A 32-year-old woman from a remote village in Maharashtra, who lost her husband to a heart attack, was divorced after his death.
In her husband’s absence, the village panchayat asked his brother to stand as proxy, made him break a twig into two, and announced that Chaya Indrekar’s marriage was now annulled. The woman was told that with the divorce, her two sons, now aged 10 and 13, no longer had inheritance claims to their father’s assets. And when Chaya tried to contest the declaration, she was slapped with allegations of adultery.
Chaya, who lived in Nandurbar with her in-laws, moved in with her parents at Nashik after the ‘divorce.’
They brought one man from somewhere, and stated that I was having an extra-marital affair with him. They took him to a jungle, stripped him, beat him up, and asked him to run in circles as repentance. They then caught hold of me, and asked me to run naked in the forest for my purification process. When I refused, they ostracised our family.
Chaya says that she offered the panchayat to have medical tests conducted on her to prove that she was true to her husband; however, the panchayat stated that they didn’t trust medical reports, and that their suspicion was above science.
Subsequently, Chaya and her family were no more welcome in her husband’s village. They are not invited to weddings or funerals in the village anymore, and Chaya fears that the social boycott will keep her sisters from getting grooms. Determined to fight for her rights, the woman is now battling her in-laws and the panchayat in a Nashik court.
Chaya’s case, however, is not a one-off.
As the Indian Supreme Court recently called for a ban on triple talaq divorces among Muslims, terming the practice as unconstitutional, social activists close to the ground in Maharashtra state that measures also need to be taken to curb the practice of ‘kathimod talaq’ (divorces by breaking twigs), which is rampant across various pockets of the state. Several unsuspecting women, like Chaya, have been divorced this way, suddenly abandoned to fend alone for their children.
Krishna Chandgude, a social worker with the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, the organisation which was pivotal in bringing about the recently-passed Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in the state, says that for such divorces, men usually approach their village’s jati panchayat, voicing their wish to separate from their wives.
The panchayat runners allegedly accept a sum of money, and officiate the divorce by asking the man to break a twig into two. While the man keeps one half of the twig, the other is sent to his wife, who is usually absent during the proceedings, informing her that the marriage is over.
It is a closed affair. No one, except for the panchayat, the husband and his family, is allowed to attend these proceedings. They speak in a code language, which is difficult for outsiders to interpret. After the ‘divorce,’ the women are asked to leave their husband’s homes with their children.
Madhav Bawge, a social activist from Latur, explains that these divorced women, who were earlier housewives, are suddenly forced to make ends meet, and end up doing menial jobs to support their children. Suicide thoughts become frequent, and the women, although distressed, remain helpless.
Kathimod divorces are mundane in rural Maharashtra, especially in cases where men marry outside their clans. Their families get furious, and without the wife’s knowledge, they get a second wife for the man, divorcing the first one through kathimod. A common practice, it has remained away from media glare simply because no one, not even the victims, has the nerve to raise their voice against it.
Darshan Malke, a 48-year-old resident of Naregaon in Aurangabad, has had two generations of his family ostracised owing to their protests against the practice of kathimod talaq. He says that this form of divorce has been prevalent since before the British era, and continues to thrive because of the arbitrary powers given to jati panchayats in villages.
We have registered police cases against the jati panchayats; however, no action has been initiated against them. Even the cops are scared to prosecute them. In fact, they have allowed the panchayats to file cases against us. It enrages the panchayats that we refuse to live by the society’s culture, that we disrespect traditions.
“My father fought all his life against kathimod divorces, was ostracised, and when he died, not one person from the village attended his funeral. For the past 35 years, no one in the village has been interacting with our family,” he added.
Changude, meanwhile, states that kathimod talaq is also used extensively when it comes to newly-married couples. He explains that after a couple gets married, the new bride is subjected to a virginity test.
“Members of the jati panchayat wait outside the couple’s room after their first night, and check their white bedsheet for blood stains. If the girl has bled, she is assumed to be a virgin, and the marriage is allowed. But, if she hasn’t, the marriage is broken using the kathimod practice, and the bride’s father is asked to foot a penalty of thousands of rupees. Should the father fail to furnish the amount, the girl is sold off.”
Advocate Ranjana Gavande, who has been working on such cases in the Ahmednagar district of the state, informs that Maharashtra also has other practices of divorce similar to kathimod, which are as unconstitutional as triple talaq – tearing handkerchiefs into two, asking the woman to tie her mangalsutra to a tree.
“There are thousands of jati panchayats all over the state, and innumerable women have been abandoned this way. Although the practice can be covered under the ambit of the recently passed Social Boycott Act, women refrain from approaching the police or courts for the fear of banishment. The panchayats believe that their laws are bigger than books of statute,” said Ravande.
(Puja Changoiwala is is a journalist, and author of crime book, ‘The Front Page Murders’)