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The word “adultery” derives its origin from the French word “avoutre”, which has evolved from the Latin verb “adulterium” which means “to corrupt”. The dictionary meaning of adultery is that a married man commits adultery if he has sex with a woman with whom he has not entered into wedlock.
Under Indian law, Section 497 IPC makes adultery a criminal offence, and prescribes a punishment of imprisonment upto five years and fine. The offence of adultery under Section 497 is very limited in scope as compared to the misconduct of adultery as understood in divorce proceedings. The offence is committed only by a man who had sexual intercourse with the wife of another man without the latter’s consent or connivance. The wife is not punishable for being an adulteress, or even as an abettor of the offence. Section 198 CrPC deals with a “person aggrieved”. Sub-section (2) treats the husband of the woman as deemed to be aggrieved by an offence committed under Section 497 IPC and in the absence of husband, some person who had care of the woman on his behalf at the time when such offence was committed, with the permission of the court. It does not consider the wife of the adulterer as an aggrieved person.
Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) CrPC together constitute a legislative packet to deal with the offence of adultery which have been held unconstitutional and struck down by the Supreme Court in Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Section 497. Adultery. — 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 offence 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.
Criminal Procedure Code
Section 198. Prosecution for offences against marriage. — (1) No Court shall take cognizance of an offence punishable under Chapter XX of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860) except upon a complaint made by some person aggrieved by the offence:
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(2) For the purposes of sub-section (1), no person other than the husband of the woman shall be deemed to be aggrieved by any offence punishable under Section 497 or Section 498 of the said Code:
Provided that in the absence of the husband, some person who had care of the woman on his behalf at the time when such offence was committed may, with the leave of the Court, make a complaint on his behalf.
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Classification of offence
The offence of adultery is non-cognizable (a case in which a police officer cannot arrest the accused without an arrest warrant). Also, it is a bailable offence.
The offence of adultery is compoundable by the husband of the woman with whom adultery is committed. Compoundable offences are those where the court can record a compromise between the parties and drop charges against the accused. [Section 320 CrPC].
Offence of adultery held unconstitutional: Understanding Joseph Shine v. Union of India
Sections 497 IPC and 198(2) CrPC insofar it deals with the procedure for filing a complaint in relation to the offence of adultery, are violative of Articles 14, 15(1) and 21 of the Constitution, and are therefore struck down as being invalid, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
This Note hereinafter discusses various observations of the Supreme Court in Joseph Shine case.
The object of Section 497 is to preserve sanctity of marriage. The society abhors marital infidelity.
However, this object does not find favour with the Supreme Court. In Joseph Shine, the Court observed thus:
“… the ostensible object, as pleaded by the State, being to protect and preserve the sanctity of marriage, is not, in fact, the object of Section 497 at all …”
It was further observed that the sanctity of marriage can be utterly destroyed by a married man having sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman or a widow which is not penalised by the legislature. Also, if the husband consents or connives at the sexual intercourse that amounts to adultery, 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.
Section 497 is a pre-constitutional law which was enacted in 1860. At that point of time, women had no rights independent of their husbands, and were treated as chattel or “property” of their husbands. Hence, the offence 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.
The first draft of the IPC released by the Law Commission of India in 1837 did not include “adultery” as an offence. Lord Macaulay was of the view that adultery or marital infidelity was a private wrong between the parties, and not a criminal offence. The views of Lord Macaulay were, however, overruled by the other members of the Law Commission, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
In order to constitute the offence of adultery, the following must be established:–
(i) Sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man who is not her husband;
(ii) The man who has sexual intercourse with the married woman must know or has reason to believe that she is the wife of another man;
(iii) Such sexual intercourse must take place with her consent, i.e., it must not amount to rape;
(iv) Sexual intercourse with the married woman must take place without the consent or connivance of her husband.
After stating the ingredients as mentioned above, the Supreme Court in Joseph Shine goes on to discuss the vice of unconstitutionality inherent in the offence of adultery, as may be seen presently.
Who may file a complaint
Only husband of the woman with whom adultery is committed is treated as an aggrieved person and only he can file a complaint. However, in his absence, some other person who had care of the woman on his behalf at the time when such offence was committed may file a complaint on husband’s behalf if the court allows. [Section 198(2) CrPC]
In Joseph Shine, this was held to be arbitrary and violative of constitutional guarantees as is discussed below.
Woman has no right to file a complaint
A wife is disabled from prosecuting her husband for being involved in an adulterous relationship. The law does not make it an offence for a married man to engage in an act of sexual intercourse with a single woman, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Who can be prosecuted
It is only the adulterous man who can be prosecuted for committing adultery, and not the adulterous woman, even though the relationship is consensual. The adulterous woman is not even considered to be an abettor to the offence. Woman is exempted from criminal liability.
Presence of an adequate determining principle for such classification was doubted in Joseph Shine.
Woman treated as property of man
Historically, since adultery interfered with the “husband’s exclusive entitlements”, it was considered to be the “highest possible invasion of property”, similar to theft.
