Cruelty As A Ground for Divorce


Marriage is considered to be a sacred union in Indian society, but unfortunately, it is not always a bed of roses. Many times, one of the partners may face cruelty and abuse, which can lead to irreparable damage to the relationship. In such cases, divorce becomes a viable option for the victimized spouse to break free from the torment and seek justice.

One of the most significant developments in the Indian legal system is the recognition of "cruelty" as one of the valid grounds of divorce in India. It provides a legal remedy to the spouse who has suffered from physical, mental, or emotional abuse at the hands of their partner. This article aims to explore the concept of cruelty as a ground for divorce in India, including its legal framework, types of cruelty, and relevant case laws.

Legal Definition of Cruelty under the Indian Law

Customs have been a significant source of law in India, and many personal laws are based on ancient customs. However, attempts were made to codify Hindu personal law as early as 1920, though the correct codification took place in 1955 and 1956 when Congress passed four important laws. Similarly, Muslims are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, which is unlike Hindu law, uncodified.

Cruelty, in the context of marriage, encompasses violent acts that are grave and severe. Mere quarrels, petty disputes, or differences between spouses that are common in day-to-day married life do not fall within the scope of cruelty. Physical violence is a significant factor that constitutes cruelty, but it is not limited to physical violence alone. Continuous ill-treatment and mental or physical torture inflicted upon either spouse over a period would also amount to cruelty as a ground for divorce.


In the historical analysis of the Hindu Marriage Act, of 1955, it is evident that cruelty as a ground for divorce was not initially recognized, but rather applied only in cases of judicial separation. The burden of proof rested on the aggrieved party or petitioner to establish that the cruelty inflicted by the spouse was grave and unbearable, making it difficult to continue the marital relationship, as upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Narayan Ganesh Dastane vs. Sucheta Narayan Dastane in 1975.

Subsequently, an amendment was made to the Act in 1976, wherein cruelty was added as a ground for divorce, accompanied by a legal definition of the term under the Act. However, the Court also emphasized that the determination of cruelty as a ground for divorce should be based solely on the facts and circumstances of the case. Following the amendment, there was little distinction between the grounds of cruelty for judicial separation and divorce, except for the inclusion of the words "persistently or repeatedly". This addition elevated the significance of establishing cruelty as a ground for divorce, compared to proving it as a ground for judicial separation. This ground for divorce was incorporated under Section 10(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and now "cruelty" has a self-contained definition within the Act. 

Types of Cruelty

In legal parlance, cruelty can be categorized into two types: physical cruelty and mental cruelty, which have been recognized and expanded by the courts about women's rights.

1. Physical cruelty:

As it pertains to matrimonial relationships, refers to violence or bodily harm inflicted by one spouse upon the other within the marriage. This can include acts of physical violence, bodily injuries, threats to life, limb, or health, causing fear or apprehension in the mind of the woman. Establishing physical cruelty as a ground for divorce is relatively straightforward, as it is commonly recognized as one of the primary reasons for seeking the dissolution of marriage.

For instance, under the Muslim Marriage Act, of 1939, "habitual assaults" are recognized as grounds for divorce, and the assault itself is considered a serious offense under Section 351 of the Indian Penal Code. Similarly, under the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, of 1936, causing grievous hurt is recognized as a ground for divorce, with grievous hurt being defined under Section 320 of the Indian Penal Code. Thus, it can be concluded that assault, grievous hurt, and cruelty are interconnected and do not have significant differences.

2. Mental cruelty:

Cruelty is not limited to physical harm but also encompasses mental distress or agony inflicted upon a spouse. Proving mental cruelty can be more challenging than physical cruelty, as it depends on the psychological impact on the individual. If a woman is subjected to mental harassment, such as constant mental stress, compromise of her mental peace, or prolonged mental agony due to her spouse, it may amount to mental cruelty.However, it should be noted that accusations of cruelty based on hypersensitivity or subjective perceptions may not be considered valid grounds for divorce. Mental strain can manifest in various ways, such as forcing the wife to do something without her consent, hiding information that creates doubt, or any other behavior that causes mental distress. There are no specific criteria for mental cruelty, and it is assessed based on the facts and circumstances of each case.

