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'Husband not the master of his wife': Supreme Court scraps 150-year-old law that made adultery a crime

'Husband not the master of his wife': Supreme Court scraps 150-year-old law that made adultery a crime

Noting that most countries have already scrapped laws making adultery a criminal offence, the Supreme Court made a sharp U-turn from its previous stance.

The Supreme Court today declared that adultery is no longer a crime. A five-judge bench comprising of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justice RF Nariman, Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Indu Malhotra and Justice AM Khanwilkar pronounced the verdict.

"Adultery cannot and should not be a crime. It can be a ground for a civil offence, a ground for divorce," said the bench, scrapping the 150-year old adultery law as unconstitutional.

Under Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, adultery was an offence and a convict could be sentenced to five-year-jail term and/or a fine. 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 Victorian law had also faced flak for treating a woman as the property of a man.

Last year, an Italy-based Indian businessman Joseph Shine, who hails from Kerala, filed a Public Interest Litigation challenging the controversial Section 497. The petitioner had argued that men and women should be equally liable for adultery.

Before this, the apex court had upheld the law against adultery on three separate occasions. 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". The next two rulings upheld the law to protect the sanctity of marriage.

The Centre, too, referred to the latter to defend the law, stating that continuation of the adultery law is important as it ensures the sanctity of the marriage and is for public good.

But noting that most countries have already scrapped laws making adultery a criminal offence, the Supreme Court made a sharp U-turn from its previous stance and called the law "manifestly arbitrary". According to media reports, the bench further said that making adultery a crime is retrograde and would mean "punishing unhappy people".

Reading out the judgement, Misra stated that equality is the need of the hour and that its time to make it clear that the husband should not be considered the master of his wife. Subordination of any sex over the other is clearly unconstitutional, the CJI reiterated.

The CJI spoke for himself and Justice Khanwilkar. In a previous court hearing, Misra had observed that "adultery can be a ground for divorce. It can be part of civil law involving penalties. But why a criminal offence?" The five-member bench had reserved its verdict on August 8, after Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand, appearing for the Centre, concluded her arguments.

In today's landmark judgement, Justice Nariman pointed out that the adultery law was against the right to equality and life, and reportedly added that women can't be treated "as cattle", while Chandrachud spoke up against patriarchy and gender inequality to strike it down.

(Edited by Sushmita Choudhury Agarwal)