Fact check: Did Madras HC say removing thali amounts to mental cruelty?

A social media outcry recently erupted over an alleged ruling by a Madras High Court division bench in an appeal filed against a divorce petition.

“Withdrawal of Mangalsutra by his wife is mental cruelty of the first order towards her husband: Madras HC”, reads the title of a report published by PTI on July 23, 2022. Several other media, such as Outlook, India Today and NDTV had also published syndicated articles with similar titles.

Several users took to Twitter to voice their opinions on the verdict based on those headlines.

WION shared a five-minute clip from his prime-time show Gravitas, where host Palki Sharma read excerpts from the judgment. The host pointed out that such observations were made by the courts of “21st century India”.

WION and India TV published reports based on opinions expressed by social media users. Several Hindi media such as Aaj Tak, ABP Live, Jagran and Navbharat Times have also reported on this issue.

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Fact check

Alt News has retrieved a copy of the verdict from the Madras High Court Bench comprising Judges VM Velumani and S Sounthar. The appeal was against a lower court order denying the petitioner (husband) a divorce on grounds of mental cruelty due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

The operative paragraphs of the judgment have been excerpted below along with the Honorable Benches’ rationale for arriving at their decision.

17.In view of the aforementioned decisions, we have no hesitation in considering that in this case, the respondent/wife caused mental cruelty to the husband by suspecting his character and by making false allegations of extramarital affair in the presence of his colleagues and students and also in front of the police. It is our understanding that the Appellant and the Respondent have been living apart since 2011 and there is no evidence available on the record to show that the Respondent made any attempt to reunite during this period.

The paragraph above makes it clear that the “mental cruelty » in this case stems from the fact that the wife suspected the character of the husband, made false allegations of an extra-marital affair and further humiliated him in front of his colleagues and students as well as in front of the police. Arriving at the finding of mental cruelty inflicted, the bench renders no mention of the sacred thread being removed.

Subsequently, at paragraph 19 (excerpt below), the panel relies on a 2016 judgment of the Madras High Court rendered in a different petition for divorce. Relying on one of the conclusions of the previous judgment (paragraph 33), this panel found that the removal of the sacred chain read together with all the other evidence in the record was sufficient to prove that the parties had no intention of reconciling. On this basis, this appeal was allowed.

19.When respondent/wife was examined as RW1, she admitted that at the time of separation she had removed her thali chain (sacred chain worn by the wife as a sign of marriage). Although she explained that she kept the thali and only removed the chain, the act of removing the chain from the thali had its own meaning. The learned counsel for the respondent, in taking us to the ceremonial of the Hindu marriage, referring to Section 7 of the Hindu Marriage Act, argued that tying the thali is not necessary and therefore the Respondent’s removal of the thali, even assuming it to be true, would have no effect. impact on the marital bond. But, it is common knowledge that the attachment of the thali is an essential ritual in the wedding ceremony that takes place in this part of the world. It is useful to refer, the Submissions of a Coordinated Bench of this Court in Vallabhi Vs. R. Rajasabahi reported in 2017 (1) MWN (Civil) 128. The Submissions of the Bench Division of this Court are as follows:

33. From the documents available in the file, it also appears that the petitioner has removed the “Thali” (Mangalsutra) and that he is too her own admission that she kept the same in Banck’s locker. It is known that no married Hindu woman 18/22 https://www.mhc.tn.gov.in/judis CMANo.3249 of 2017 would remove the “Thali” at any point in her husband’s life. “Thali” around a woman’s neck is a sacred thing that symbolizes the continuation of married life and it is removed only after the death of the husband. Therefore, the removal of “Thali” by the Applicant/Wife can be seen as an act that reflected mental cruelty of the highest order, as it could have caused the agony and hurt the feelings of the Respondent.

It should be noted that the conclusion we have reached in paragraph 33 above is not the view taken by the current bank. The current bench simply relied on this finding of the coordinate bench to come to the conclusion that the act of removing the sacred chain could be inferred as an indication that the wife was no longer interested in maintaining her relationship with the petitioner (husband).

It is common practice for common law courts to cite previous judgments commonly referred to as “precedents” when rendering a decision on a given issue. This does not necessarily mean that the two cases are identical in terms of their factual matrices, but merely indicates reliance on a prior finding in a similar case which may assist this Court in arriving at a certain conclusion.

In addition, paragraph 20 of this judgment is quoted below:

20.The removal of the thali chain is often treated as an informal act. We do not say for a moment that the removal of the thali chain in itself suffices to end the marital knot, but the respondent’s said act is a piece of evidence to draw an inference as to the intentions of the parties. Respondent’s act in removing the thali chain at the time of separation, coupled with various other evidence available on the record, compels us to conclude conclusively that the parties have no intention of reconciling and pursuing the marital knot.

It is clear from paragraph 20 of the judgment that the Honorable Bench doesn’t argue that the removal of the sacred chain itself is sufficient legal ground to prove cruelty leading to divorce.

Alt News contacted Areeb Uddin Ahmed, a lawyer practicing in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. He stated the following:

It is unfortunate that some media reported the judgment/order in a very wrong way.

Having pursued the said order, it is clear that the High Court made no such observations, it only referred to a co-ordinated bench judgment in Vallabhi v.R.Rajasabahi (2016) which had in a similar proceeding held that “the removal of ‘Thali’ by the wife can be considered an act which reflected mental cruelty of the first order, as it could have caused the agony and hurt the feelings of the respondent.

Thus, the “thali” finding made the front page of some media wrongly, which led to the creation of a media hype around the judgment.“.

He further stated:There is a way in which a judgment or an order must be reported or read. It starts fairly with the facts of the case, then the questions, then the submissions made by both parties and their arguments and finally the submissions of the court.

This can also be divided into two parts: 1) Ratio decidendi which is defined as the principles of law formulated by the judge with the aim of settling the problem before him or the court and 2) Obiter dicta which means the observations made by the judge, but are not essential to the decision taken.”

While the PTI article, which was reposted by several outlets such as NDTV, had only a misleading title, the content of the article in its entirety sufficiently captured the essence of the judgment. However, some other outlets such as IndiaTV and WION completely misinterpreted and in turn distorted the findings of the judgment. WION also made a video reportage with the same misleading facts.

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