Women leaders and others have praised the Supreme Court’s verdict declaring the law against adultery unconstitutional on Thursday. The top court called Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code arbitrary and said it is “time to say husband is not the master”.
Sushmita Dev, Congress MP and the president of the women’s wing of the party, said the law “militated against a woman’s status as an individual separate entity”. “A law that does not give women the right to sue her adulterer husband and cannot be herself sued if she is in adultery is unequal treatment,” Dev tweeted.
Communist Part of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat supported the court’s verdict. “At the same time the aggrieved wife of an adulterous husband can take recourse to laws against cruelty and also for compensation under the domestic violence prevention act,” The Indian Express quoted her as saying. “Adultery remains a ground for divorce.”
National Commission for Women Chairperson Rekha Sharma said the judgement was gender-neutral. “I welcome the Supreme Court’s verdict to strike down Section 497 and abolish the outdated adultery law as a criminal offence,” Sharma said. “This is a law from the British era. Although the British did away with it long ago, we were still stuck with it.”
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan also described the verdict as a fine judgement that removed an “antiquated” law. “Section 497 treats women as property of their husbands and criminalised adultery [only of man who sleeps with someone’s wife]. Adultery can be ground for divorce but not criminal,” Bhushan tweeted.
The five-judge Constitution bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra had reserved the verdict in August on a petition seeking to make men and women equally liable for adultery.
However, Delhi Commission for Women Chairperson Swati Maliwal has called the ruling “anti-women”.
Section 497 is a Victorian-era provision of the Indian Penal Code, which says: “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 the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery and shall be punished.”
In court, the Centre had argued that adultery is designated as an offence keeping in mind the sanctity of marriage as an institution. In the ruling however, Chief Justice Dipak Misra said Section 497 affects the right to life of a woman under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The court also struck down the part of Section 198 of the Criminal Procedure Code that allowed only a man to file an adultery case and not a woman against her husband.