Upholding the right of adults to choose whom they want to live with, the Supreme Court has ruled that a consenting adult couple can be in a live-in relationship, even if the man is below 21 years of age.
Re-pronouncing the legality of live-in relationships which the court noted that it had also been recognized by the Parliament, the Supreme Court declared that live-in relationships are legitimate medium of choice even for the persons who are underage as per the Marriage Act.
The verdict comes as a solace for many young people, particularly men below the age of 21, who now have a legal right to be in a live-in relationship. Such relationships are already covered under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.
The SC’s observations came while the top court was hearing a plea filed by one Nandakumar against a Kerala High Court order annulling his marriage on the grounds that he had not attained the legal age of marriage. Nandkumar was 20-year-old when he married Thushara.
Thushara’s father had approached Kerala High Court accusing Nandakumar of kidnapping his daughter. The High Court had last year annulled their marriage and sent Thushara back to her father’s home on grounds that Nandakumar wasn’t 21 when he got married with Thushara in April, 2017.
Challenging High Court’s decision Nandakumar who turns 21 by the end of this month, filed a plea in the country’s apex court. The Supreme Court bench, compromising of Justice AK Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan, ruled that Thushara was free to decide who she wanted to live with. The court noted that both the concerned individuals were adults and ruled “even if they were not competent to enter into marriage, they have the right to live together even outside the wedlock.” It must be noted here that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 does not allow a woman to get married before 18, while the minimum legal age for getting married for men is set at 21.
Hailing the apex court’s verdict, senior advocate of Supreme Court, Sanjay Hegde also flagged some concerns. Speaking to Hind Kisan he said, “In a progressive society you don’t need a Supreme Court to state that adults should be recognized as adults. But, unfortunately in the present context, there is an increasing interference in people’s choices of food, attire and everything they do. Only because of such events, courts have been approached and they have tried to sort things out.”
Another recent case of Supreme Court upholding and reinstating an adult’s free will was the Court allowing a 26-year-old girl to break free from matrimonial and parental ties. The woman in question is an influential Karnataka politician’s daughter who fled home complaining that she was forced to get married against her wish.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Justice D. Y. Chandrachud had told the woman, “You are an adult. You can go wherever you want and pursue whatever you wish to”.
Substantiating its stand, the apex court also cited its verdict in the Hadiya case.
It noted that the courts could not interfere in the marriage of two adults, who enter into a wed lock with their consent, and assume the “role of a super guardian”.
26-year-old Hadiya had her marriage to Shafin Jahan, annulled by the Kerala High Court when her father contested her conversion to Islam and argued that she had been forced to become a Muslim. After the High Court’s decision was subsequently challenged, the Supreme Court had first ordered National Investigation Agency to probe the marriage before acknowledging the couple’s consent to be with each other and restoring their marriage.
“The Kerala High Court’s Hadiya verdict was wrong, but the Supreme Court also took a very long time to state that. Sometimes pendency of court proceedings is used to pressurize adults to reconsider their choices”, noted Hegde. “Courts should be aware of it, and should instantly dismiss such petitions.”
Such verdicts by the Apex Court indeed restore one’s faith into the judiciary and its role in upholding one’s constitutional rights. But, the fact that courts, such as the Kerala High Court, have been passing judgments which end up compromising the fundamental right of adults to choose whom they want to marry, call for some serious consideration.
The fact that in 21st Century India, the top court of the country has to step in time and again to preserve an adult’s free will and correct the judgments passed by lower courts reflects a society that is still caught up in hollow ideas of customs and traditions. And, so far as the case of Nandakumar and Thushara is concerned, it also points to the anomaly where an 18-year-old male is adult enough to choose his political representatives but not adult enough to choose his partner. The recent SC judgment has underlined the need to correct such anomalies.