A Supreme Court bench, comprising five justices, today unanimously decided to strike down the Adultery Law under Section 497A. CJI Dipak Misra called the “adultery law arbitrary” and said that the 150-year-old law punishes the male lover of a married woman for an affair, and not her. It treats the married woman as a victim, and not as an abettor of the offence. The court also acknowledged that the law deprives women of dignity and treats them as a man’s property.

It further said any provision treating women with inequality is not constitutional and it’s time to say that a husband is not a woman’s master. Adultery will remain a ground for divorce, the bench added.

The judges said that the law is archaic and it violates sections 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The justices said, “Adultery can be ground for civil issues, including dissolution of marriage, but it cannot be a criminal offence.”

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The law allows punishment to a man for having a sexual relationship with a married woman without the consent of her husband. While the court has scrapped the law, the petitioners wanted to bring in gender neutrality in the law.

The five-judge bench of Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and led by Misra had reserved its decision on the law in August.

Reacting to the judgment, National Commission for Women chief Rekha Sharma told ANI, “I welcome this judgment (decriminalising #adultery) by Supreme Court. It was an outdated law which should have been removed long back. This is a law from British era.”

“This law dates from a time when a woman was legally a man’s property. If you remember ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’, Michael Henchard auctions his wife because they have a fight. This terrible, terrible British law, that treated women as chattel, has finally gone. Adultery is a civil situation, there was no justification treating the issue with criminal law,” – Harini Calamur

Gender rights activist Kirthi Jayakumar said, “Adultery law began with its roots in considering women chattel – in the words of one of the lawyers I look up to and learn from, Sourya Banerjee, ‘The provision has its roots in assuming that women are property in the hands of men, and that the act of “stealing” another’s wife is punishable from that perspective.’  I’m happy to note that the judiciary is progressively doing away with redundant provisions. It is absolutely moving to see this massive edifice of a colonial legislation taken down one redundant provision at a time.”

“I believe the Chief Justice said ‘Legal sovereignty of one sex over other sex is wrong…’  and Justice Chandrachud said, ‘The law in adultery is a codified rule of patriarchy. Society attributes impossible attributes to a woman, raising woman to a pedestal is one part of such attribution’.”

Former journalist Harini Calamur, who also advocates gender neutrality, said, “This law dates from a time when a woman was legally a man’s property. If you remember the Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard, auctions his wife because they have a fight. This terrible, terrible, British Law, that treated women as chattel has finally gone. Adultery is a civil situation, there was no justification treating the issue with criminal law. Glad it is gone.”

Tara Kaushal, author of ‘Why Indian Men Rape’, said: “The judgment is welcome news. Equality is the cornerstone of a healthy society, and Section 497 continued to treat women as the possessions of the men they married. It disallowed her agency in the matter of extramarital sex. The SC has been slowly but surely putting the individual and their rights over socio-cultural constructs, and is leading the way for societal transformation.”

Until today, adultery law was a criminal offence which punished the male lover, neglecting the fact that he could be having a consensual relationship with the married woman. It also completely ignores the voice of the married woman, treating her as an object of her husband. Today’s judgment has finally corrected this.

Picture credit- DNA

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