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Landmark Judgements on Cruelty as a Ground for Divorce


“Cruelty is all out of ignorance. If you knew what was in store for you, you wouldn’t hurt anybody, because whatever you do comes back much more forcefully than you send it out.” – Willie Nelson

Hindu Families and marriages were steeped in age-old customs and cultures.For a Hindu, marriage is considered as an obligation and also it is sacramental. It was reflected as a bond of seven births, predestined by gods.  In the traditional era, Men started taking advantage of this situation and they started showing cruelty towards women by various means such as desertion, polygyny , beating and such  practices became more common. 

The legal concept of cruelty has varied from time to time and from society to society with the change in social and economic conditions. What is considered as cruelty today was not so construed a few decades back, and acts which may not constitute cruelty today might be so regarded after a few years, In early English law, intention was considered to be an essential element of cruelty; in modern law it is no longer so. The modern law takes the view that the objective is to accord protection to the innocent party. According to the Hindu Marriage Act , Cruelty is now considered as a ground for divorce in which physical and mental abuse is one of the major reasons which leads to Divorce in India. As mentioned previously of all the matrimonial offences ,cruelty is the most difficult one to define.Cruelty under Section 13(1)(ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act talks about the behaviour of one spouse towards the other which results in a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the latter that it is not safe for him or her to continue to stay in the matrimonial relationship anymore with the other. In accordance with section 13(1)(a) of the Hindu Marriage Act, any marriage solemnized, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, may, on a petition presented by either the husband or the wife, be ended by a decree of divorce on the ground that the other party has, after the solemnisation of the marriage, treated the complainer with cruelty.Cruelty, which is a ground for dissolution of marriage, can be characterised as unjustifiable action by one person toward another that can trigger danger to life, limb, or health, bodily or mental, or that gives rise to a rational fear of such danger. The definition of cruelty is evolving, and today’s definition incorporates both emotional and physical cruelty.In the case, it was held that determination of any particular conduct by any party would amount to cruelty or not will depend on the social status of the parties and this will be only the relevant consideration. Therefore, it depends upon case to case whether an act of cruelty has been committed  or not.

Kinds of cruelty

  • Physical Cruelty:-  Any physical violence that includes any bodily injury, threat to life,limb and health or causing reasonable apprehension of such danger is physical cruelty. Ill treatment and beating, which a wife had to even report to a police was held to amount to cruelty. 
  • Mental Cruelty:-  Now cruelty isn’t only limited to physical cruelty, mental cruelty is considered to be at the same pedestal as physical cruelty. Any kind of mental stress or compromised mental peace of spouses or constantly going through mental agony, then that amounts to cruelty.In Bhagat v. Bhagat, the Supreme Court defined mental cruelty as that conduct which inflicts upon the other party such mental pain and suffering as would make it not possible for that party to live with the other.


In the landmark judgement of Mayadevi Vs. Jagdish Prasad in February 2007, the Supreme Court held that any kind of mental cruelty faced by either of the spouses, not just the woman but men as well, can apply for a divorce on grounds of cruelty. In this case, the respondent filed an application of divorce after a repeated course of cruelty inflicted by his wife and as alleged by the husband (respondent) that the wife did not provide food to him and his children and blamed the husband and his family members instead. Hence, a man is also entitled to divorce if he is inflicted with any kind of cruelty.

The Supreme Court issued a list of examples depicting mental cruelty in the case of Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh. The list, on the other hand, is not exhaustive, it can be called mental cruelty if a person refuses to have intercourse for a prolonged period of time without any physical incapacity or legitimate cause. It can be considered mental cruelty if either husband or wife chooses not to have a child after marriage.Even ill-treatment by in-laws would amount to mental cruelty and apart from this if the husband or the wife undergoes sterilization or abortion without the knowledge or consent of the spouse may also amount to mental cruelty.Mere coldness or lack of affection cannot amount to cruelty, frequent rudeness of language, petulance of manner, indifference and neglect may reach such a degree that it makes the married life for the other spouse absolutely intolerable.

In Dastane Vs Dastane, It is in this landmark judgment that the Supreme Court of India for the first time recognized mental cruelty as a valid ground for divorce and also the theory of condonation of the same on the basis of Sec. 23 (1) (b) of the Hindu Marriage Act.The SC held that the wife threatening to end her life, and verbally abusing the husband, among other acts, amounted to mental cruelty.

It observed that the inquiry has to be whether the conduct charged as cruelty is of such a character as to cause in the mind of the petitioner a reasonable worry that it will be harmful to live with the respondent.The Supreme Court of India held that the appellant’s contention regarding his wife being of unsound mind was fabricated by him. The contention regarding the respondent inflicting cruelty on the appellant has been proven to exist within the meaning of Section 10(1)(b) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, but the appellant’s act of engaging in sexual intercourse with the respondent leads to condonation of cruelty in the eyes of law. The respondent was willing to return to the household shared by both parties as she realized her mistakes. The appellant condoned the respondent after which she did not act in the manner she did before the condonation. Hence, the respondent will not be held liable for cruelty and the divorce petition will not be granted.


