Chanmuniya v. Virendra Kushwaha [SC 2010]

One Sarju Singh Kushwaha had two sons, Ram Saran (elder son) and Virendra Kumar Singh Kushwaha (younger son and the first respondent). The appellant, Chanmuniya, was married to Ram Saran and had 2 daughters-Asha, the first one, was born in 1988 and Usha, the second daughter, was born in 1990. Ram Saran died on 7.03.1992.

Thereafter, the appellant contended that she was married off to the first respondent as per the customs and usages prevalent in the Kushwaha community in 1996. The custom allegedly was that after the death of the husband, the widow was married off to the younger brother of the husband.

The appellant was married off in accordance with the local custom of Katha and Sindur. The appellant contended that she and the first respondent were living together as husband and wife and had discharged all marital obligations towards each other. The appellant further contended that after some time the first respondent started harassing and torturing the appellant, stopped her maintenance and also refused to discharge his marital obligations towards her.

As a result, she initiated proceedings under Section 125 of the Cr.P.C. for maintenance. This proceeding is pending.

She also filed a suit for the restitution of conjugal rights under Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

The Trial Court decreed the suit for restitution of conjugal rights in favour of the appellant on 3.1.2004 as it was of the opinion that the appellant had remarried the first respondent after the death of Ram Saran, and the first respondent had deserted the appellant thereafter. Thus, it directed the first respondent to live with the appellant and perform his marital duties.

Hence, the first respondent preferred a first appeal under Section 28 of the Hindu Marriage Act. The main issue in appeal was whether there was any evidence on record to prove that the appellant was the legally wedded wife of the first respondent.

The High Court in its judgment dated 28.11.2007 was of the opinion that the essentials of a valid Hindu marriage, as required under Section 7 of the Hindu Marriage Act, had not been performed between the first respondent and the appellant and held that the first respondent was not the husband of the appellant and thus reversed the findings of the Trial Court.

One of the major issues which cropped up in the present case is whether or not presumption of a marriage arises when parties live together for a long time, thus giving rise to a claim of maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C. In other words, the question is what is meant by `wife’ under Section 125 of Criminal Procedure Code especially having regard to explanation under clause (b) of the Section.

Thus, the question that arises is whether a man and woman living together for a long time, even without a valid marriage, would raise as in the present case, a presumption of a valid marriage entitling such a woman to maintenance.

On the question of presumption of marriage, we may usefully refer to a decision of the House of Lords rendered in the case of Lousia Adelaide Piers & Florence A.M. De Kerriguen v. Sir Henry Samuel Piers [(1849) II HLC 331], in which their Lordships observed that the question of validity of a marriage cannot be tried like any other issue of fact independent of presumption. The Court held that law will presume in favour of marriage and such presumption could only be rebutted by strong and satisfactory evidence.

Thus, in those cases where a man, who lived with a woman for a long time and even though they may not have undergone legal necessities of a valid marriage, should be made liable to pay the woman maintenance if he deserts her. The man should not be allowed to benefit from the legal loopholes by enjoying the advantages of a de facto marriage without undertaking the duties and obligations. Any other interpretation would lead the woman to vagrancy and destitution, which the provision of maintenance in Section 125 is meant to prevent.

We are inclined to take a broad view of the definition of `wife’ having regard to the social object of Section 125 . However, sitting in a two-Judge Bench, we cannot, we are afraid, take a view contrary to the views expressed in the abovementioned two cases.

We think the larger Bench may consider also the provisions of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. This Act assigns a very broad and expansive definition to the term `domestic abuse’ to include within its purview even economic abuse. `Economic abuse’ has been defined very broadly in sub-explanation (iv) to explanation I of Section 3 of the said Act to include deprivation of financial and economic resources.

Further, Section 20 of the Act allows the Magistrate to direct the respondent to pay monetary relief to the aggrieved person, who is the harassed woman, for expenses incurred and losses suffered by her, which may include, but is not limited to, maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C. [Section 20(1)(d)].

Section 22 of the Act confers upon the Magistrate, the power to award compensation to the aggrieved person, in addition to other reliefs granted under the Act.

In terms of Section 26 of the Act, these reliefs mentioned above can be sought in any legal proceeding, before a civil court, family court or a criminal court, affecting the aggrieved person and the respondent.

Most significantly, the Act gives a very wide interpretation to the term `domestic relationship’ as to take it outside the confines of a marital relationship, and even includes live-in relationships in the nature of marriage within the definition of `domestic relationship’ under Section 2(f) of the Act.

 Therefore, women in live-in relationships are also entitled to all the reliefs given in the said Act.

We are thus of the opinion that if the abovementioned monetary relief and compensation can be awarded in cases of live-in relationships under the Act of 2005, they should also be allowed in a proceedings under Section 125 of Cr.P.C.

We, therefore, request the Hon’ble Chief Justice to refer the following, amongst other, questions to be decided by a larger Bench. According to us, the questions are:

1. Whether the living together of a man and woman as husband and wife for a considerable period of time would raise the presumption of a valid marriage between them and whether such a presumption would entitle the woman to maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C?

2. Whether strict proof of marriage is essential for a claim of maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C. having regard to the provisions of Domestic Violence Act, 2005?

3. Whether a marriage performed according to customary rites and ceremonies, without strictly fulfilling the requisites of Section 7(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, or any other personal law would entitle the woman to maintenance under Section 125 Cr.P.C.?

We are of the opinion that a broad and expansive interpretation should be given to the term `wife’ to include even those cases where a man and woman have been living together as husband and wife for a reasonably long period of time, and strict proof of marriage should not be a pre-condition for maintenance under Section 125 of the Cr.P.C, so as to fulfil the true spirit and essence of the beneficial provision of maintenance under Section 125.