In 2017, a significant decision was passed by a three-judge Bench which struck down a colonial-era law that prescribed maximum imprisonment of five years to men for adultery. The instant Writ Petition was filed by one Mr. Joseph Shine under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. It challenged the validity of Section 497 IPC, read with Section 198(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPc). The Bench appreciated the submissions advanced by the learned counsel for the Petitioner and thereby felt the need to have a re-look at the constitutionality of the provision.
In this article, we will answer questions pertaining to the non-constitutionality of the provisions of Section 497 and its impact on married couples.
What is Section 497
According to section 497, “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offense of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such a case, the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.” Simply put, only a man can be a victim or accused/culprit under the existing reading of Section 497 of the IPC.
The provisions of the said section are very orthodox in nature and are based on societal presumptions. The constitutional rights of a woman, bestowed upon her by virtue of birth, are being gravely infringed upon. Ordinarily, the criminal law proceeds on gender neutrality but in this provision, the said concept is absent. On a perusal of the language of the said provision, the words “without the consent or connivance of that man” only reflects the perilous inequality and creates a dent on the individual independent identity of a woman.
Section 497 makes two classifications
The first classification is based on who has the right to prosecute. It is only the husband of the married woman who indulges in adultery, is considered to be an aggrieved person and is given the right to prosecute for the offense of adultery. Conversely, a married woman who is the wife of the adulterous man has no right to prosecute either her husband or his paramour.
The second classification is based on who can be prosecuted. It is only the adulterous man who can be
prosecuted for committing adultery and not the woman, even though the relationship is consensual; the adulterous woman is not considered to be an “abettor” to the offense.
The adultery law, therefore, has been criticized for treating women as property or chattel of their husbands. Consequently, the offense of adultery was treated as an injury to the husband, since it was considered to be a “theft‟ of his property, for which he could proceed to prosecute the offender.
Findings of the Apex Court
In light of the above arguments, it was observed that “The time when wives were invisible to the law and
lived in the shadows of their husbands, has long since gone by. Legislation that perpetuates such stereotypes in relationships, and institutionalizes discrimination is a clear violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. There is, therefore, no justification for the continuance of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. framed in 1860, to remain on the statute book.”
Section 198(2) of the Cr.P.C. which contains the procedure for prosecution shall be unconstitutional only to the extent that it is applicable to the offense of Adultery under Section 497.
Adultery and Married couples
However, the issue remains as to whether “adultery‟ must be treated as a penal offense subject to criminal sanctions, or marital wrong which is a valid ground for divorce.
A criminal wrong is the one which is committed against the community at large i.e where the community is the victim of such a wrong. For instance, Murder is an offense committed not just against the family of the deceased but also against the society in general. On the contrary, a private wrong is the one which is committed against an individual. For example, a breach of contract.
Adultery may be an act committed to private by two consenting adults, it nevertheless is not a victim-less wrong. It negatively impacts the institution of marriage and family, the well being of the children and society in general, and therefore must be subject to penal consequences. Hence the State has a legitimate public interest in making it a criminal offense.
On contrary to this view, adultery is a marital wrong and therefore should only invite civil consequences. To criminalize a certain content is to declare that it is a public wrong which would justify public censure, and warrant the use of criminal sanction against such harm. However, a person should be able to make personal decisions in his/her life. such an act should be protected from public censure.
Adultery is undoubtedly a moral wrong committed against the spouse and the family. However, the fundamental right to live with dignity includes the right not to be subjected to public censure and punishment by the State except where absolutely necessary the State must consider whether the civil remedy will serve the purpose. Where a civil remedy for a wrongful act is sufficient, it may not warrant criminal sanction by the State.
Before the enactment of the Marriage Laws, 1976, adultery was treated as the conduct of grave immorality and was not considered as a ground for divorce. Post the 1976 Amendment, the grounds for judicial separation and divorce are the same and it is a mark of great development in the Hindu Personal Laws.
While reading the judgment, Chief Justice Dipak Misra said, “Adultery cannot be a criminal offense, however, it can be a ground for civil issues like divorce.” It has been defined under Section 13(1) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and Section 22 of the Indian Divorce Act makes provisions for a decree of judicial separation on the grounds of adultery.
Read Also: The New Rules For Divorce In India
To conclude, it can only be said that laws which may be relevant at a given period demand various changes with the passage of time. Education, development in civil-political rights and socio-economic conditions have drastically undergone a change. Therefore, the historical background in which Section 497 was framed, is no longer relevant in contemporary society.