Rigveda was considered to be the highest social status to the women in the ancient time.wife was given the same amount of respect and position as of the husband in the matters of religious ceremonies, rights along with her husband. Whereas, Manusmriti encouraged cruelty against women in several ways like, wife was obliged to serve her bad husband in an extreme good way , wife could not marry again after the death of her husband but the husband could remarry in case of death of his wife , further husband had the right to beat his wife is she goes wrong somewhere. 

If we study the history of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, cruelty was never taken into consideration as a ground for divorce but was applied only in cases of judicial separation. Here the aggrieved party or the petitioner has to prove that the cruelty is so grave or so unbearable that it is getting difficult to carry forward with his or her spouse (the defender). But this was upheld by the Supreme Court in a landmark case of Narayan Ganesh Dastane Vs. Sucheta Narayan Dastane  and it’s the amendment of 1976 which had been a game-changer, the Hindu Marriage gave the right to get separated or even get divorced on the ground of mental or physical cruelty.After the amendment in this act, there was not much distinction between the grounds of cruelty resulting in judicial separation and grounds of cruelty resulting in divorce except for two words that are added are “persistently or repeatedly”. By this addition, the establishment of cruelty as a ground for divorce was given much more importance than proving it as a ground for judicial separation. This ground was added under Section 10(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act,1955 and now “Cruelty” has a self-contained definition.


Discussing about IPC, Section 498A of IPC deals with the offence of cruelty against a wife by her husband and/or in-laws.The expression “cruelty” has been defined in a wider perspective under this section, that is:

  1. The commencement of any wilful conduct of such a nature which would likely drive the wife to commit suicide or would cause her grave injuries or danger by inflicting physical or mental harm to life, limb or health of the wife. 
  2. Harassing the wife where such harassment is done with a view to coerce her or her relations to meet any unlawful demands for any property or valuable security or is done in the result of her or any of her relation’s failure in meeting such demand.

In the case of Reema Aggarwal Vs. Anupam and Ors of 2004, Reema was harassed     by her husband Anupam, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and father-in-law for not being able to provide enough dowry. The accused forced Reema to put some acidic and poisonous substance in her mouth to end her life because of which she was rushed to the hospital. The Court held that the husband of the second wife who marries her during the subsistence of earlier legal marriage is not the husband within the meaning of Section 498A because it was the second marriage of both Reema and Anupam and hence, the second wife cannot invoke this section. The respondents were acquitted of the charged offences under Sections 307, 498A of IPC.


The concept and parameters of cruelty as a matrimonial wrong have evolved and expanded over the years to fit into the needs and attitudes of changing times. And we can conclude that cruelty means not only beating and depressing other spouse, but also any kind of behavior, which effects the spouse directly or indirectly, physically or mentally, and it has been difficult to that spouse to live with him. It’s all included in cruelty. No human shall be tortured or subjected to cruelty, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. With this in mind, violence by either a husband or a wife is a violation of the fundamental right to dignity and liberty. The Indian Constitution, which is the country’s founding document, guarantees the right to a dignified life as part of the right to life under Article 21. A violation of the same is causing physical and emotional pain and suffering on the other. It is true that there are a lower number of complaints that are being lodged for divorce on grounds of cruelty. Because people anyway prefer settling themselves with whatever condition they are in. But one needs to understand that the provisions made are for their benefit and to help and safeguard them from ill-treatments. 


  • POTHEN, S. (1989). Divorce in Hindu Society. Journal of Comparative Family Studies
  • Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 Section 13 (1) (a)
  • G.V.N Kameswara Rao v. G.Jalili A.I.R. 2002 S.C. 576
  • Vinit v. Vaishali AIR 1998 Bom 73
  • Bhagat v. Bhagat 1994 SC 710
  • Mayadevi Vs. Jagdish Prasad 2007(3) ALL MR 388 (S.C.)
  • Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghosh 2007 (6) Bom.C.R. 834
  • Dastane Vs Dastane AIR SC 1975 1534
  • Kaur, Sukhpal. “WOMEN’S RIGHTS: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE.” 70 The Indian Journal of Political Science, 121, 126 (2009).
  • S. Vats and Shakuntala Mudgal, Women and Society in Ancient India,  (1999)
  • Reema Aggarwal Vs. Anupam and Ors (2004) 3 SCC 199
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, (UDHR), Article 5

This article has been written by Jaya Vats, from ICFAI UNIVERSITY, DEHRADUN. 


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