Adultery no longer a crime, Supreme Court strikes down Section 497 IPC

Adultery no longer a crime, Supreme Court strikes down Section 497 IPC

Under the 158-year-old adultery law, known as section 479, a man could be imprisoned for up to five years for engaging in sexual relations with a married woman without the consent of her husband.

It is not clear how many men have been prosecuted under the law since its inception - there is no data available.

The Supreme Court today struck down adultery as an offence and termed Section 497 as unconstitutional.

In a concurring but separate judgement, the CJI and Justice Khanwilkar said that "a husband is not the master" and any system treating a woman with indignity, inequity and inequality or discrimination "invites the wrath of the Constitution". Making adultery a crime is retrograde and would mean "punishing unhappy people", said Justice Misra.

Reacting to the judgement, National Commission for Women (NCW) Chairperson, rekha Sharma said, "I welcome this judgement by Supreme Court".

"Besides, the emphasis on the element of connivance or consent of the husband tantamounts to subordination of women".

India's highest court has struck down a century-old law that made adultery a criminal offense, the BBC reports. However, since the law defined adultery as an offence committed by a man against a married man and punished only men for the same, it had faced sharp criticism as being discriminatory.

The subtext here, of course, is preserving the "unique structure" of patriarchy and the Indian culture of hypocrisy over women's rights, love, sex and morality.

In fact, in its first judgement in 1954 it had stated that women could only be a "victim" of adultery and not a perpetrator in the "crime". "They are not in any way situated differently than men", Shine's petition said. "Adultery can be a ground for divorce but not a criminal offence". Even though the court admitted that "without a shadow of doubt", adultery is grounds for divorce, it noted how 'a man having sexual intercourse with a married woman is not a crime'.

Like the decision to legalise homosexual acts, some advocates against the adultery law characterised Thursday's decision as an act of decolonising the country's Raj-era criminal code.

Justice Indu Malhotra, the only woman on the five-judge panel, which delivered the unanimous verdict, pointed out the "absurdity" of the law.

"It is a big victory for women's status and position within marriage and within families" said Jayna Kothari, an attorney and the executive director of the Center for Law and Policy Research in Bangalore.

But in their ruling on Thursday, the judges said this narrative no longer applied, noting also that Britain did away with its own laws penalising adultery long ago.

In Pakistan, it is punishable by up to 25 years in prison while in Bangladesh - both formerly part of British India - men, but not women, can be jailed for five years.

"The institution of marriage must be protected".

"A woman can not be asked to think as a man or as how the society desires. Stability of marriages is not an ideal to be scorned".

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