When former Kerala minister KB Ganesh Kumar stepped down on 1 April 2013, little did anyone know that an innocuous WhatsApp message was the reason behind his abrupt resignation and the death of his marriage. In a week-long controversy that preceded his resignation, the former minister’s wife alleged that he was involved in an extra-marital affair. A series of WhatsApp messages provided fodder to her allegations and proved to be the final nail in the coffin of their 17-year-old long marriage.
According to WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, the messaging service has 48 million users in India. Similarly, Facebook has nearly 82 million users in the country. While Indians are among the top users of social media in the world, it is the allure of these platforms and their attempt to forment that is news.
Like any other couple in love, Sunder, 30, and Sandra, 23, decided to tie the knot in December 2013 after a year-long courtship. This passionate start then gave way to arguments that impacted their relationship. Four months later, Sandra took recourse in the world of Facebook, where she had conversations with friends and acquaintances from her university.
Amidst marital arguments, regular messages from an acquaintance on Facebook became a relief for Sandra. Soon, the chats went on for hours and led to Sandra and her acquaintance confessing their love. Two months later, Sunder and Sandra parted ways.
In August 2014, when they finalised their divorce, Sunder was resigned to his fate. “The thing that got to me was not her finding another person. It was about how she was so sure of it being love,” says Sunder. Sandra, on the other hand has only one regret. “I wish I had not been hasty with the marriage. Otherwise, I stand by this relationship in every possible way. Ever since I moved in with my current partner, we have been living in harmony compared to the tension that I had with my marriage,” says Sandra, who is now settled in Bengaluru.
The question of social media turning into a courtship platform has much to do with its innate privacy features. Apart from lending access to photographs and videos, the idea of exchanging music, voice notes and thoughts is nothing short of enticing. “The number of cases I get owing to technology creating marital discord is beyond count,” says Amitabh Saha, a New Delhi-based psychiatrist.
“Social media lets one access alternate relationships. But, no one can actually call it good or bad per se. The question is about finding that wavelength coupled with the excitement and risk of going beyond one’s boundaries,” he adds.
While divorces were rare in India until a decade ago, the numbers have seen a spike in the past five years. Poongkhulali B, a family court lawyer, estimates that 5,000 divorce cases were filed in Chennai in 2013-14 — nearly 13 a day. According to estimates collected from family courts in Delhi, the number of divorce cases is about double the number of cases filed in Chennai. According to Prachi Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer, who has provided extensive legal aid to various cases pertaining to marriage, family and divorce, one in 10 divorce cases filed in Delhi cite social media and infidelity in the same breath.
“With a booming of IT industry in Gurgaon, most divorce cases have shifted their base to the suburbs. Ever since Facebook and WhatsApp happened, partners have been marching to courts with proof secured from social media. For instance, in one case, the wife had filed for divorce against her partner after she found him flirting with multiple women at the same time. In another case, the husband had filed a case against his wife when he found how she had maintained contact with her ex-boyfriend,” she says.
In earlier times, a doubt over a spouse indulging in an extra-marital affair usually led to cross-verification with some amount of sleuthing. The past few years have shown a clear move towards couples looking through laptops and mobile phones for legal proof to adultery charges. “A simple screenshot of a chat conversation or a quick look through Facebook/WhatsApp activity can lend a person enough grounds to file for divorce under adultery. A spouse can collect this information and produce copies of it with details regarding date of retrieval. As a result, proving divorce cases on account of adultery has been quite easy ever since social media frenzy began,” says PV Dinesh, a Supreme Court lawyer.
However, it is not Facebook or WhatsApp or popular social media alone that lends proof to filing divorce cases. According to Shyam Gopal, a criminal lawyer based in Chennai, a divorce case was filed in Hyderabad when one of the spouses discovered photographs of his partner on an online dating platform.
“In a certain way, there has been an influx of information available for filing divorce cases but one cannot cite it in a generic sense. Saying that Facebook and WhatsApp are leading to the death of marital relationships is not really true. Yes, they provide a pointer to couples to dig further if they are suspicious. But, it could be a false call as well and in that sense, only stand to exacerbate an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion in the marriage,” warns Poongkhulali.
Keeping in sight of these ‘straying habits’ among spouses, many new apps and features have come up with the aim of keeping a check on one’s partner. Employing GPS technology, these apps let a husband or wife know the whereabouts of their spouse, including their online activity.
For instance, mcouple was designed as a mobile app to access emails, calls, texts and Skype activity of a partner. On activation, the app even alerted the spouse when photographs or videos were clicked or shot. In a similar vein, a simple Google search on apps developed to track cheating spouses can reveal results on several apps perfected according to the needs of the customer.
Though finding an apparent hanky-panky through technology has become easy, hiding it has also become earlier according to IT experts. “I have had a case where the spouse held two different Facebook accounts to hide her online activity away from her partner. So, even if technology does provide us ways to keep track of someone, the same also provides us ways to hide our tracks as well,” says Poongkhulali.
Apart from proving adultery through social media, strange divorce cases have also been filed at family courts citing proof from social media. For example, in a case filed in a Hyderabad family court, the wife had sought to separate from her newly married husband as he had notchanged his relationship status on Facebook. The aghast husband had then gone on to explain in the court how he never had the time to get around to changing it. Similarly, recent news reports from Saudi Arabia had spoken of a man filing for divorce citing his wife ignoring his WhatsApp message.
As PV Dinesh, a Supreme Court lawyer and regular columnist at Live Law, an online legal portal, says, “Whether you take urban or rural classes, Mark Zuckerberg alone can haul lakhs and lakhs of families to family courts and singlehandedly demolish any stable marital relationship.”