The Supreme Court'ssurprising observation that the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 is responsible for the growing numbers of divorce cases in the country is interesting, if intriguing reading of the situation. True, the Act does give the option of divorce to a woman in the event of a marriage not working out. But if there was no such Act in existence, what was the option open to an unhappily married couple? In such a situation, invariably, it was not the man who suffered. It was the wife. The man could keep a mistress or be a habitual visitor to prostitutes or take to drinking in a big way. Or, at a different level, he could spend most of his free time at the local club, playing cards. The wife had few options. She could return to her parents? home, if they would accept her.
More often than not, they would advise her to go back to her husband and try to patch up matters. Too often, the wife had no financial support except what the husband provided, and in many cases she had meekly to put up with violence and drunkenness. Suicide was an option, but that would have been in the most extreme circumstances. Things have dramatically changed in the last two to three decades. Women are at last standing up to male harassment, including physical violence. In just one city, Mumbai, since around 1990, about the time that India liberalised the economy, the annual number of divorce petitions has more than doubled to reach 4,138 in 2007, far outpacing population growth. In just about 17 years, Mumbai courts have granted divorce to more than 30,000 wedded couples. About seven per cent of marriages are reported to have failed. Not a frightening figure but one that raises the issue of changes taking place in Hindu society, for long considered traditional.
Significantly, it is not in urban areas of cosmopolitan cities alone that marriages are breaking up with monotonous regularity. According to secondshaadi.com an online match-making service for Indian divorcees, 60 per cent of its more than 25,000 customers come from outside India'sfive largest cities and 36 per cent from outside the 20 largest cities. In other words, divorce is no longer an urban phenomenon. It is spreading its tentacles all over the country. Obviously, something is grievously wrong with our social set-up. The spread of education, the break-up of the joint family, the increasing opportunities available to women in the job market and the growing feeling that one can live by oneself in an economically secure environment, are the primary causes for female self-assertion. Sex is no longer taboo.
In University townships, one increasingly notices unmarried men and women students sharing the same apartment or rented house, and no questions asked. Parents do not bother to inquire about their children'sbehaviour. And children are getting increasingly assertive. Respect for parents is on the slide. When a dentist found his teen-age daughter in a compromising posture with a servant of the house and was sharply reprimanded, she is supposed to have cheekily asked her angry father whether it isn'ttrue that he was having extra-marital relations with somebody else'swife. It is an act of extreme defiance. Youngsters are no longer submissive and obedient. They crave independence and freedom from parental authority.
Between 1990 and 1995, the number of petitions for divorce submitted to the Court was relatively steady, just around 2000 p.a. The number took a quantum jump between 2000 to 2007 to, over 4,000; significantly this coincides with the increase in the sale of mobiles, a fact that bears analysis. This was a period when an aggrieved wife could connect with friends and relatives to gain emotional sustenance more easily, as also to gain confidence to break-up a marriage. What many refuse to accept is that a major change is coming over Hindu society that our conservative leaders are unwilling to acknowledge. What is taking place is a cultural amrit manthan, the consequences of which it is hard to predict.
It is important to remember that this change is not confined to the urban middle class but is becoming increasingly noticeable even in rural areas. There are, of course, vast areas in the Indian hinterland where the husband holds, she reins and the wife is little more than an unpaid servant, and the dowry system continues to hold sway.
But the existing system has been undergoing a change. This is reflected, for example, in dress and deportment. The sari is getting out of fashion among the young. The excuse is that it make movement difficult, whereas jeans gives the wearer greater freedom whether to get into a bus or to drive a motor bike. A generation ago few women would have been seen on a motor bike. Today this is a daily sight. And it is taken for granted. In the circumstances all male-female relations have undergone a drastic change. The concept of pativrata has become outdated. Nobody has heard of the panchakanyas: Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari, or what values they stand for.
What Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, a former president of the BJP said in an address to scientists in a different context, makes sense in today'scircumstances. He said. ?For more than sixty years now, we as a nation have been living a spiritless existence, trying mindlessly to imitate and catch up with the West and meanwhile somehow cope with the present?. The Indian woman is a notable example. She is struggling between a western and traditional Indian concept of womanhood and is unable to make up her mind. She is neither Maryln Monroe nor Mandodari, a situation painful to watch Dr Joshi put it very correctly when he said: ?We have made no real effort to understand our situation or that of the world around us and have been moving according to whatever seems fashionable at any given time?? It is a pity.
The media?neither print nor electronic?is of any help. It has no idea where Indian society is heading and probably couldn?t? care less. So the Indian woman is a victim of the most vulgar TV programmes day after day and hour after hour. Hindu society is in a state of permanent ferment and nobody knows how to douse the fire of modernism, in part because nobody wants to accept any responsibility for the sickness affecting people and even more because no government dares to take on an irresponsible media. In the end it is the nation that suffers, thanks to a mindless media and thoughtless administration.