By Arré Bench Sep. 27, 2018
If you want to know whether an adultery law is archaic AF, checking to see if it grants women any agency, or just regards them as their husbands’ property is a good place to start. Which is exactly what the Supreme Court did.
Today the Supreme Court struck down the law that declared adultery a criminal offence. After the landmark Section 377 ruling, the Supreme Court undertook the task of scrubbing yet another outdated colonial relic from our penal code. Adultery is no longer criminal, but before you turn polyamorous without telling your spouse, remember it is still grounds for divorce. Only you won’t end up in jail.
The law proscribed a fine and imprisonment for up to five years for the guilty man, and please note the deliberate use of the word man, because according to Section 497 only men could be found guilty of adultery. If you want to know whether the adultery law is archaic AF, checking to see if it grants women any agency, or just regards them as their husbands’ property is a good place to start. Which is exactly what the Supreme Court did, and found that the law was discriminatory toward women. Women were not even eligible to file a complaint accusing their husbands of adultery, and the wording of the law also contained sexist undertones by punishing only those men who had affairs with women “without the consent or connivance” of her husband.
“The wife can’t be treated as chattel and it’s time to say that the husband is not the master of woman,” said Chief Justice Dipak Misra, while reading out the Supreme Court’s verdict. For starters, I just want to say, “Preach!” Next, what Justice Misra said should be universally accepted as fact in 2018, but it has not stopped the Centre from trying to defend the adultery law during court hearings. Arguments from the Centre’s consul revolved around the basis that “diluting adultery laws will impact the sanctity of marriage”. It could be said that if the threat of a fine and five years in the slammer is the only thing keeping a man from straying, then that marriage is not the most secure to begin with, but the Supreme Court had a less cheeky rebuttal. The judges stuck to their stated goal of treating husband and wife equally, and ending women’s role as subordinates.
This decision is a leap forward for our the rest of India in accepting non-traditional lifestyles.
Of course, what happens in the halls of the Supreme Court takes a while to trickle down into the lives of everyday Indians. Just like the overturning of Section 377 was just one important step on the road toward equality, the notion that a wife isn’t just a machine that cranks out babies and rotis will take some time to take root in every corner of the nation. After all, on paper we still deny that marital rape is even a thing.
Meanwhile, the women of India should rejoice. In the eyes of the Supreme Court, they are now equally likely as men to seduce partners outside marriage, break families apart, and sneak around. Equality in terms of pay and social status may take a while, but this is a beginning nevertheless.
However, in all seriousness, this decision is a leap forward for our the rest of India in accepting non-traditional lifestyles. Who a person chooses to be with is a private matter, and like the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court demonstrated, it can be grounds for civil cases like divorce but shouldn’t attract a criminal case.
Critics of this verdict feel like the institution of marriage has been defiled, but you don’t get an omelette without cracking a few eggs. For every Supreme Court verdict, there’s a khap panchayat ruling from the hinterland to remind us that change takes time.