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Cruelty as a Ground to Rupture a Nuptial

By: Archit Shukla* |


Cruelty was one of the grounds for judicial separation; it was not a ground for divorce as originally enacted under the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955. The word “cruelty” was not specified in the Act, but in Section 10, which dealt with judicial separation, the word cruelty was used in a restrictive context because it was provided that either party to a marriage may make a petition. It was not regarded as a ground for relief per se by the way of divorce prior to the amendment of this clause by the Amending Act of 1976 i.e. Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act, 1976. In this piece of writing the author has discussed the scope of cruelty, which has been widened to include both mental and physical cruelty.


The legal concept of cruelty and the degree of cruelty necessary to amount to a matrimonial offence has not been expounded by any Indian legislation relating to either divorce or marriage. The expression has not even been defined in the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1950 or any further enactment in England. The peril of providing with a comprehensive and restrictive definition has been elaborated in various cases, which is clear from the words of Lord Denning “The categories of cruelty as not closed”[1]. The accepted legal interpretation of cruelty in India and England, has been brought down to “conduct of such character as to have caused danger to life, limb or health (bodily or mental), or as to give rise to a reasonable apprehension of such danger”. With time and more similar cases, the interpretation of cruelty is modified in today’s time.

In India, there are various acts dealing with marriages of different religions. All have different interpretation of customs and beliefs. Several similar statutes were enacted for Hindus between 1931 and 1952. Most of them laid down cruelty as a relief ground. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 was India's first enactment dealing with marriage causes directly regulating Hindus and it repealed all other acts for Hindu marriages.

The Legalities of Cruelty

The Special Marriage Act 1954, Indian Divorce Act 1989 and Hindu Marriage Act 1955 are the three most significant marriage statutes where all of them prescribe cruelty as a ground for divorce and for obtaining marital relief.

Section 10 of the Hindu Marriage Act was also amended by Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act 1976, in such a way that, instead of giving separate grounds for judicial separation in Section 10 itself, the scheme formulated was that a petition for judicial separation could be made on any of the grounds for divorce specified in Section 13(1). The consequence is that there are now the same explanations for both judicial separation and divorce.

Omitted terms in the amended act may lead to a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the petitioner that it will be harmful or injurious for the petitioner to live with the other partner. Here the Parliament's intention seems to be clear that it did not want to define the legal concept of cruelty and the kind and degree of cruelty needed to amount to a matrimonial misconduct giving the other spouse the right to file a petition for judicial separation or divorce. Parliament seems to be avoiding the inclusive or exclusive description of "cruelty." Now, only the courts of India can determine whether or not the conduct amounts to cruelty on the facts and circumstances of the case.

The Intricacy of Cruelty

Cruelty envisaged by all the possible provisions may be physical as well as emotional. If it is physical, it should be no question for the court to determine because it is a matter of fact and degree. It is the mental cruelty that can pose a problem and the courts may have difficulty.

In the case of Dastane v. Dastane [2], prior to the amendment, the concept of cruelty was critically examined by the apex court. It was noted that the enquiry contained within that provision in any case had to be whether the conduct charged as cruelty is of such a character as to cause a reasonable apprehension in the petitioner's mind that living with the respondent would be injurious or harmful to the petitioner.

The English law pointed out that the cruelty be of such nature to cause danger to life, limb or safety or to give rise to a reasonable apprehension of such a peril, though, of course. It is being harmful or Injurious to health, reputation, working character or the like, would be an important consideration in determining whether the conduct of the respondent amounted to cruelty. What was needed was for the petitioner to show that the respondent handled the petitioner with such cruelty as to trigger the petitioner's reasonable apprehension that living with the respondent would be injurious or harmful to the petitioner.

