Indian courts have jurisdiction to take up matrimonial proceedings involving two Hindus governed by the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) even in cases where the opposite party is a foreign national having his domicile outside India, the Madras High Court has held.

Dismissing an appeal against a single Judge's order, a Division Bench, comprising Justices Elipe Dharma Rao and K.K. Sasidharan, in its judgment said when a wife was given the right to initiate proceedings before the local District Court where she was actually residing, such a provision could not be defeated by taking a technical plea that no such proceedings would lie on account of foreign citizenship of the husband or his domicile in another country.

The substantial issue in the appeal pertained to legality of a matrimonial proceedings initiated by actor R. Sukanya before a family court in Chennai against her husband having his domicile in New Jersey (USA.)

R. Sridharan was an Indian citizen and, on migration to the US, was granted that country's citizenship.

The actor was residing adjacent to his residence in Chennai. Their marriage was solemnised on April 17, 2002 as per Hindu rites and customs at the Balaji temple in New Jersey.

In January 2003, the actor came to India for a short visit promising to return after completing her dance programme. Later, against her promise she started acting in films with no plans of returning to the US. She filed a divorce petition before the Principal Family Court, Chennai, on grounds of cruelty.

Mr. Sridharan was not aware of the proceedings. An ex parte order of divorce was granted in July 2004. After he took steps, the Family Court set aside its order. On his appearance, he filed the counter.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Sridharan filed a petition before the Madras High Court seeking a writ of prohibition contending that the Family Court, Chennai, had no jurisdiction to entertain the divorce proceedings as he was a US citizen. The court in India had no jurisdiction.

The actor countered that the marriage was solemnised with Hindu rites and customs.

Hence, the rights and obligations of the parties ran from the HMA.

A single Judge said the court in India exercising jurisdiction under the HMA had jurisdiction to entertain the divorce petition irrespective of the present residence of the opposite party. He dismissed the writ petition. Hence, the present appeal.

The Bench said that earlier under section 19 HMA (court to which petition shall be presented) it was not possible for a woman to initiate proceedings before the court in whose jurisdiction she was residing. Because of this, serious prejudice was caused to women.

Following an amendment, the wife was now entitled to file a matrimonial petition before the District Court in whose jurisdiction she was residing.

The legislation had to be given an extended coverage even outside the territory to which it ran. When the parties were governed by the HMA, the jurisdiction and the grounds for annulling the marriage should be as provided under the Act.

The domicile or citizenship of the opposite party was immaterial in a case like this. It was the wife's residence which determined the question of jurisdiction in case the proceedings were initiated at her instance, the Bench said.

As the divorce petition was pending before the Family Court since 2004, the Bench requested the lower court to decide the petition as expeditiously as possible, in any case within two months.

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