It is important to understand that the recognition and scope of cruelty as a ground for divorce may evolve through judicial interpretations and amendments, particularly about protecting the rights of women in matrimonial relationships.

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Laws and Regulations Pertaining to Cruelty in Divorce in India

Laws and regulations pertaining to cruelty as a ground for divorce in India are primarily governed by the Hindu Marriage Act, of 1955, the Muslim Marriage Act, of 1939, and the Indian Penal Code, of 1860. These laws define and recognize cruelty as a ground for divorce and provide guidelines for proving and establishing cruelty in divorce cases.

Hindu Marriage Act, 1955

Under Section 13(1)(ia) of the Hindu Marriage Act, cruelty is recognized as a ground for divorce. The act defines cruelty as any willful conduct that is of such a nature that it makes it intolerable for the spouse to live with the other. This includes both physical and mental cruelty. Physical cruelty refers to any act of violence, harm, or injury, while mental cruelty encompasses conduct that causes mental agony, harassment, or emotional distress.

Muslim Marriage Act, 1939

The Muslim Marriage Act recognizes cruelty as a ground for the dissolution of marriage under Section 2(viii)(a) of the act. It defines cruelty as any behavior that makes it impossible for the spouse to live with the other. This includes habitual assaults, willful refusal to perform marital duties or any other conduct that causes mental or physical harm.

Indian Penal Code, 1860

Under the Indian Penal Code, cruelty is a non-bailable, cognizable, and non-compoundable offense. The Indian Penal Code also recognizes cruelty as a criminal offense under Section 498A, which deals with cruelty against married women. This includes any intentional conduct that is likely to drive women to commit suicide or cause intense physical or mental harm to her. This section provides for criminal penalties against perpetrators of cruelty, including imprisonment and fines. 

Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005

The parliament has passed PWDVA to protect females from the violence and atrocities of their families and to keep their right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution's safeguard. It provides one year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs. 20,000, whenever a wife is exposed to domestic violence.

Case Studies of Cruelty Used as a Ground for Divorce

In the case of Sirajmohmedkhan Janmohamadkhan v. Hafizunnisa Yasinkhan, the SC recognized that the concept of legal cruelty is not permanent, but changes with evolving social concepts and living standards. The court identified several factors that can constitute mental cruelty, as acknowledged by the Supreme Court. These factors include indifference from the spouse, persistent abuse, regular derogatory remarks, refusal or avoidance of sexual relations, and blaming the spouse for such refusal. Additionally, the constant threat of dissolving the marriage and harassment were also recognized as grounds for mental cruelty by the Supreme Court.

Courts may consider additional factors or circumstances on a case-by-case basis when determining if mental cruelty has occurred in a particular situation. Seeking legal guidance and adhering to the relevant laws and procedures is crucial when alleging mental cruelty as a ground for legal action.

Latest Judgements of Supreme Court

  • In the recent case of Shobha Rani v Madhukar Reddi the Supreme Court acknowledged the challenges in defining "cruelty" when it pertains to human behavior. The Court noted that cruelty is closely associated with conduct about matrimonial duties and obligations and refers to a course of conduct that adversely affects one spouse by the actions of the other. This observation highlights the complex and subjective nature of cruelty within the context of marriage, making it difficult to establish a rigid definition for this term.
  • The issue of denial of sex as a form of mental cruelty has been a point of debate in decisions by the Supreme Court and other High Courts in the case of Independent Thoughts v Union of India. While the court has approved this proposition, the issue of marital rape has not yet been explicitly addressed by the court. Marital rape, though not criminalized in India, can be considered a form of mental cruelty as a ground for divorce for a wife. It reflects a lack of respect, dignity, and sensitivity towards the wife, and violates her right to life and freedom as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Treating a woman as someone who has no say over her own body and no right to deny sexual intercourse to her husband is a violation of her autonomy and agency. It undermines her basic human rights and perpetuates a harmful notion that a woman's consent is not necessary for a marital relationship. Denying a woman, the right to refuse sexual intimacy can have severe psychological and emotional repercussions and can be considered a form of mental cruelty.