Hapur/ Mathura: As she waited for the judge to call her case file, Rinki stared at two advocates in the Mathura courtroom in disbelief and disdain as they argued over the sordid details of another woman’s married life. This wasn’t the first time she had come to the court for her divorce proceedings. Over the last two years, she has seen countless marriages come undone here.
“You abandoned the kids and started living with a woman,” shouted one advocate. The other one raised his voice louder, “No, it’s you who eloped with a lover.”
Rinki, 25, shuddered a little, but she was getting used to this. Since she filed for divorce, she has seen more and more divorce cases in the family court of Mathura, many coming from rural hamlets like herself. Many of these cases are initiated by women, says a bar member.
Divorce-seeking women are growing in India’s small towns, from Hapur to Mathura and Bhopal to Alwar and Jhajjar – unsettling many family elders and even lawyers and judges. It also shatters myths about women’s choices and Indian marriages in non-metropolitan India.
“It took two years for me to make the decision to end my marriage,” says Rinki, an accountant from Govardhan. “The stigma was too much to deal with. But once I visited the district court here, I saw so many other women caring less about divorcee tags. They acted as if it’s not a big deal.”
Rinki found comfort in the numbers.
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Stigma around divorce in India
Every now and then, High Court benches comment on the rising divorces ‘tearing’ the traditional fabric of Indian society. “The consumer culture of ‘use and throw’ seems to have influenced our matrimonial relationships also,” the Kerala High Court commented in September 2022. More recently, a bench of Madras High court remarked that marriage is not merely for sexual pleasure, its main purpose is to progenate, while hearing a petition filed by a woman seeking custody of her children.
India has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world at 1.1 per cent, though a 2019 UN Women’s report noted that the number of divorced people has doubled in the last 20 years.
What began as a largely urban middle-class trend two decades ago is now a growing small-town phenomenon in India – Mathura, Hapur, Bhopal, Alwar, Jhajjar. It has coincided with rising economic clout in these towns, more employment opportunities and a window into other worlds—through social media and popular entertainment —where the possibility of post-divorce happiness can be imagined.
According to a 2018 report, Uttar Pradesh had the highest pendency of divorce cases—more than 61,000—in its family courts.
In the absence of therapists, many process their pain in private, and some just give up. Marital problems have driven about 37,591 people to suicide between 2016 and 2020, of which 7 per cent were divorce-related, according to National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2021 report.
The stigma hasn’t gone away entirely, but the confidence to forge a new life is growing.
From the judiciary to police to neighbours to cultural commentators, it’s always women’s newfound voice that is blamed for this rise in divorces.
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No longer a big city phenomenon
A common sentiment that is prevalent in smaller towns at large is, “80 per cent of this is coming from women.”
“But it is no longer a city disease. We are getting more and more cases from the rural belt too,” said Ravi Shanker Upadhyay, a lawyer who has been practising in Mathura district court for the last 25 years. Among his peers, every lawyer is dealing with a “maximum direct or indirect 10 divorce cases at least”.
The two family courtrooms in Mathura’s district court are always buzzing. On average, lawyers charge anywhere between Rs 500-1,000 for every hearing. For petitions, fees can range from Rs 3,000-10,000.
Advocate Ajit Chaudhary, president of the Bar Association of Hapur District Court, has also observed a rise in divorce cases. “As of now there are 600 divorce cases. This is a 25-30 per cent rise ever since the family court was established five years ago,” he said. “A decade ago, there were around 350 lawyers based out of Hapur, but the number has risen to 1,200.”
But the rising number of divorce cases doesn’t necessarily mean they are accepted by both parties. More often than not, a divorce is contested by one partner, which according to Chaudhary, is standard practice in district courts.
He recently filed two petitions in the family court. In both cases, the couples lived in adjoining villages and were married for barely a year before cracks developed. In one case he represents the husband who is contesting the divorce, and in the other, it is the wife. From his experience, such cases are contested for seven to eight years before the partners—after realising the amount of time they’ve “wasted”—arrive at a settlement.
“It’s the professional couples who go for mutual divorces. Otherwise, most of the divorce seekers file multiple claims such as custody and maintenance. In some cases, after years for wrangling with each other, couples opt out of the divorce.”
Though the number of people filing for divorce has risen, the disposal rate is slow. One judge admitted that when cases are contested, it can go on for as long as 10 years. In that time, the husband and wife either continue to live separately or—exhausted by lengthy court proceedings–choose marriage as the lesser evil.
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Women call it quits
Usually, it was the husband who initiated the divorce, but that’s changing, with more women coming forward, say Bar Association members in Mathura and Hapur.
Public perception is such that the woman has to bear the blame for a failed marriage. That’s what happened to Rinki.
The eldest of five siblings, she grew up in a rural hamlet in Mathura’s Govardhan. Her mother is illiterate, but Rinki was determined to get a college degree. She completed her BA from a college in Mathura affiliated to Agra University.
In June 2017, her family arranged her marriage through a common family friend to a man who worked in Gurugram. His parents lived in Kirra village in Bulandshahr.
“To meet the groom’s demands, my father sold his ancestral land and gave the family Rs 10 lakh,” says Rinki, with bitterness evident in her voice. Until recently, her father used to work as a driver and is now employed with a tour and travel agency in Mathura.
