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(This is a guest post by Abhinav Sekhri.)


The Supreme Court of India is currently hearing a petition filed by Joseph Shine questioning whether the offence of “adultery”, defined and punished under Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 [IPC], and associated procedural rules under Section 198(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 [Cr.P.C.], are constitutional. The hearings are in full swing, and recent media coverage suggests that the Court is keen on definitely doing something, unlike the previous occasions when the offence was challenged and its validity upheld. The question then is, what might the Court do? This post draws on an article I published some time ago discussing the legality of adultery laws and poses the choices before the Court, discussing the potential pros and cons of going down any of those paths. But first, a quick recap on the law itself.

The Law on Adultery

Section 497 IPC 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 to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.

It criminalises marital infidelity, but not all kinds. The criminal kind needs sexual relations between a person (commonly a man) and the wife of another man, without his consent or connivance. It is not a crime if you cheat on your spouse with an unmarried woman. Further, if you do cheat on your spouse with a married woman, that wife is deemed to be a victim whatever the circumstances. This separate treatment goes further and becomes more problematic when we consider the special procedural rules installed for registering adultery cases.

Indian criminal law follows a principle that anyone can start the criminal law machinery. This rule has exceptions, found in Sections 190-199 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 [Cr.P.C.] (in respect of IPC offences). Section 198 Cr.P.C. creates an exception by restricting persons who can start cases about “Offences against Marriage”, that are defined and punished in Chapter 20 of the IPC. Perhaps respecting the private nature of the underlying conduct, Section 198(1) needs complaints by persons aggrieved by the offence to start cases. It goes on to then tell us who the law considers as aggrieved, and Section 198(2) says:

For the purposes of sub- section (1), no person other than the husband of the woman shall be deemed to be aggrieved by any offence punishable under section 497 or section 498 of the [IPC]: Provided that in the absence of the husband, some person who had care of the woman on his behalf at the time when such offence was committed may, with the leave of the Court, make a complaint on his behalf.

The wife is deemed to be the victim of adultery in Section 497 IPC. But she isn’t aggrieved by the offence to be able to trigger the legal machinery. That aggrieved person will be her husband, and if he isn’t around, his nominee. That is the strange reality of the law on adultery: a victim isn’t aggrieved to exercise her right of launching private prosecution. It is a reality that has survived judicial scrutiny on three prior occasions, but is now again in the spotlight, perhaps for the last time.

The Different Ways of Framing the Problem

Having seen what the law on adultery says, it’s time to turn to what are the problems it seemingly poses. There are different ways to frame this problem, and broadly one could frame the question thus:

  • Type I: Is Section 497 IPC illegal because adultery shouldn’t be a crime at all?
  • Type II: Are Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) Cr.P.C. illegal because they perpetuate unconstitutional gender-based discrimination?
  • Type III: Is Section 497 IPC illegal because it differentiates within adulterous relationships without any rational basis for that classification?

Historically, the Supreme Court has dealt with the adultery laws on three different occasions. None of these involved a broad Type I Challenge. Instead, the Court has mostly faced Type II Challenges. In Yusuf Abdul Aziz [1954 SCR 930], the petitioner argued that Section 497 IPC was unconstitutional because it unfairly discriminated between men and women – exempting women from punishment. In Sowmithri Vishnu [(1985) Suppl. SCC 137], the petitioner argued that both Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) Cr.P.C. were bad for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sex. There was a Type III challenge too, where the petitioner argued that Section 497 IPC didn’t have any basis to only punish one kind of adulterous relationship. In V. Revathi [AIR 1988 SC 835], again only a Type II Challenge was made as the petitioner argued that Section 198(2) Cr.P.C. was unconstitutional for unlawfully discriminating against women by not considering them “aggrieved” to trigger the legal process.

Why? Why did nobody make it their primary claim that the Supreme Court should Section 497 and Section 198(2) down because adultery should not be a crime? It was because, at some fundamental level, all these petitioners and their counsel accepted that the Supreme Court is not the place to make these arguments. It is not the Court’s business to decide whether or not certain conduct should be a crime. The decision to criminalise is ultimately a reflection of what conduct the society considers bad enough for it to warrant censure and sanctions. Since society elected a legislature to reflect these, and other choices, the decision to criminalise is traditionally identified as a legislative choice. Parliament decides whether the conduct should be criminalised. When it expresses that will through a statute, the courts are bound to examine the validity of that legislative measure against the minimum barometers set out by the Constitution.

Thus, the previous challenges to the adultery provisions were reflective of this traditional approach: petitioners approached the Court to argue that the manner in which conduct had been criminalised did not pass constitutional muster. The present petition in Joseph Shine is also framed as a traditional Type II Challenge. It argued that the adultery laws perpetuate unconstitutional discrimination, seeking a review of the previous cases where the Court had held otherwise. The Supreme Court issued notice last year and agreed to go down this path primarily because it had a problem with the provisions not being gender neutral. But, going by the news coverage, the Supreme Court now seems to be mulling about whether it wants to engage in a Type I Challenge instead and consider why adultery should be a crime at all. Notice the assumption underlying the question itself: there is a kind of conduct which a legislature cannot make a crime, and the Court can identify this category.

