Section 497: The Adultery Loophole
NEW DELHI: In 2011, while hearing a matrimonial dispute, the Supreme Court criticised Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. The Section, which criminalises adultery, defines it as consensual sex between a man and a married woman. The bench of Justices Aftab Alam and RM Lodha criticised the law on the grounds that it reduces married women to property of their husband.
The court was hearing the case of Kalyani, who had appealed against an Andhra Pradesh High court judgment. The court had dismissed her petition against a case under Section 497, by another woman Sailaja who had alleged that her husband was having an affair with her.
In 2016, not much has changed. Amit (not his real name), 40, is in the midst of a messy divorce after his wife’s alleged infidelity.
“Why will I take action against her lover when it is my partner who is at fault here? This has been going on for over a year, we have split up and it is public knowledge that she is with him. Yet I’m the one bleeding dry.”
Section 497 of IPC states that, ”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…. In such case, the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor."
The section provides that the wife cannot be punished even as an abettor. Thus, the mere fact that the appellant is a woman makes her completely immune to the charges of adultery and she cannot be proceeded against for that offence.
“Only the paramour of a woman can be booked under the law with a premise that the man lured her into that relationship,” says Deepika Bhardwaj, noted men’s rights activist and filmmaker.
“Adultery is a moral wrong, not a criminal offence and the punishment should be the same for all,” she adds.
Although adultery by definition refers to any extramarital incidence of sexual intercourse, the Indian law criminalises only one form of adultery. It is illegal only if a man has sexual intercourse with a woman who is married without the consent of the woman’s husband.
However, it is not easy to prove connivance or consent.
For example, in the case of Bharatlal vs Top Singh, a trial court had sentenced Top Singh to RI for 1 year and fined for Rs. 700 for the crime of having an extramarital sexual relationship with Bharatlal’s wife. Top Singh had appealed to a sessions court and argued that there was a delay in the process filing a complaint by Bharatlal and that he had proved that Bharatlal had connived to the extramarital relationship. The court subsequently acquitted him of all charges. Yet, later the High court of Madhya Pradesh again reversed the decision stating that connivance was not proven.
Ironically, it was the British that introduced the adultery law in the IPC, but it remains unchanged in India even though the UK has long decriminalised adultery. Now, it remains a ground for divorce with the legal definition of adultery being “physical contact with an alien and unlawful organ.”
However in India, adultery is viewed in a way that a man’s lineage would be tempered with and the other male would be adulterating his blood line by having intercourse with his wife. Hence, the intercourse with the consent of the husband, is not criminalised as he is aware of the lineage.
But the law seems less concerned with protecting marriage than with controlling women’s sexuality The code does not provide for prosecution of that married woman, a single woman who engages in sex with a married man, or a married man who sleeps with a single woman. So, while the law may appear to favour women, it is easily disregarded that it is this very law that does not permit a woman to bring a case against them or the other person.The larger question, however, might interrogate the appropriate boundaries of the State’s reach. “What a person does in his bedroom, with another consenting adult, should never be a criminal offence,” says Alok Prasanna, senior resident fellow, Vidhi Centre for legal policy.
Concurring, Bhardwaj says adultery should come under the civil laws framework where the aggrieved person can claim damages or compensation, but one shouldn’t be jailed for it since it’s consensual.
“If at all it must be termed a criminal offence because of the harm it causes to the institution of marriage, it should be punishable for all-husband or wife and their respective lovers whether man or woman,” says Bhardwaj.
According to Bhardwaj, while the law doesn’t allow a woman to prosecute her husband if he is found cheating, but there are innumerable cases documented where a woman, caught cheating, then files cases under Section 498 A (the Dowry law), the Domestic Violence Act and other provisions for maintenance and alimony on finding that her husband is in an extra marital affair.
“There was recently a case where a woman filed a 498A case on her own cousin, alleging her husband was having an affair with her sister. It’s a different thing that the court ruled that her own sister can’t be made an accused, because she isn’t the husband’s relative, but because he was caught cheating, she slapped this case on him.”
Sanjay Sehgal’s (name changed) wife walked out on him and his 8 year old son in 2008. “I accepted it, till she attempted to play the woman card,” he says. “She wanted a house, a car and then threatened to slap a domestic violence case and that’s when I went to court.”
Sehgal filed a criminal case against his wife’s lover, Dilip Mehta (name changed) relying on videos of the couple in a car as proof. Mehta then moved the high court to question the constitutional validity of Section 497, saying in a changing society where “live-in relationships are being legally recognised,” adultery as a criminal offence is no longer warranted.
The bench of Justice BH Marlapalle and Justice U D Salvi came down heavily on Mehta for these comments and said, “If somebody wants free sex, then first release themselves from the institution of marriage. If such acts are allowed, then there would be no civil society," the judges had said
While the judges observed that adultery was an "offence against the institution of marriage", they also had added that the section needs to be amended to bring women under the purview.
“It’s been 11 years,” says Sehgal who eventually settled out of court and got custody of his now 16 year old son. “Because the law is so skewed, I let the guy (wife’s paramour) go, why blame him? It’s a law of double standards.”
(Sanjana Chowhan is a multi media journalist and author)