Cruelty as a Ground for Divorce under Hindu Law

Through ages, marriages in India are considered an obligatory and sacramental ritual, especially for Hindus. The customs and religious practices were according to the old-age traditions. Marriages are also solemnized following the rituals and ceremonies which are mostly codified by statutory personal laws. Other related issues are also essentially governed by those personal laws of the parties depending on their religion. Hence, Marriages that take place in India can only be dissolved under either the customary or statutory law in force in India. Therefore, the only law that can apply to matrimonial disputes is the one under which the parties are married. (Y Narasimha Rao and others v Y Venkata Lakshmi and others (1991) 3 SCC 451)

Though marriages in India are given major importance, the circumstances become different when a spouse can no longer handle the situation. In a matrimonial relationship, women especially had to face a lot of struggles at all stages of her life. They were expected to be submissive even after the entire mental and physical trauma that they had to go through. This was normalized by society and now with the adoption of the rights-based constitution, the position of women has been changing in all respects. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 defines various provisions regarding a valid Hindu marriage, Divorce, Maintenance etc. Until the amendment of the Act in 1976, cruelty was not incorporated as a ground for divorce but only a ground for judicial separation. This was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1975[2]. The word was also given a restricted meaning before the implementation of the marriage laws (amendment) Act, 1975.

What is Cruelty?

Section 13 in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 defines a set of grounds provided for divorce and any one of the nine grounds must be satisfied to obtain a divorce.  These provisions of Divorce and Judicial separation were incarnated into Indian laws from the concept of western theory and cruelty is one of the main grounds of Divorce and Judicial separation.

Cruelty has not been particularly defined in the Hindu Marriage Act and any of the personal matrimonial laws. It is also said that while dealing with the term “Cruelty” under Section 13 (1) (i-a) of the act, the said provision does not define the term and the same could not be defined. “Cruelty” may be mental or physical, intentional or unintentional[3]. To constitute the term cruelty, the petitioner spouse should be subjected to the grave and severe violence that he/she cannot be reasonably expected to live with the other party. When it comes to cruelty in matrimonial life, it can even be subtle or brutal. Mere gestures and words violently can also cause cruelty. Therefore, Physical violence is not necessary to constitute cruelty and just mental agony and suffering may very well constitute cruelty. Continuous ill-treatment, mental or physical torture can also be considered cruelty. Oxford dictionary defines cruelty as “The quality of being cruel, disposition of inflicting suffering; delight in or indifference to another’s pain; mercilessness; hard-heartedness[4]. At present cruelty is a ground for matrimonial relief under all the personal laws applicable to all religions.

What are the Types of Creulty?

Indian courts have gone a long way amending and widening the meaning of cruelty and it can be categorized into two kinds:

What is Physical Cruelty?

Any act that causes danger to life or health, bodily injuries or a threat to life or health and causes apprehension in the mind of the person would constitute physical cruelty on the spouse. Nowadays, Women have been recognized and are given equal rights but still one of the most common reasons for divorce is mostly physical violence over women by men since we live in a patriarchal society and physical cruelty is not a rare phenomenon.  Hence, the purpose behind these acts is to protect and safeguard the dignity of women in a matrimonial home. Relationships in a matrimonial home with the wife and the husband, with the in-laws, and their daily interactions also determine cruelty. So any kind of physical abuse from the spouse or their family would also be a valid ground for divorce. Assaulting a person, grievously hurting a person physically, giving physical tortures are all interrelated to each other which come under the term cruelty. Therefore, all forms of physical harm including beating and slapping fall under the ambit of physical cruelty.    

What is Mental Cruelty?

The term cruelty has been understood based on the interpretation by the judiciary over the years and the courts have evolved grounds for providing relief based on mental cruelty. Inflicting stress and agony on the partner or acting to cause any mental pain to the other spouse that makes life difficult for both the persons to live together can also constitute mental cruelty. Hence it is a course of conduct that is adversely affecting and causing injury to the spouse. Mental cruelty is also given equal importance as physical cruelty. Mental stress can happen in so many ways where the spouse is being forced to do something by coercion without the willingness and in cases where there is an extramarital affair being involved which causes damage to the foundation of marriage creating mental pain to the spouse. The question of mental cruelty which is an unjustifiable act should also be considered by the social status, the environment of where the parties live and concerning the norms of the society in which they live. The concept of mental cruelty cannot be limited. This human problem unfortunately exists all over the world. [5] Rapidly changing lives with a different lifestyle, new education and family patterns are also some of the factors which are responsible for the changing diameters of mental cruelty.

Cruelty as Ground for Divorce under Hindu Law

Cruelty under Section 13(1)(ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act says about the conduct of one spouse towards the other which results in a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the latter that it is dangerous to continue to stay in the matrimonial relationship anymore with the other. The courts generally consider the intention of the alleged party as one of the main elements while determining whether the particular act is cruel or not. But in few cases, though the intention of the husband was not to be cruel to his wife, the act itself will amount to cruelty. In a case, the Bombay High Court based on the facts of the case held that though the respondent had suffered from schizophrenia it was not a good defence to the plea of cruelty taken by the wife.[6]

The court also has to look into the details and the background of the case by investigating the reasons behind the deterioration of the marriage. In a case, the court held that a party is entitled to get a decree of divorce on a ground of cruelty where false, baseless, scandalous, malicious and unproven allegations are made in the written statement and that causes mental distress to the party amounting to cruelty.[7]

Can Husband claim divorce for Cruelty?

Cruelty against husbands given by the wives has aroused not very long ago but in recent times and it is equally a significant issue of concern. The dominance of men over women for an extended period made it difficult to accept that women can also impose cruelty over men. But in reality, in several instances and cases, the courts have granted divorce to husbands on grounds of mental cruelty. It is also stated in a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court that any type of mental cruelty faced by either of the spouses not just the woman but men as well can apply for a divorce on grounds of cruelty. In this case, the respondent had filed an application of divorce after many courses of cruelty inflicted by his wife and as alleged by the husband (respondent) that the wife did not provide food to him and his children and blamed the husband and his family members instead. [8] Hence, a man is also equally entitled to seek divorce if he is inflicted with any kind of cruelty. Likewise, the wife is entitled for maintenance through the court after the ground of cruelty by the husband has been proved.

What is the Relief given by the Courts for Cruelty?

The courts have given relief to the spouses in several cases because cruelty by either the wife or the husband is a breach of the basic right to life and dignity and that no one shall be subjected to any kind of torture, inhumane treatment or punishment. Hence establishing cruelty as a ground for divorce becomes a matrimonial relief. In the end, we can conclude that any affected party can reach the courtroom for divorce based on the grounds of cruelty and the case will be decided by the facts and circumstances of the case which opens a door of discussion in each case to render justice.


[2] Narayan Ganesh Dastane V Sucheta Dastane

[3] Shoba Rani v Madhukar Reddi [(1988) 1 SCC 105

[4] Samar Ghosh v Jaya Ghosh, (2007) 4 SCC 511

[5] Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh, (2007) 4 SCC 511.

[6] Bhagwat V Bhagwat A.I.R 1977 Bom. 80

[7] Smt. Nirmala Manohar Jagesha vs Manohar Shivram Jagesha AIR 1991 Bom 259

[8] Smt. Mayadevi vs Jagdish Prasad  877 of 2007

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