Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) CrPC unconstitutional; adultery no more an offence : SC

The civility of a civilization earns warmth and respect when it respects more the individuality of a woman. The said concept gets a further accent when a woman is treated with the real spirit of equality with a man. Any system treating a woman with indignity, inequity and inequality or discrimination invites a wrath of the Constitution.

                                                  – Dipak Misra, CJI and A.M. Khanwilkar ,J.

Supreme Court: The 5-Judge Constitution Bench has held section 497 IPC and Section 198 (2) CrPC to be unconstitutional and violative of Articles 14, 15 (1) and 21 of the Constitution. CJ Dipak Misra delivered the leading judgment for himself and A.M. Khanwilkar, J. While R.F. Nariman, Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, JJ., each delivered their separate concurring opinions.

Before the Supreme court, in the writ petition, was the constitutional validity of Section 497 IPC which criminalizes adultery and Section 198 (2) CrPC which provides for offences against marriages. Petitioner submitted that the provision by its very nature is arbitrary and invited the frown of Article 14 of the constitution.

CJ Dipak Misra (for himself and A.M. Khanwilkar) stated that on a reading of the provision, it is demonstrable that women are subordinated to men in as much as it lays down that when there is connivance or the consent of the man (husband), there is no offense. This treats the woman as a chattel. It treats her as the property of man and totally subservient to the will of the master. It is the reflection of the social dominance that was prevalent when the penal provision was drafted. It was also noted that the section doesn’t bring within its purview an extramarital relationship with the unmarried woman or a widow. It treats husband of the women to be a person aggrieved for the offense punishable under Section 497. It does not treat the wife of the adulterer as an aggrieved person. In regard to dignity to women and gender equality, it was observed that Section 497 curtails equality to and dignity of women by creating invidious distinctions based on gender stereotypes which creates a dent in the individuality of women. Besides, the emphasis on the element of connivance or consent of the husband tantamount to subordination of women. Therefore we have no hesitation in holding that the same offends Article 21 of the constitution.

In the words of the Court, “treating adultery an offense, we are disposed to think, would tantamount o the State entering into real private realm. Under the existing provision, the husband is treated as an aggrieved person and the wife is ignored as a victim. Presently the provision is reflective of a tripartite labyrinth. A situation maybe conceived of where equality of status and the right to file a case maybe conferred on the wife. In either situation, the whole scenario is extremely private.”

R.F. Nariman, J. In his concurring opinion referred to various religious testaments and texts as also law and judgments of various foreign jurisdictions. He observed that the ostensible object of Section 497, being to protect and preserve the sanctity of marriage, is not, in fact, the object of Section 497 IPC. The sanctity of marriage can be utterly destroyed by a married man having sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman or a widow. Also, if the husband consents or connives at such sexual intercourse, the offence is not committed, thereby showing that it is not sanctity of marriage which is sought to be protected and preserved, but a proprietary right of a husband. Secondly, no deterrent effect has been shown to exist, or ever to have existed, which may be a legitimate consideration for a State enacting criminal law. Also, manifest arbitrariness is writ large even in cases where the offender happens to be a married woman whose marriage has broken down, as a result of which she no longer cohabits with her husband, and may, in fact, have obtained a decree for judicial separation against her husband, preparatory to a divorce being granted. If, during this period, she has sex with another man, the other man is immediately guilty of the offence.

Dr D.Y. Chandrachud, J. also referred to foreign judgments and distinguished authors. Section 497 IPC is destructive of and deprives a woman of her agency, autonomy and dignity. If the ostensible object of the law is to protect the ‘institution of marriage’, it provides no justification for not recognising the agency of a woman whose spouse is engaged in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. She can neither complain nor is the fact that she is in a marital relationship with a man of any significance to the ingredients of the offence. The law also deprives the married woman who has engaged in a sexual act with another man, of her agency. She is treated as the property of her husband. That is why no offence of adultery would be made out if her husband were to consent to her sexual relationship outside marriage. Worse still, if the spouse of the woman were to connive with the person with whom she has engaged in sexual intercourse, the law would blink. Section 497 is thus founded on the notion that a woman by entering upon marriage loses, so to speak, her voice, autonomy and agency. manifest arbitrariness is writ large on the provision.

Indu Malhotra, J., the only woman on the Bench traced the origin of the word adultery from the French language; and discussed the doctrine of coverture, historical background of Section 497 and contemporary international jurisprudence. She observed that the Section is replete with anomalies and incongruities which renders it liable to be struck down as arbitrary and discriminatory.

Resultantly, Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) CrPC were struck down. And the decisions in Sowmithri Vishnu v. Union of India, 1985 Supp SCC 137 and V. Revathi v. Union of India, (1988) 2 SCC 72 were overruled. Justice Malhotra, in her opinion, delivered, also held W. Kalyani v. State, (2012) 1 SCC 358 as overruled. The petition was accordingly disposed of. [Joseph Shine v. Union of India,(2019) 3 SCC 39, decided on 27-09-2018]

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    Inspire of this judgment lakhs of divorce cases are pending in the courts years together with unnecessary adjournments with adjudication.Supreme court should give standing instructions on divorce cases in lieu of this judgment. Other wise this impact will not Go to common man.

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