which seem to belong to another century. The Marriage Laws (amendment) Bill, 2010, introduced by law minister Salman Khursheed saw three days of debate in the Upper House. The debate however did not conclude and an amended version will now be reintroduced. To be fair, the primary objection of many MPs was on the grounds that if divorce is made easier vulnerable women could be driven to destitution since financial safeguards for women are not codified in law but left to the discretion of judges.
"Effectively, if you put irretrievable breakdown without a financial support as a ground [for divorce], the inevitable consequence is going to be - as mostly women are the sufferers of a matrimonial breakdown - that once a husband uses [this] for a divorce, courts give conventional and very conservative maintenance amounts, " Leader of the Opposition and BJP MP Arun Jaitley said, leading the debate.
CPM MP Tapan Sen pointed out that unpaid domestic work was not recognised as valuable work, and, hence, women were treated as unequal. Until they are treated as financial equals of men, liberalising divorce was a bad idea, Sen said.
But as the DMK's Kanimozhi who supported the Bill pointed out, "Everybody seems to have assumed that no woman would want a divorce;in a marriage, no woman would want freedom;no woman cares for her liberty;no woman really bothers about how she is being treated. " Trinamool Congress MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy also agreed that women were becoming more self-reliant and "no longer want to live at the mercy of their husbands", among the few voices that acknowledged the agency of women.
Far more problematic, though, was the argument of several MPs that divorce was "Western" and should be made more difficult. Jaitley was followed by his party colleague Najma Heptullah who began by saying "the Indian ethos is on family building, not on family breaking". Heptullah spent the next several minutes narrating long-winded personal anecdotes about the various weddings she had witnessed as well as stories from her own marriage to explain how things were now changing, women were becoming more independent and "so, naturally, there are differences within the families. "
To explain the dangers of importing "Western" concepts, Heptullah turned to semantics: in English, she said, the word used was "daughter-in-law - kanoon ki beti", while in India, a daughter-in-law was considered to be a daughter. While Heptullah made several substantive points about protection for vulnerable women, she went on to insist, "I don't think there is anything that is really irretrievable. Anything can be retrieved. "
BSP MP Brajesh Pathak insisted that Indian marriages were the happiest in the world and did not understand the need for the amendment. Moreover, the amendment would encourage "Western culture", he said. Men who had grown up in Western culture and were tempted by the bright lights of Delhi, Mumbai and Lucknow would hurry to divorce their wives, he added. Pathak reiterated several times in his speech that when a woman gets married in India, she accepts her husband to be her Lord.
BJP MP Maya Singh criticized the government for expecting judges to give justice to women especially in rural areas, but went on to suggest that the government instead of bringing in this Bill, study why marriages were breaking up in the first place. She said that the Bill would encourage the "tendency of divorce".
Joining the "Save Indian Marriage" chorus was MP Achuthan of the CPI who said in his speech "In India, the rate of divorce is increasing alarmingly. We have to do something to cement the bond of marriage as an institution. This proposed amendment on the contrary encourages divorce. "
Calling it "cultural suicide" that was influenced by "sex and lust" BJP MP Rama Jois told the House, "I celebrated the golden jubilee of my marriage last year. In our culture, it is like this that the sexual desire decreases but the relationship between husband and wife increases. " Jois warned that "the present legislation increases the desire to get divorce and ultimately it is ruinous to the family which is regarded as the fundamental unit of our society. "
Congress MP from Goa Shantaram Naik went for the cheap laugh, joking about marriages being made in "gardens and cinema halls" rather than heaven these days, quoting Hindi film song lyrics. "Shaadi se pehle kuch kuch hota hai aur shaadi ke baad kuch nahi hota hai, " Naik said, thoroughly amused by his own joke. Naik went on to express doubts over whether TV serials led to divorce but supported the Bill.
By far the most shocking argument though came from Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan. Towards the end of a fairly meandering speech, Bachchan said, "I cannot imagine [how] a man and women who have a mentally or physically challenged child can ask for a divorce. I think they should never ask for a divorce... I think if a couple, despite having a child like this, asks for a divorce, they should be punished. They must be punished by not giving them divorce. "
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