In the case of Smt. Chanderkala Trivedi v. Dr. S.P. Trivedi [3], husband filed the petition for divorce on the ground of cruelty but the wife alleged the husband to have a relationship with another lady, the husband came out with a claim of the wife's undesirable contact with young boys. On the grounds of cruelty, the High Court granted divorce. On certain terms, the Supreme Court upheld the divorce decree that the husband would provide a flat and Rs. 2 lakhs for the wife's welfare, and the findings of fact reported by the lower courts were removed. Justice A.M. Sahai in his judgement said that:

“whether the allegation of the husband that she was in the habit of associating with young boys and the findings recorded by the three courts are correct or not but what is certain is that once such allegations are made by the husband against wife as have been made in this case, then it is obvious that the marriage of the two cannot in any circumstance be continued any further. The marriage appears to be practically dead.”

It is not possible for the courts to exhaustively describe psychological cruelty, as the conduct that inflicts any emotional pain and suffering on the other party would not render it practicable for that party to stay with the other party. In other words, mental cruelty has to be of such a nature that it is not reasonable to expect the parties to stay together. The condition must be such that it is not reasonable to ask the wronged party to indulge in such actions and to continue living with the other party. Now it is not necessary to prove that mental cruelty is such that it causes danger to the petitioner's health, limb or life. Cruelty should be of the kind that will fulfil the Court's understanding that the relationship between the parties has deteriorated to such an extent that they cannot exist together without mental agony, humiliation or suffering. Some of the behaviours which were held to constitute mental cruelty are-

The husband supported the demand for dowry by his parents, the wife was subjected to abuse by the husband and his parents in the foul language, wife picking up quarrels, severe drunkenness or drug addiction resulting in unrestrained and violent behaviours. The husband having an extra-marital affair and letting the other woman stay in the same house, the wife falsely claiming that her husband being killed in an accident so that she could get insurance money, the constant abuses and allegations of adulterous character that makes married life impossible.

In the landmark case for cruelty V. Bhagat v. D. Bhagat [4], where the meaning of the word was the main subject of interpretation, the husband sued for divorce on the ground that the wife is guilty of adulterous course of life. The wife in her defence not only denied the allegations made against her but attributed mental disequilibrium on the part of the husband by saying that the husband suffers from mental hallucination, that he has a morbid mind for which he needs expert psychiatric treatment, that he is suffering from paranoid disorder and needs expert psychological treatment. The husband amended his petition and added the ground of cruelty as well for seeking divorce and prayed that a decree for divorce be granted to him on the basis of the averments alone made by the wife. According to him those allegations amounted to cruelty against him and furnished adequate grounds for passing a decree for divorce.

In this case, the Supreme Court resorted to an unprecedented move in the interests of both parties by granting divorce on the basis of pleadings and accepting evidence without waiting for the full trial in which the charges and counter allegations could be proven or contested. The Court found that the charges and counter accusations were representative of the parties ' intense hatred and hostility, and there was no possibility of any reconciliation. The averments made in the counter affidavit filed by the wife and the questions put by her counsel in the cross- examination of the petitioner were found to constitute clear acts of cruelty. It was also observed that no additional material was necessary to establish the said additional ground of cruelty in view of the said averments or questions.


The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 has seen the true evolution of the concept of cruelty. The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act, 1976, brought within the ambit of the act the rational and the much needed ground for divorce, which could be employed as a ground for Divorce and Judicial Separation. The Court, adapting a liberal approach, interpreted the term “cruelty” in the vast possible way, keeping the society and the social evils in mind. Thus, with the Court’s aid the concept of cruelty expanded to a great extent.

However, the Court should take extra care when dealing with this concept as it can be misused and lead to blunder in the sacred institution of marriage. As liberal as the interpretation has been developed, Courts should take a stringent stance when it comes to its application. Given the number of false claims and petitions presented before the Courts, it is extremely necessary to be cautious when it comes to its execution.


* The author is a second-year student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi.

[1] Sheldon v. Sheldon, (1966) 2 All ER 257. [2] Dastane v. Dastane, 1975 SCR (3) 967. [3] Smt. Chanderkala Trivedi v. Dr. S.P. Trivedi, JT 1993 (4) SC 644. [4] V. Bhagat v. D. Bhagat, AIR 1994 SC 710.



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