In poor taste

In a time of rapid social change, the language used in a supreme court judgment, that a married man’s ‘keep’ is not entitled to alimony, is not just retrograde but downright preposterous. It is common knowledge that the quality of English used in the higher judiciary generally is not of a high standard. But that cannot be an excuse for employing expressions that were abandoned decades ago. The supreme court’s use of the word ‘keep’ and ‘servant’ for a woman cohabiting with a married man offers legitimacy to a feudal practice and bespeaks masculine domination. This social construction of women, but not of men, is centred on the sexual objectification of a woman who can be taken as a keep.

By identifying ‘sexual purpose’ or servility as the basis of a ‘keep’s’ live-in relationship with a married man, the supreme court has sought to traverse that familiar trope of immorality in which cohabitation becomes a secret and furtive sexual activity and nothing else. There is not only a preconceived notion that the central elements of live-in relationships are sensuality and sexuality, but that trial co-residential unions are devoid of other human actions, decisions and sentiments like trust, personal investment, pragmatic compromise, mutual satisfaction and respect, emotional and economic interdependence, and communication. Whether A has a legal right over B is in principle, if not always in practice, a straightforward matter. The answer lies in the legal texts and legal practice. The apex court’s unilinear model of a live-in relationship, in which an unmarried woman has lived long enough in an intimate condition with a married man, fails to take into account obligations and commitments that close human associations entail.

The sanctity of a legal marriage and the rights and obligations that come with it are many and obvious. But it must not be lost on us that live-in coexistence is made possible through negotiation which is not equivalent to conscious bargaining but is a shared understanding that emerges over time. There are certain things which a co-habiting couple would do for each other if necessary and these decisions reflect or reinforce commitment levels. The Indian judiciary has — rightfully — recognised the social changes that India is experiencing and is taking giant steps to configure its laws in accordance with what even liberals and contrarians would describe as acceptable social behaviour. This liberal acceptance of the social transformation is welcome and laudable. But it is unbecoming of the country’s highest court to construct myths and stereotypes.

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