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Sunday, July 15, 2001

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Living in, legally

A recent ruling by the Allahabad High Court stating that it is legal for a man and woman to live together without marriage has evoked mixed response. Some see it as a measure to protect women's rights, others view it as the road to irresponsible freedom. RADHA RASTOGI writes.

JUDGING by popular reactions, a new wave of liberalism is blowing through the staid, conventional city of Lucknow in north India. Call it a backlash against the government's attempts to ban beauty contests and Valentine's Day celebrations in the State, or the effect of activism, the shift in values and lifestyle choices is unmistakable.

A ruling last month by the Allahabad High Court stating that it is perfectly legal for a man and woman to live together without marriage is being welcomed not just as part of a continuing trend in judicial activism, but also as a major gain for a woman's right - to choose her partner, her lifestyle and her right over her body.

But there is, understandably, much confusion on the issue since people are unable to reconcile executive conservatism with this budding judicial liberalism. "One would expect both arms of the system to be in tandem," says Kavita Upadhyaya, a counsellor at Suraksha, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for women's rights. "This ruling sends out confused signals. On the one hand, the government bans beauty contests and on the other we have this broadminded ruling. Living together is a good thing because it will definitely lead to fewer broken marriages. But it is also a very drastic decision. Are we ready for it?"

Roop Rekha Verma, head of the Philosophy Department and ex Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University believes we are. "Legally the decision violates no law and underlines the basic principle of the individual's right to choose. Choice must be responsibly made and I think the younger generation is very capable of exercising this responsibility."

Striking out heavily against moral policing of relationships, Verma insists that it is the older generation, still in the grip of old conventions, that needs reorientation.

But convincing though this argument is there are other deeper issues involved as well. For starters, this ruling must be seen in perspective, as a bid to restore equity in gender relation and not as a licence for sexual freedom and irresponsibility. For instance, to interpret it as a green signal to adulterous relationships would be violating its spirit, says Dr. Rakesh Chandra, a professor of Women's Studies. "It is a sound decision because it takes cognisance of something that is happening," he says. But more importantly, he believes that this ruling will protect a woman's rights and give her the freedom to walk out of an unsatisfactory relationship.

"A live-in couple must be motivated by responsibility and commitment, and should view the relationship as a prelude to, and not substitute for, marriage," says counsellor Amrita Dass. "We must distinguish between living in as licentiousness, and living in with moral intent."

Amazingly, some youngsters are heavily against the ruling. Though this could be because they have not considered its deeper issues and see it as a license to irresponsible freedom. Says Kashif Khan, who won the Prince Lucknow title last year, "It does not augur well for society. And for women, such arrangements could be traumatic when terminated." Shweta Pandey, a student, concurs: "It is always the woman who loses out in such arrangements. I would never go in for such a relationship."

The moral dilemma is perhaps best put by a middle-aged mother of a girl who chose to live in with her boyfriend in Delhi. "I was initially shocked. It is something a mother finds very tough to accept. But when my daughter asked if I would have preferred her to be dishonest with me about the relationship I saw her point of view. My generation placed a premium on virginity. We need to move with the times and accept that this doesn't exist anymore."

One of the few live-in couples in this laid back town are Ehtasham and Rubina, who find this a less stressful arrangement. Marriage brings a load of problems and power games. It also binds you to someone who might be incompatible. This way they say they have no unrealistic expectations from each other.

Contrary to popular perception about the judiciary, the Allahabad High Court is proving to be a trendsetter in gender sensitive decisions. Earlier this year, another landmark ruling decided that sex in private and off duty hours does not amount to official misconduct. The case in question concerned a woman police officer who was being victimised by the establishment. Most tellingly, the Court even commented that a man wouldn't have been similarly harassed by his superiors and ordered the officer to be reinstated immediately.

Ultimately, however, to live-in or not concerns both legality and ethics. While it is not legally wrong, the ethics of the decision are for each individual to decide according to the given circumstances. But the portents of such a decision are significant. As live-in relationships gain respectability in both theory and practice, a time might come when they get legal recognition, as in Scandinavian countries, where women in such unions are entitled to alimony and their children to inheritance rights.

(c) Women's Feature Service

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