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A recent Supreme Court ruling states that a divorce granted by a village panchayat is not legal. But unless rural folk are made aware of their rights, they may continue to abide by such unlawful verdicts, says Shabina Akhtar

Soni Kumari, 22, of Bhujrobad village in Jharkhand was divorced before a gram panchayat a month before the recent Supreme Court ruling that a divorce granted by a panchayat had no legal standing.

She is just one among thousands of rural women in India who accept the verdict of the village panchayat when it comes to separation and divorce.

According to Krishan Murari Sharma, founder of IDEA, a non governmental organisation (NGO) working for women’s empowerment in Jharkhand, 99 per cent of marital disputes in rural India are sorted out before the village panchayat. “Rarely do we see villagers moving the courts or even going to the police station to file a case related to marital disputes. More often than not, both the parties opt to go to the village panchayat and get an out-of-court settlement. Only in the case of dowry deaths do girls’ parents lodge a first information report,” says Sharma.

He also adds that in general it is women who are at the receiving end of these panchayat verdicts. “If a man seeks a divorce, rarely does the panchayat give a verdict that goes in favour of the woman,” he says.

So will panchayats stop granting divorces now that the Supreme Court has ruled that such divorces have no legal sanction? Probably not, say experts. Says Supreme Court advocate Ravi Kant, who is also the president of Shakti Vahini, an NGO, “In north India, the panchayats are really strong and rural people go to them to get verdicts on issues related to rape, violence and marital disputes. Panchayats are so deep rooted in the social system that it will definitely take some time before people stop going to them and instead approach the courts to get a divorce.”

Sharma too agrees that it would take years for people, especially women, to become aware of their rights and take a case of marital dispute to the courts rather than to the gram panchayat.

Of course, there are some women who refuse to take an unfair panchayat verdict lying down. Sheela Devi, a school teacher, had married Mahendra Nath Yadav in 1990, but owing to the nature of Yadav’s job the couple couldn’t lead a normal married life. This eventually led to the dissolution of her marriage both before a village panchayat and then a family court in Allahabad. But when Sheela Devi asked for maintenance, Yadav was quick to approach the Allahabad High Court to get a stay. But instead, the high court ruled that the divorce granted by the panchayat was not legal.

Subsequently, Yadav approached the apex court, only to be told that the high court verdict was apt and that a divorce granted by a panchayat was indeed not legal. It said that the dissolution of marriage through panchayats in accordance with the custom prevailing in the area cannot be a ground for granting divorce under Section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

Experts say that though such “illegal” divorces are routinely handed out by panchayats, there are no reliable statistics to indicate just how widespread the practice is. “Despite the fact that such divorces are rampant in rural India, no statistical data is available on the number of these cases,” says Kaushik Gupta, a Calcutta High Court advocate who specialises in marital disputes. “Since panchayat rulings on marital issues are not recognised by law, the government has no data related to such rulings,” he adds. Gupta, though, maintains that such divorces are not so popular in West Bengal.

But what of the recent verdict of a kangaroo court in Murshidabad that forced a married woman to do sit-ups holding her ears and decreed that her divorce was not valid? The court chose to ignore her divorce certificate that had been issued by a qazi (who is empowered under the Muslim Personal Law to grant a divorce). Not only did it thus ridicule her in public, it also decreed that her present husband would have to leave the village and pay a fine of Rs 8,000.

Going by the recent Supreme Court verdict, are not such panchayat rulings illegal? Certainly they are, admits Gupta. “The apex court verdict is applicable to each and every citizen of India. And that means that divorce granted by anybody not authorised by the government will be considered illegal. In the case of Muslims, it’s the qazi who has been entrusted with the right to grant divorce and not the panchayats,” he says.

Needless to say, most activists and legal experts have welcomed the Supreme Court judgment. Says Calcutta High Court advocate Protik Prokash Banerji, “The ruling makes it clear that the dissolution of marriage by panchayats is illegal.” Adds Ravi Kant, “The verdict makes the point that panchayats annulling marriages is not legal. In a way it empowers NGOs to bring cases of panchayats granting divorce to the notice of the Supreme Court.”

However, there is no denying the fact that this is one judgment that will be hard to implement on the ground. “The SC ruling can only be effective if the executive enforces it across India,” says Gupta.

Will that happen? Time, as they say, will tell.