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Love, Law, and Loneliness: An Octogenarian Couple’s 27-Year Divorce Saga in India

What kind of sentiments typically arise concerning the existence of an octogenarian couple? Perhaps it entails mutual bolstering, or perhaps it involves the commonplace or merely subsisting. Nevertheless, this venerable Indian couple has been embroiled in a protracted legal battle seeking marital dissolution for almost three decades.

Nirmal Singh Panesar, aged 89, and Paramjit Kaur Panesar, aged 82, have been wedded for over six decades, with a protracted 27-year legal struggle for divorce. Some opine that at their advanced age, given their shared progeny of two daughters and a son, blissful cohabitation is conceivable. Yet, Nirmal steadfastly insists on the imperative of marital severance, while Paramjit resolutely opposes acquiescence to such a fate, even unto death.

Recently, this protracted divorce litigation reached the august chambers of the Supreme Court of India. In early October, two jurists of the Supreme Court rendered a verdict denying the divorce sought by the wife.

Given the extended duration of this divorce saga, its prevalence in India is scarcely surprising. The divorce rate in India, standing at a mere 1.4%, has witnessed a twofold increase over the preceding decade.

India’s divorce rate, having ascended to 1.4%, has doubled over the past decade.

In the Indian context, matrimony is venerated as a sacrosanct contractual covenant. It signifies not merely the convergence of two individuals but also the amalgamation of two familial entities. While distinct faiths proffer varied statutes on matrimony in India, the majority impose stringent limitations on divorce.

For Indian men, the formidable resistance to divorce may stem from intricate legal proceedings. Conversely, for Indian women, the dissolution of matrimony entails multifaceted repercussions. The resistance they encounter emanates from their familial origins, the communities they inhabit, and even the broader societal framework.

For Paramjit, the primary impetus behind her steadfast devotion to sustaining this union over 27 years is not solely rooted in her affection for her spouse and progeny, but rather in her aversion to bearing the “shame” attendant upon the status of a “divorced woman.”

A protracted 27-year legal ordeal

Nirmal and Paramjit did not always engage in a reciprocal tit-for-tat dynamic. Initially, by their own testimony, their matrimony was deemed “ordinary.” During this epoch, Nirmal served in the Indian Army, while Paramjit assumed the role of an educator at Amritsar Central School. Beyond their respective vocations, their lives predominantly orbited around their offspring.

The discord arose with Nirmal’s occupational transfer. In January 1984, Nirmal, then an Air Force officer, was stationed in Madras (now Chennai). Desiring familial cohabitation at the new posting, Nirmal’s entreaty was rebuffed by Paramjit in 1984, leading her to return to her parental abode in protest.

Subsequently, the couple endured separation, with Nirmal initiating divorce proceedings in 1996, citing maltreatment and abandonment. Although the district court initially sanctioned the divorce in 2000, Paramjit’s appeal overturned the verdict. She contended that she had “exerted her utmost” to preserve their sacred alliance.

The initial thwarting of the divorce application did not deter Nirmal. Post his military retirement in 1996, he persistently pursued the dissolution of matrimony. The protracted legal battle spanned 27 years, culminating in the Supreme Court of India’s pronouncement in early October this year. The apex court underscored the sanctity of marriage in Indian society, asserting its primacy even amidst escalating divorce rates.

The justices’ apprehensions are not without merit. While divorce rates in India exhibit a steady uptrend, particularly in metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, the national fabric of marital relationships remains remarkably “steadfast” compared to global standards.

As per the 2019-2020 Indian National Family Health Survey, despite a twofold increase in the past decade, the divorce rate stands at a meager 1.4%. In stark contrast, across the globe, the United States anticipates a record-breaking divorce rate surpassing 50% by 2023.

This scenario is hardly unforeseen in India. After all, the prerequisites for a successful divorce in India are formidable.

In Nirmal and Paramjit’s divorce case, the Supreme Court highlighted the absence of provisions in the Indian Marriage Act for initiating a divorce petition based on the “irretrievable breakdown of marriage.” Simultaneously, under Article 142 of the Indian Constitution, the court is mandated to grant divorce only under extraordinary circumstances.

The absence of explicit legal provisions on such “special circumstances” affords the Supreme Court considerable discretion in adjudicating divorce petitions. The jurist expounded that when Nirmal was relocated for work in 1984, their progeny were already adults. At this juncture, after cohabiting with her husband for 21 years, if he unilaterally opted for relocation, it should not be presumed as desertion or abuse on the part of the wife.

Moreover, the wife persisted in caring for their children and diligently endeavored to sustain their marriage post-separation. However, there was no indication of reciprocal efforts from the husband to reunite with his wife, who continued to reside in their original abode, or to extend paternal care to any of their offspring.

Most significantly, even at this juncture in their association, Paramjit affirmed to the court her willingness to tend to her elderly husband and categorically expressed her disinclination to endure the stigma of being a “divorced woman.” Considering Paramjit’s desire to perpetuate the marriage, the justice was “unwilling to accede to the appellant’s plea for dissolution of the marriage based on the irretrievable breakdown of marriage.”

Unveiling the veritable circumstances behind the sacred facade

Paramjit’s steadfast refusal to divorce transcends her personal relationship predilections. Despite Nirmal’s protracted abdication of his roles as spouse and progenitor, Paramjit finds it arduous to entirely forsake this relationship. The fundamental rationale lies in the societal paradigms of responsibility and role expectations, which distinctly apply to men and women.

