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Kicking in for the daughter-in-law

Last updated on: August 07, 2009 10:22 IST

It is a leg break worthy of a Subash Gupte or a Shane Warne. The Supreme Court has given legal humour (not to speak of injustice) a fresh leg to stand on by pronouncing that kicking a daughter-in-law is not tantamount to 'cruelty'.

The implications of this entirely imaginative interpretation of Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code dealing with 'cruelty' inflicted by 'husband or relative of husband of a woman', are delightful and there may be many now regretting they do not have a daughter-in-law to try out this new sport.

Reminds me of some lovely lines from Harindranath Chattopadhyaya who was merely reinterpreting the Ten Commandments:

Thou shall not covet thy neighbour's wife nor the ass her husband bought her

But thank God thou art not forbidden to covet thy neighbour's daughter.

This can now be restated as:

Thou shall not kick thy neighbour's wife nor the ass her husband bought her;

But thank God thou art not forbidden to kick thy in-law daughter.

It is literally true. If you kick a woman on the road, it is presumably tantamount to assault and several provisos of the IPC can amputate you. If you kick a dog or a cat, it is brute cruelty to animals and any Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worth its salt can leave you yelping. If you kick a child you are a heartless monster that child rights' organisations can make baby-fodder of. If you kick a policeman you are breaking the law (and your own bones to boot). If you kick a judge (ahem), it is contempt of court. If you kick the bucket, you have certainly had it. But kick a daughter-in-law and you are contributing to the sanctity and longevity of the hallowed institution of marriage.

The learned Justices S B Sinha and Cyriac Joseph were strangely silent on how to construe the opposite, that is, if a daughter-in-law were to kick the husband or mother-in-law. Perhaps, that's what prospective daughters-in-law should be trained in, since the law is silent on it.

Good enough, nevertheless, to kick-start a debate, if not a few brand new post-nuptial customs and rituals. Not a bad idea at all, one presumes, to greet a new daughter-in-law with a few kicks at the threshold as she enters, right foot first, just to prove there are no hard feelings. It might also prove prudent to repeat the kicks every time there is less salt in the sambhar or more crust on the chapatti or if the dirt on the collar has proved resistant to every generation of Surf. For the mother-in-law in particular, it provides occasion for limbering her legs and stretching her joints in the middle years which should be a counter to creeping arthritis as well as an antidote to her own 'housemaid's knee'. In short, she will grow into a 'happy' mother-in-law. And, a happy mother-in-law is the sure-fire recipe for a happy marriage. Wah, sirjis! What an idea!

Spoilsports like the Comrade Brinda Karat have questioned the wisdom of the judgment and termed it retrograde. She and other women rights activists fear that the ambivalence of the judgment will only deepen the miseries of married women and be interpreted as a 'license for domestic violence', even as it encourages both active and potential wife-beaters.

Certainly arguments worth considering, though there are enough women on the other side who argue that the patriarchal marriage itself constitutes the first kick delivered on the fundamentals (and rights) of women and that it leads to conditions in which some wives even feel uncomfortable when husbands cease playing football with them. Here, they claim, the insensitivity of the law is hardly going to over-ride the insensitivity of the system itself.

It is truly educative that learned justices of the apex court can construe such a benign interpretation of the act of 'kicking'. V S Naipaul in India, A Wounded Civilization, has described the mess the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, got into in the late 1970s due to an 'innovative design' idea. Students, taken for the first time on a rural visit, were concerned at the spinal strain on women bent double at the waist while harvesting their fields. They went back and returned with a 'design solution', a sickle strapped to the leg. It dispensed with bending. Hold a sheaf and kick and the field would get harvested. A 'walk-and-kick' demonstration of this break-through was arranged for the panchayat. Reportedly, the NID team was almost physically assaulted for suggesting to farmers that they should 'kick' the anna (food) which was like 'mother' to them.

India is a strange civilisation indeed where kicking a book or even a rag of a newspaper is considered an ill omen and an 'insult' to Saraswati. However, bring the same Saraswati home as your daughter-in-law and you can kick her in with impunity. Clearly what happens when 'Davids come to judgment'.

Sadanand Menon
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