‘Wife not husband’s chattel, can’t be forced to live with him’, says Supreme Court

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A woman is not a chattel to be forced to live with her husband, observed the Supreme Court on Tuesday, hearing a case where a man sought an order from the court to his spouse to start living with him again. Chattel means slave or a tangible piece of property.

“What do you think? Is a woman a chattel that we can pass such an order? Is a wife a chattel that she can be directed to go with you?” asked an SC bench comprising of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Hemant Gupta while hearing the man’s petition.

At the core of the dispute is an April 2019 order on restitution of conjugal rights, passed in favour of the man under Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) passed by a family court at Gorakhpur. The woman maintained that she was tortured by her husband over dowry after their marriage in 2013, compelling her to move out. In 2015, after she filed a case seeking maintenance, a Gorakhpur court asked the husband to pay her ₹20,000 a month. The husband filed his plea for restoration of conjugal rights in the family court after this.

Once the Gorakhpur family court issued its restitution order, the man went to court, questioning the payment of maintenance when he is willing to live with her. He raised a point of law on his obligation to keep paying maintenance even after obtaining an order restoring his conjugal rights. The Allahabad high court refused this, following which he appealed in the Supreme Court.

In her defence, the woman, through her lawyer Anupam Mishra, said the husband’s entire “game” was to avoid paying maintenance and pointed out that he approached the family court only after being ordered to do so. In the course of Tuesday’s hearing, the man’s lawyer said the top court should persuade the woman to go back to her husband, especially since the family court has ruled in the man’s favour. Mishra, representing the wife, countered thiat an appeal on that order is pending before the Allahabad high court.

The persistent demand by the man to enforce the return of his wife prompted the bench to say: “Is a woman a chattel? Is a wife a chattel? You are asking us to pass an order for this as if she can be sent to a place where she does not want to go, like a chattel.” The bench declined the husband’s request for enforcement of conjugal rights, reminding him that his appeal before the top court was arising from dismissal of his petition by the Allahabad high court against the order to pay maintenance.

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