Marriage, as prescribed in most matrimonial statutes, entails the union of two individuals, wherein both parties assume specific conjugal obligations and are accorded distinct legal privileges. Traditionally, and within a substantial segment of society, matrimony remains an exclusive union limited to individuals of the opposite gender.

Upon embarking on the marital institution, societal structural intricacies subtly interweave into the intimate relationship. Women confront the gendered division of familial labor and contend with a nuanced evaluative framework. Beyond individual pursuits, the happiness of a marriage and the harmony of a family have become pivotal benchmarks for gauging life’s success.

Certain scholars posit that, in India, marriage serves as a sanctuary for child-rearing, a refuge from adversity, and a cornerstone for constructing a prosperous identity. Simultaneously, religious culture drapes matrimony with a sacred veneer, accentuating a more “stable” structural paradigm.

A substantial number of Indians perceive marriage not merely as a sacrament but as sacrosanct. Moreover, a cultural emphasis on embodying the roles of a “virtuous wife” and the “mistress of the household” permeates throughout.

On one hand, the Hindu cultural ideal of Pati-vrata, signifying absolute loyalty and devotion to the husband, is heralded as the pinnacle of female morality. Comprising “Pati” meaning husband and “vrata” connoting fidelity, vow, or devotion, this ideal finds embodiment in numerous female characters within ancient Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Conversely, within Indian cultural ethos, family continuity’s perpetuation is regarded as a pivotal responsibility. Marriage, seen as the conduit linking two families, forges a novel blood relationship. In Indian societal construct, women assume a crucial role as agents of family continuity.

Nevertheless, the media’s portrayal often assumes an inherently “instrumental nature,” underscoring the shift in women’s social identity from daughter to a more dependent wife upon marriage.

In the realm of Indian society, women are acknowledged as pivotal agents of family continuity.

However, the pervasive nature of such media possesses an inherent “instrumental nature,” highlighting the transformation of women’s social identity from daughter to a more dependent wife due to marriage.

To a certain degree, India’s marital system embodies the richness of traditional and religious cultures. Under such constraints, many Indian women, particularly those distant from dynamic urban landscapes, find emancipation from societal shackles a formidable challenge. Consequently, even though Nirmal had long forsaken his familial ties, Paramjit remained ensnared in her predicament.

Post flight

Paramjit’s prospects of escaping this spurned marriage hinge on the availability of viable alternatives.

This decision is fraught with difficulty owing to the paucity of alternatives. Primarily, it stems from the stigma associated with “divorced women,” coupled with the plight faced by women after elopement.

In India, the stigmatization of divorced women is multifaceted, entwined with robust indigenous cultural mores.

Scholars contend that the paucity of divorce filings by Indian women stems from the patriarchal nature of Indian families, irrespective of religious beliefs.

While progressive societal trends globally have somewhat mitigated the stigma against divorcees, especially divorced women, they remain subject to informal censures. Such stigmas transcend public sanctions, manifesting in everyday experiences, such as exclusion from circles of married friends and difficulty integrating into divorced subcultures.

Apart from these challenges, divorced women grapple with the quandary of initiating a new family.

Today, remarriage is not unprecedented, yet it follows distinct gendered patterns. Dissatisfied men often opt for separation and divorce, while women lean towards reconciliation. Post-divorce, societal acceptance leans towards men, while women encounter skepticism.

In Hindu traditions, women are not barred from remarrying; however, such unions are deemed of lower status.

Divorced women are considered impure, devoid of the same ceremonial customs and rituals even if they remarry. The quality of remarried women’s marriages, particularly those with children, is often subpar, impacting their decision to remain in their current marriages.

While some argue the merits of reliance on others, opting for complete separation from marital bonds places heightened demands on women.

Data comparing divorce rates in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, with other regions reveals that women from higher social strata navigate post-divorce life more adeptly than their low-income counterparts.

A woman’s financial capacity significantly influences her confidence in independent living. However, socio-cultural factors, coupled with limited educational and employment opportunities, impede many Indian women from achieving financial autonomy, intensifying their insecurity in the face of divorce.

Statista data for 2023 indicates a 67% work participation rate for Indian men, up from 2021. Conversely, the female work participation rate has decreased from 36% in 2021 to 33% in 2022 and 2023.

In circumstances where spousal support is elusive, and self-sufficiency is unattainable, returning to one’s familial abode may seem a viable alternative. However, this too is contingent upon various factors.

Although women in India possess the fundamental right to return to their natal families, the extent of familial support hinges on familial circumstances. The return of a married woman may adversely impact the marriage prospects of unmarried siblings. Moreover, some parents may view their responsibilities as fulfilled upon their daughter’s marriage, showing reluctance or incapacity to offer further support.

In regions with prevalent patrilineal and exogamous marriages, such as northern India, particularly the northwest, the post-marriage connection between a woman and her natal family is feeble. Families in these regions often perceive a married woman as wholly transferred to her husband’s family, with limited contributions or expectations of support from her natal family.

The perpetuation of women persisting in unfavorable marriages, despite seemingly available options, is thus unsurprising. In the 27-year-long legal battle, Paramjit managed to safeguard her “life” and “home,” evading the “shame” associated with divorced women, marking a “victory” of sorts.