Indian legal system

Why is only the man liable for adultery, asks Supreme Court

The court said that Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code goes against gender neutrality and treats women like chattel.

The Supreme Court on Friday issued a notice to the Centre challenging the validity of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which says that only a man is liable for adultery, Bar and Bench reported. The court has sought a reply from the Centre in four weeks.

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud issued the notice after hearing a petition that questioned the section’s constitutionality. It asked why a married woman, who is equally liable for committing adultery with another married man, is not punished along with the man.

According to the section in the IPC, a man can be punished with up to five years in jail or a penalty or both if he has sexual intercourse with the wife of another person. However, the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor of the crime.

Observing that the section relieves the woman of any liability, the bench said, “Though the act is hypothetically capable of being committed by both the man and the woman, only one is liable for criminal offence.”

The court also said that the provision goes against gender neutrality and treats women like chattel. “It is perceivable from the language of the provision, the fulcrum of offence is destroyed once the consent of husband is obtained,” the court said. “Viewed from that scenario, the provision creates a dent on the independent identity of women.”

The Supreme Court had in 2011 said that the adultery law is biased against men. The provision reduces a married woman to a property of the husband, it had said. It also said that punishment is meted out to only the man, though the woman with whom he had consensual sex was an equal partner in the alleged crime.

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