ANIL MALHOTRA IN THE TRIBUNE
THE recent judgement of the Bombay High Court setting aside the parallel proceedings for divorce of the Family Court, Pune, and upholding a divorce decree passed by the Court of Oakland, State of Michigan, USA, dissolving a Hindu marriage on the principle of breakdown, has evoked a new stream of thought with which this writer differs. The verdict, Kashmira Kale vs. Kishore Kumar Mohan Kale, 2011 (1) Hindu Law Reporter (HLR), 333, lending sanctity to a US Divorce decree in preference to proceedings under the Hindu Marriage Act between the same parties upsets the settled law.
The parties married in Mumbai in 2005 according to Hindu rites lived in the US and intermittently visited Mumbai and Pune. In September 2008, the wife filed divorce proceedings in the US whose jurisdiction was challenged by the husband in the US. Simultaneously, in October 2008, the husband filed a divorce petition in the Pune Family Court, claiming it to be the competent forum for adjudication of their dispute. The husband did not pursue the wife’s divorce petition in the US any further and in January 2009, the US court dissolved the marriage and divided the assets of the parties.
However, the Pune Family Court in September 2009 held that it still had the jurisdiction to try the husband’s petition for divorce in India. In appeal, the Bombay High Court set aside the Family Court order and upheld the US divorce decree dissolving the Hindu marriage.
The conclusions drawn by the Bombay High Court that the parties were domiciled in the US and hence the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) cannot apply to them is per se erroneous. The HMA’s non-application to Hindus was misconstrued and the application of the breakdown principle without considering the written statement of the husband challenging the US court’s jurisdiction were factors which did not lend a imprimatur to the foreign decree which did not take into consideration the HMA’s provisions under which the parties were married.
Noticing that Section 1 (2) of the HMA applies only to Hindus in the territories to which it applies but not considering that it also “applies to Hindus domiciled in the territories to which this Act extends who are outside the said territories” left the contention only half noticed. In addition, Section 2 of the HMA prescribing application of the Act to Hindus, irrespective of domicile, nationality or citizenship, renders the judgement fallacious. Earlier precedents on the point enunciated by different High Courts stipulate that the HMA applies to all Hindus irrespective of domicile or residence if they have married in India according to Hindu rites. Thus, it has been held that the HMA has extra-territorial application as a Hindu carries with him his personal law of marriage and courts in India have jurisdiction to try their matrimonial disputes regardless of change of nationality or new domicile.
The Bombay High Court in Sondur Rajini Vs. Sondur Gopal, 2006(2) HLR 475, had held that the HMA provisions do not cease to apply on change of domicile which is determined when the parties tie the nuptial knot under the HMA and not on the date when an application is made for matrimonial reliefs. In Naveen Chander Advani Vs. Leena Advani 2005 (2) HLR 582, the Bombay High Court held that the Pune Family Court wrongly declined to entertain a matrimonial petition relating to a marriage where parties who last resided and married in the US according to Hindu rites and ceremonies as the Family Court has jurisdiction to deal with matters under the HMA.
Equally flawed is the Bombay High Court’s view that since the parties last resided together in Michigan, the US court has territorial jurisdiction to decide their divorce dispute. This conclusion falls foul of the settled law laid down by the Supreme Court in Jagir Kaur vs. Jaswant Singh, AIR 1963 SC 1521 that prescribing the limits of jurisdiction, speaking of last residence of a person with his wife, can only mean his last residence in India. It does not imply his residing with her in a foreign country for an Act cannot confer jurisdiction on a foreign court.
The Bombay High Court in Meera vs. Anil Kumar 1992 (2) HLR 284 held that “last resided” in Section 19 of HMA implies last residence in India and the High Court in India within whose jurisdiction the parties last resided together can take cognisance of the matter.
Flowing from the same stream of thought, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has held that any temporary residence would confer jurisdiction to try the matrimonial dispute. This settled view militates against the erred conclusion of the Bombay High Court that temporary stay at Pune or Mumbai could not mean last residence in India as parties last resided together in the US.
Above all, the Bombay High Court’s view disagrees with the Supreme Court’s celebrated view in Y. Narasimha Rao vs. Y. Venkata Lakshmi, 1991 (3) SCC 451 that the jurisdiction assumed by the foreign court as well as the grounds on which the relief is granted must be in accordance with the matrimonial law under which the parties are married.
Three exceptions were culled out to this rule by the Supreme Court. First, permanent foreign residence and invoking of relief on a ground available in matrimonial law under which parties were married. Secondly, voluntary submission to foreign jurisdiction coupled with contest on merits abroad on grounds available under matrimonial law under which parties were married. And thirdly, parties unconditionally consent to grant of relief although the jurisdiction of foreign court is not in accordance with the provisions of matrimonial law of parties.
The Apex Court in Neerja Saraph vs. Jayant Saraph 1994 (6) SCC 641, thereafter had suggested feasibility of a legislation to hold that “no marriage between an NRI and an India woman which has taken place in India may be annulled by a foreign court”. Not noticing the Supreme Court’s above precedent, the recent view of the Bombay High Court per se appears to be disagreeable if not per incuriam.
With due deference, the Bombay High Court order does not agree with the precedent, adapt to Hindu law of marriage of the parties or is it conclusive. Parties may be treated as divorced in the US and still married in India. The line of action adopted in a number of matrimonial disputes in the Punjab and Haryana High Court is most useful to quote. Limping marriages are taken before the Mediation and Conciliation Centre at the High Court premises where the hatchet is peacefully buried and matters are amicably compromised to convert the matrimonial feuds to divorce petitions by mutual consent. Matters thereafter rest without contest on written settlements. Warring claims are put to sleep harmoniously.
This is the better path than allowing foreign courts to decide on Hindu marriage disputes without conflict of laws. Indian courts are better suited to decide them without foreign interference. Domestic law must prevail.
Author of “India, NRIs and the Law”, and co-author of “Acting for Non-resident Indian Clients,” the writer is Supreme Court Advocate and Member, UT NRI Cell, Chandigarh.