Putting fetters on live-in relationships

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By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror

Colombo, February 13: Earlier this month, the Legislative Assembly of Uttarakhand, a North Indian State at the foot of the Himalayas, passed a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). While most of the provisions were progressive, there were some which put fetters on “live-in” relationships, to the extent of criminalizing them. These provisions have come in for much criticism on the grounds that they invade privacy and individual liberty guaranteed by the Indian constitution.    

The law defines living-in as a “relationship between a man and a woman who cohabit in a shared household through a relationship in the nature of marriage.”

The Bill aims to regulate live-in relationships by imposing an obligation to register them. Section 378 makes it mandatory for partners in a live-in relationship in Uttarakhand State (irrespective of whether they are permanent residents of Uttarakhand or not) to submit a “statement of about a live-in relationship” to the Registrar within whose jurisdiction they are residing. If such a relationship is to be terminated, the Registrar has to be informed.

The statement declaring a live-in relationship will then be forwarded to the officer-in-charge of the local police station. In case either of the partners is less than 21 years of age, a copy of the declaration will also be sent to their parents or guardians.

The Registrar will then conduct a “summary inquiry” to ensure that the relationship does not fall under any of the prohibited categories mentioned under Section 380. The prohibited categories include a partner who is married or is in another relationship. If he or she is a minor, and if his or her consent was obtained by “coercion, fraud or misrepresentation” the live-in relationship will be illegal and punishable with imprisonment.

However, such prohibitions will not apply to persons whose customary law permits the relationship, provided that they are “not against public policy or morality.” This is to exempt certain tribal communities in which live-in relationships are the norm.

Following the Registrar’s inquiry, the official will take a decision on the registration within 30 days of receiving the couple’s statement. Should registration be refused, reasons have to be conveyed in writing.

A woman in a live-in relationship is also eligible to claim maintenance in case she is “deserted” by her live-in partner. The law also recognizes the legitimacy of children born out of a live-in relationship.  

In case couples who in a live-in relationship do not submit their statement, they will be served a notice following which criminal prosecution can be initiated against them. If they have spent a month without submitting such a statement, they can face a jail term of up to three months or a maximum fine of INR 10,000, (US$ 120) or both. Any false statement by the couple will attract the same jail term, and a higher fine of INR 25,000 (US$ 331), or both. Upon being issued a notice by the Registrar, if a partner still does not submit the statement of the live-in relationship, he or she may face six months of imprisonment or a fine of Rs. 25,000 (US$ 331) or both.

Replication Fears

Those who oppose the Uttarakhand law fear that it could be replicated by other State governments run by socially conservative parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Uttarakhand is run by the BJP.  The Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju told parliament that personal laws such as those covering marriage and divorce are under the Concurrent List of the constitution, and therefore, States can legislate on them.

The Uttarakhand law on live-in relationships flies in the face of the Supreme Court ruling of March 2023, which dismissed a petition seeking a direction to the Central government to frame rules and guidelines to register live-in partnerships. Expressing strong disapproval of the relief sought, a bench led by the Chief Justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud, called it a “hare-brained idea”.

Urban Phenomenon

Live-in relationships are not common in India, and are not favoured either, except among some tribal communities. But an increasing number of urban, educated, young couples favour it either as a prelude to marriage to test mutual compatibility or as an escape from the obligations that go with marriage.

This is facilitated by the fact that the Supreme Court has recognised privacy as a fundamental right. And sex between consenting couples is not a crime.

But the Uttarakhand law punishes live-in relationships that are not registered with the government. Those who object to the law say that it represents an intrusion by the state into the private lives of citizens. The government has intruded into the bed room. There is potential for moral policing, harassment and government surveillance of private lives. This is particularly worrying for inter-caste and inter-faith couples, already targeted by Hindu vigilante groups and even the administration, experts warned.

Many fear that the Uttarakhand law may drive away cohabiting couples, encourage reporting on them, and make landlords hesitant to rent to “unregistered” couples, the BBC pointed out in one of its reports.

“Now the state is stepping deeper into the nosy neighbourhood uncle-aunty role,” said Nikita Sud, professor of the politics of development at the University of Oxford in an interview to Al Jazeera. She pointed out that the intimate lives of Indians are often monitored by caste groups, families, parents, landlords and residents’ associations.

“All Indians should be asking what the State is doing in our bedrooms when it should be focusing on basics like food and agriculture, employment, healthcare, our polluted and under-resourced cities,’’ Sud said.

However, the average Indian may tacitly approve the fetters on live-in relationships.

A 2018 survey of over 160,000 households, quoted by the BBC, found that 93% of married Indians reported having arranged marriages, while only 3% had “love marriages”. A May 2018 poll by Inshorts surveying 140,000 lakh netizens found that 80% of those aged between 18 and 35 viewed live-in relationships as taboo.

But according to a 2023 survey by Lions Gate Play, one out of two Indians felt that living together was important to understand their partner better. This was a smaller survey conducted among 1,000 Indians.

India’s courts have also frowned on live-in relationships. In 2012, a Delhi court deemed live-in relationships “immoral” and dismissed them as an “infamous product of Western culture”, labelling them a mere “urban fad.” The Supreme Court has, however, been more supportive.

Situation in the US

Pew Research in the US found that in November 2019 live-in relationships were on the rise. The share of adults between ages 18 and 44, who had ever lived with an unmarried partner was 59%. This meant that quite a large number had experienced a live-in relationship.

78% of those between ages 18 and 29 said it was acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together, even if they didn’t plan to get married. Even so, a narrow majority said society would be better off if couples in long-term relationships eventually got married.

The survey found that married adults were more satisfied with their relationship and more trusting of their partners than those who were cohabiting without being married. Older adults were more likely to see societal benefits in marriage than young adults.

Still, even among those younger than 30, a substantial share (45%) said society would be better off if couples who wanted to stay together long-term eventually got married.

Views about marriage and cohabitation were also linked to religious affiliation. Among those who were not religiously affiliated, fully nine-in-ten said cohabitation was acceptable even if a couple didn’t plan to get married. Those who had religious affiliations preferred marriage.

When asked about specific aspects of their relationship, larger shares of married than cohabiting adults said they were very satisfied with the way household chores were divided between them. Therefore, even in the US, where cohabitation outside marriage is being increasingly accepted, marriage remains a preferred option.


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