While adultery cases did not involve Type I Challenges, such Challenges to penal statutes themselves are not totally absent from the history of Indian constitutional law. In fact, a number of cases were filed in the 1950s against new social welfare legislation which used criminal punishments against those violating licensing laws, arguing that such conduct could not be a crime. The Court agreed that a category of conduct beyond the scope of criminalisation does exist, and it located this within the Constitution itself in Article 19 rights to freedom read together with its many restrictions. Thus, in Harishankar Bagla [1955 SCR 313], the petitioner unsuccessfully argued that licensing laws on cotton were unconstitutional as they violated the rights guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) and (f). Beyond Article 19, what else might be identified in the category of conduct that can’t be penalised? The intuitive answer is the “right to life and personal liberty” guarantee under Article 21. While the Maneka Gandhi reading of Article 21 only did this indirectly by requiring laws to be “just, fair, and reasonable”, the recent recognition of a right to privacy within Article 21 surely works as a basis to make Type I Challenges.

The Implications of a Narrow or Broad Approach

A Type II Challenge in Joseph Shine would mean considering whether or not the statutes perpetuate illegal discrimination. This would involve testing the law on the basis of Article 14, and also the Maneka Gandhi version of Article 21 to see whether the adultery laws are “just, fair, and reasonable”. But if the Court sticks to its guns and makes the adultery petition a Type I Challenge, then it must do more. It must decide whether consensual sexual relationships between adults can be criminalised, even if they involve marital infidelity. It cannot answer this question by testing the mechanics of the statute under Article 14, but will have to make a substantive inquiry, turning to Article 19(1)(a) or perhaps the right to privacy under Article 21, and the reasonable restrictions to these rights. Thus, the Court would have to decide whether criminalising adultery to protect the “sanctity of marriage” as the Central Government seems to argue, is a purpose falling within the “decency of morality” clause of Article 19(2). Similarly, it would have to engage with Puttuswamy and the separate opinions therein to establish how it will test the state intervention into this sphere of conduct. The statutory provisions on adultery can arguably be found constitutionally wanting in both scenarios. So what should the Court do in this situation? Play it safe and stick to a traditional approach based on the equality clause, or enter the substantive debate on criminalisation. There are pros and cons to both options.

If the Court decides to play it safe, then it can set the record straight on the previous cases. Moreover, it can avoid a debate about what the Court thinks is conduct worthy of criminal sanctions; an expression of societal mores traditionally expressed through elected representatives. But since there are constitutionally protected spheres of conduct, the Court can’t fully avoid that question. If it does, then, decide to go ahead and address the substantive issue fully, it can lead to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court clearly identifying a set of basic principles that legislatures must adhere to while drafting criminal statutes, and locate these principles within the constitutional text. For instance, if the Court holds consensual sexual relations between adults are beyond the pale of criminal law, it can do so by locating this conduct within the scope of Article 19(1)(a) [right to freedom of speech and expression], or Article 21. Arriving at these basic constitutional minimums would potentially affect many other offences which involve similar conduct, as litigants get emboldened to file petitions. For instance, the principle would extend to excluding this entire category of conduct from the realm of Section 377 IPC, the provision currently criminalising “unnatural sex”, even if it might be consensual and between adults. Ultimately, in the long run, the Court can trigger a fruitful late-spring cleaning of the Augean Stables that are the variety of crimes punishable under many statutes across India.

But there is another side to that coin: the Court will now invite litigation challenging the legality of substantive crimes and further trample upon traditionally legislative functions. Already, the Court has broadened its jurisdiction to assume plenipotentiary powers and don the role of the White Knight in this horribly corrupt India. As Anuj Bhuwania argues, the Court has increasingly become inscrutable in carrying out this role, rendering poorly reasoned judgments or not rendering judgments at all or governing by a stream of non-reasoned orders, to slowly become part of the problem itself. This recent history suggests that opening up the gates for litigation will only lead to more chaos. And there is more basis for worry in this particular sphere of judicial review of substantive criminal law issues. The last major opportunity the Court had to engage in this kind of analysis was when it was asked to decide the constitutionality of the defamation offence, but it failed to address core legal issues and hid behind a veil of prose, rendering that decision only fitfully useful in future cases. The consequences of judicial intervention in Joseph Shine – regardless of the verdict – are not going to be so unremarkable given its status as a Constitution Bench decision.

Conclusion 

Recently, my friend and fellow skeptic Gautam Bhatia in an op-ed laid out a rival approach to the “narrow approach” where the Court sticks to the legal issue to avoid the “real” ones. This is what he called the “transformative approach”, where the Court is fearless enough to “erase and remedy long-standing legacies of injustice”. I have reservations in how Bhatia imagines the Court should go about this task, but Bhatia is right in his underlying premise, that if the Court has already broken down the barriers in terms of traditional power-relations between the different branches of government in India, it might as well do something useful. What holds me back from cheering him on is that there is too much to show that the manner in which the Court carries out its core function of answering legal issues – if it still is the core function – makes a transformative approach a double-edged sword. By inviting the Court to widen its range of targets, litigants run a risk that the Court is not going to stick to the identified targets. It will pick and choose which ones it wants to address, how to address them, and whether it wants to bring in new targets which you only find out while reading the judgment. Thus, at heart I yearn for more principled criminalisation of conduct in India, something that the Constitution Bench decision in Joseph Shine can help realise. But history often repeats itself, and that history tells me that the kind of reasoned decision needed to help realise this objective is unlikely to emerge. As I was reminded seeing the recent England-India test match: it is the hope that kills you.