On a reading of Section 497, it is demonstrable that women are treated as subordinate to men inasmuch as it lays down that when there is connivance or consent of the man, there is no offence. 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 a reflection of the social dominance that was prevalent when the penal provision was drafted, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Section 497 violates Articles 14 [Equality before law]
Section 497 treats men and women unequally, as women are not subject to prosecution for adultery, and women cannot prosecute their husbands for adultery. Additionally, if there is “consent or connivance” of the husband of a woman who has committed adultery, no offence can be established. The section lacks an adequately determining principle to criminalise consensual sexual activity and is manifestly arbitrary and therefore violative of Article 14, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Section 198(2) CrPC also violates Article 14 [Equality before law]
Section 198(2) CrPC does not consider the wife of the adulterer as an aggrieved person. The rationale of the provision suffers from the absence of logicality of approach and therefore it suffers from the vice of Article 14 of the Constitution being manifestly arbitrary, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Violation of Article 15(1) [Prohibition of discrimination]
Article 15(1) prohibits the State from discriminating on grounds only of sex. A husband is considered an aggrieved party by the law if his wife engages in sexual intercourse with another man, but the wife is not, if her husband does the same. Viewed from this angle, the offence of adultery discriminates between a married man and a married woman to her detriment on the ground of sex only. The provision is discriminatory and therefore, violative of Article 15(1), Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Violation of dignity of woman and Article 21 [Right to life]
Dignity of the individual is a facet of Article 21. Section 497 effectually curtails the essential dignity which a woman is entitled to have by creating invidious distinctions based on gender stereotypes which creates a dent in the individual dignity of women.
Besides, the emphasis on the element of connivance or consent of the husband tantamount to the subordination of women. Therefore, the same offends Article 21, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Violation of right to privacy and right to choose
This Court has recognised sexual privacy as a natural right, protected under the Constitution. Sharing of physical intimacies is a reflection of choice. To shackle the sexual freedom of a woman and allow the criminalisation of consensual relationships is a denial of this right, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Married woman’s sexual agency rendered wholly dependent on consent or connivance of husband
A man who has sexual intercourse with a married woman without the consent or connivance of her husband, is liable to be prosecuted for adultery even if the relationship is based on consent of the woman. Though granted immunity from prosecution, a woman is forced to consider the prospect of the penal action that will attach upon the individual with whom she engages in a sexual act. To ensure the fidelity of his spouse, the man is given the power to invoke the criminal sanction of the State. In effect, her spouse is empowered to curtail her sexual agency, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Section 497 denudes woman’s sexual autonomy
Section 497 denudes a woman of her sexual autonomy in making its free exercise conditional on the consent of her spouse. In doing so, it perpetuates the notion that a woman consents to a limited autonomy on entering marriage. The enforcement of forced female fidelity by curtailing sexual autonomy is an affront to the fundamental right to dignity and equality, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Opposed to “constitutional morality”
It is not the common morality of the State at any time in history, but rather constitutional morality, which must guide the law. In any democracy, constitutional morality requires the assurance of certain rights that are indispensable for the free, equal, and dignified existence of all members of society. A commitment to constitutional morality requires enforcement of the constitutional guarantees of equality before the law, non-discrimination on account of sex, and dignity, all of which are affected by the operation of Section 497, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Premised on sexual stereotypes
Section 497 is premised upon sexual stereotypes that view women as being passive and devoid of sexual agency. The notion that women are ‘victims’ of adultery and therefore require the beneficial exemption has been deeply criticized by feminist scholars, who argue that such an understanding of the position of women is demeaning and fails to recognize them as equally autonomous individuals in society, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Breakdown of marriage
In many cases, a sexual relationship by one of the spouses outside of the marriage may lead to the breakdown of marriage. But often, such a relationship may not be the cause but the consequence of a pre-existing disruption of the marital tie, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Case of pending divorce proceedings
Manifest arbitrariness is writ large even in case of 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, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Whether adultery should be treated as a criminal offence?
Adultery is basically associated with the institution of marriage. Treating adultery an offence would tantamount to the State entering into a real private realm. Adultery does not fit into the concept of a crime. It is better to be left as a ground for divorce, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
International trends worldwide indicate that very few nations continue to treat adultery as a crime, though most nations retain adultery for the purposes of divorce laws, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Why did the Supreme Court not wait for the legislature and itself strike down the provisions?
These sections are wholly outdated and have outlived their purpose. Maxim of Roman law, cessante ratione legis, cessat ipsa lex [when the reason of the law ceases, the law itself also ceases], applies to interdict such law. Moreover, when such law falls foul of constitutional guarantees, it is Supreme Court’s solemn duty not to wait for legislation but to strike down such law, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
Adultery continues to be a ground for divorce
There can be no shadow of doubt that adultery can be a ground for any kind of civil wrong including dissolution of marriage, Joseph Shine v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 1676.
† Assistant Editor (Legal), EBC Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
 The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, Deluxe Encyclopedic Edition, Trident Press International (1996 Edn.).
 R v. Mawgridge, (1706) Kel 119.
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