Should live-in relationships be regulated by the state? And, if so, to what extent? The Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission believes it’s time for intervention. It wants the central and Rajasthan governments to set down eligibility criteria for such cohabitation arrangements, even as its other reported statements reveal the dim view it holds of the practice. The body has asked for a public campaign to warn women of how living in with someone would deny them some of the rights accorded to wedded women. Reportedly, it has used the term “concubines” as a comparison for live-in partners to make a point about their status and spoken of a need to curtail “animalistic lives”. Unwed couples who live together of their own free will have every right to be offended by these remarks, but their practical worry should be the commission’s call for legislative action. Apart from eligibility, which may include an entirely reasonable age bar, it has proposed an official process for the registration as well as dissolution—after mandatory counselling—of such a relationship. What it does not explain is how this blurring of the line between marriage and a live-in arrangement would solve any social problem.
Many millennials would rather live with a partner than marry him or her. To them, tying the knot amounts to wedlock, with an emphasis on “lock”, while living with a lover affords them the freedom they desire. For cohabiting couples, it is about exercising their sexual agency on their own terms. Instead of being governed by what they consider rigid social and legal norms, they would rather keep their mutual commitments flexible. This was once seen as an avant-garde lifestyle, pursued only by a Westernized elite in India. Yet, in recent years, the pattern has been adopted by young men and women of various socio-economic clusters. Increased exposure to the world has not just reduced the social stigma attached to unconventional lifestyles, it has altered the implicit deal of couple-hood. Large numbers of India’s young have different expectations of their relationships than older generations did. Security concerns, especially among women, have given way to joint aspirations and a quest for mutual fulfilment, enabled to a large extent by greater income parity between men and women today. Marriage need not be what couples consider best. Yes, live-in relationships are assumed to be relatively short-lived, but even if reliable surveys were to establish this, it would not say anything about the satisfaction levels attained either way.
While the commission seems out of tune with social shifts, it is possible that its idea of safeguards for women appeals to lawmakers. They cannot be faulted for their concern, but what they must not overlook is the fact that unwed women in relationships do have legal protections. Domestic violence laws apply to live-ins, for example. The judiciary has also held that women who are in a relationship “in the nature of marriage”, defined as an extended period of cohabitation, are entitled to maintenance in case of a break-up or separation. The Supreme Court has also upheld the inheritance rights of children born of such relationships. This being the case, why load live-in relationships with even more attributes of matrimony? If new rules nullify the choice between living together and getting married, it would make live-in arrangements untenable. And, if that happens, it would infringe the liberty that citizens have to live with whom they like.