During the initial meetings, Rinki tried to talk to her future husband several times. But her in-laws put a stop to that. It was only after she got married that she realised it was a union built on lies.
“His parents lied to us about their financial status. They said that they owned a flat in Gurugram,” she says. But when Rinki moved in with her husband in Gurugram, she found out that he was renting a small room with no proper kitchen or bathroom for Rs 5,000 a month. He had neither a job nor a rupee to his name. In desperation, she took up a job with an accountant to pay for rent and food.
“I was always stressed,” she said. But within three months, her in-laws forced her to give up her job and return to their house in the village. This further strained their marriage. According to Rinki, her in-laws would call her husband to complain about her. “They corrupted his mind against me. It was not about poverty. All I needed was my husband’s support. But he would always take his parent’s side,” she says.
Rinki initially tried to save her marriage, but her in-laws chipped away at her resolve until all her good intentions died.
What precipitated the decision was an ‘intervention’. Her family elders who arranged the union–the “fufas, bade papas, nanas”—confronted her and called her a “woman of bad character”. They allegedly accused her of leaving her husband for another man. “They sat on a rooftop till midnight to decide my future.” Her husband was part of the meeting, but did little to support her, she adds.
“He was more interested in the keys to the Godrej cupboard that had what was left of my dowry.”
Her parents, who had initially supported her in-laws, saw the allegations being levelled against their daughter and did a sudden U-turn. “The next day, I went to the police station to file a case. My father was with me throughout,” she says.
Her husband does not want to divorce Rinki, but he admitted that they knew nothing about each other until it was too late. “I don’t earn much, and she had problems with our financial status. We didn’t speak to each other before marriage, so we didn’t know each other well. It’s only after marriage, that we discovered each other’s likes and dislikes,” he says.
While fighting the case in court, she enrolled in an LLB course at a local college in Mathura and started living in a paying guest accommodation. In family court, the judge asked her husband to pay her Rs 2,500 monthly as maintenance. But Rinki says all she got so far is a one-third payment of Rs 1,000. Half of it went to the lawyer for appearing in court.
“My husband says he doesn’t want to give me a divorce. But I demand one. I want to move on, and marry a person of my choice,” she says.
Rinki still believes in the institution of marriage. “My younger sisters have successful marriages. I believe that spouses should support each other.”
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One of the entrance gates of the Mathura district court| Jyoti Yadav, ThePrint
Rights vs responsibility
After months of self-doubt and recrimination, Rinki filed for divorce 2019. But her experience at the family court was a revelation. “For two years, I brought myself to this. The stigma was too much to deal with. But when I visited the district court, I saw women who did not seem to care about the divorce tags. They acted as if it was not a big deal.” Rinki found solidarity in them.
But she is one of the women who advocate Ravi Upadhyay accused of prioritising rights over responsibility. While flipping through the files of a divorce petition of a middle-class family, he put the burden of saving marriages on women.
“A BSc graduate girl could not adjust with a simple baniya groom. The family had only four members. Nowadays, women don’t want to adjust and live in joint families. They don’t want to do household chores,” he claims.
For another lawyer, patience is the key to a good marriage. “But women lately have shown zero tolerance to situations such as financial instability, etc.”
For the most part, judges and lawyers–both male and female— have a standard first response to any new divorce case that lands on their laps:
“This is how all marriages work. Save your marriage. You are too young to be a divorcee.”
This ‘advice’ is casually bandied about in counselling sessions as well, and reinforced at home by families. “Give it time.”
But parents are slowly changing their stand. When a doctor from a town near Mathura was going through a divorce—his wife was a fellow surgeon—he had the full support of his parents. “Now families understand that between two working professionals, once common goals like owning a house or car are not enough to keep a couple married. The middle-class morality has modified a bit, at least in my case,” he says.
But such acceptance doesn’t always go down well with judges. A judge with Mathura family court, on the condition of anonymity, said he is deeply upset with what he observes in his courtroom.
“Earlier, parents did not interfere in their daughter’s marital life, but now they are backing their decision to separate,” he adds. For him, it is a pill too bitter to swallow.
Ravi Upadhyay also says that parental acceptance has a role to play in the rise in divorce cases–apart from “internet exposure, ego, impatience and individuality”.
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A new social order
Rinki has chosen to ignore the wife-blaming, condemnation and judgement levelled at women in small towns of India. Between her job as a receptionist, LLB classes, court cases—and a new partner—she has no time. “My partner is supporting me in my case. He is helping me become economically empowered. I don’t see myself as a damsel in distress,” she says.
On 12 September, as she reported to court for the hearing in her divorce proceedings, she bumped into a former colleague whom she had worked with in Mathura. The woman, who had separated from her husband six years ago, had finally decided to file for divorce.
In the dimly lit narrow corridors leading to the chambers of their respective lawyers, the two women greeted each other formally. But within minutes, they were discussing their cases and sharing ‘survival’ tips and strategies. It was a freeing moment for both women. As they parted ways, they made plans to catch up.
“See you sometime soon,” said Rinki as she disappeared into her lawyer’s chamber.”
(Edited by Ratan Priya)