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Today, in Joseph Shine v Union of India, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, and decriminalised adultery. As we have discussed before on this blog, this was not a difficult case. The asymmetric nature of the provision – which punishes only the male participant, and that too only on the instance of the husband, and also not if the husband has “consented” or “connived” with respect to the act – is clearly based upon gendered stereotypes that view women as the property of their husbands, and also, as sexually submissive, liable to be “seduced” by men at any moment. Once that fact is clearly understood, there is precious little that can be said to defend the provision under the Constitution.

The four concurring opinions proceed along expected lines. They hold that the asymmetric character of the provision is indeed grounded upon ideas of gender subordination, is therefore “manifestly arbitrary”, and fails the test of Article 14 of the Constitution (and also puts paid to the State’s argument that the provision is necessary for preserving marriages). This would, of course, leave the door open for the legislature to recriminalise adultery through a gender-neutral provision. The Court, however, closes that door as well, noting that criminalisation of what is essentially a private matter – with no broader societal interest – would be an infringement of privacy. These two findings together mean that adultery is gone from the statute books – and will stay gone.

Equality and Non-Discrimination 

In addition to these – expected – lines of reasoning, there are certain interesting aspects on the issues of equality and discrimination in the concurring opinions of Justices Chandrachud and Malhotra, which carry forward the views that they had expressed last month in Navtej Johar v Union of India (the 377 judgment). Justice Chandrachud, for example, reiterates his argument that Article 14 analysis must go beyond the traditional classification test, and focus on substantive disadvantage:

Justness postulates equality. In consonance with constitutional morality, substantive equality is “directed at eliminating individual, institutional and systemic discrimination against disadvantaged groups which effectively undermines their full and equal social, economic, political and cultural participation in society.” To move away from a formalistic notion of equality which disregards social realities, the Court must take into account the impact of the rule or provision in the lives of citizens. The primary enquiry to be undertaken by the Court towards the realisation of substantive equality is to determine whether the provision contributes to the subordination of a disadvantaged group of individuals. (para 38)

It is important that this argument is made not in the context of Article 15(1), but Article 14. Framing Article 14 in the language of disadvantage means that the five groups that are not mentioned in Article 15(1) (sex, race, caste, religion, place of birth), but are nonetheless analogous to those groups by also representing sites of structural or institutional disadvantage (such, as for instance, disabled persons), are entitled to a more searching and rigorous scrutiny under Article 14, than the traditional (deferential) rational classification standard.

Chandrachud J. then goes beyond Article 14, and tests the adultery provision on grounds of Article 15(1) (non-discrimination on the basis of sex) as well. Advancing his Navtej Johar framework of analysis – which combined a contextual  approach to understanding the effect of the law on the one hand, with an interpretation of Article 15 that prohibits distinctions based on class stereotypes on the other – Chandrachud J. finds that the adultery provision discriminates on grounds of sex, as it is founded in stereotypes about women’s sexual agency, and gender roles within the family. As part of this analysis, he makes some important remarks about the public/private divide in constitutionalism: this is because, in order to engage in a stereotype-based analysis of the adultery provision, one must necessarily apply constitutional norms to and within the family structure, normally thought of as part of the “private sphere.” This leads him to make the following important observation:

Control over women’s sexuality is the key patriarchal assumption that underlies family and marriage  In remedying injustices, the Court cannot shy away from delving into the ‘personal’, and as a consequence, the ‘public’. It becomes imperative for us to intervene when structures of injustice and persecution deeply entrenched in patriarchy are destructive of constitutional freedom. But, in adjudicating on the rights of women, the Court is not taking on a paternalistic role and “granting” rights. (paragraphs 51 – 52)

And, subsequently:

It is the duty of this Court to break these stereotypes and promote a society which regards women as equal citizens in all spheres of life- irrespective of whether these spheres may be regarded as ‘public’ or ‘private’ …  While there has been a considerable degree of reform in the formal legal system, there is an aspect of women’s lives where their subordination has historically been considered beyond reproach or remedy. That aspect is the family. Marriage is a significant social institution where this subordination is pronounced, with entrenched structures of patriarchy and romantic paternalism shackling women into a less than equal existence …  Constitutional protections and freedoms permeate every aspect of a citizen’s life – the delineation of private or public spheres become irrelevant as far as the enforcement of constitutional rights is concerned. Therefore, even the intimate personal sphere of marital relations is not exempt from constitutional scrutiny. The enforcement of forced female fidelity by curtailing sexual autonomy is an affront to the fundamental right to dignity and equality. (paragraphs 62 – 63, 67).

The interrogation of the public/private divide is, of course, a significant part of the longer-term project of transformative constitutionalism; here, however, it has two immediate implications. By holding that the family structure and the institution of marriage are not immune from constitutional scrutiny, Chandrachud J.’s concurrence casts a shadow over two provisions, both of which have been discussed before on this blog: the marital rape exception under the Indian Penal Code, and restitution of conjugal rights (Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act). The defence to the first is invariably the “preservation of the institution of marriage”, while the latter was, actually, upheld on the basis that “cold constitutional law” could not be introduced into the warmth of the home. Both these justifications are now invalid: what Chandrachud J.’s opinion clarifies is that the autonomy of a social institution (whether the institution of marriage, or the home) is always subordinate to individual right to autonomy, exercised within that institution. Or, to put it another way, the Constitution exists to democratise private relationships, breakdown inequalities and hierarchies within those relationships, and ensure individual dignity and freedom not simply against the State, but also against social institutions and structures.

Justice Malhotra also carries forward her reasoning in Navtej Johar. On Article 14, she holds that as the historical foundation of the adultery provision was, indisputably, in the premise that women were chattels, the classification that it draws (between who is aggrieved and who isn’t, and who can sue and who can’t) is vitiated by an illegitimate constitutional purpose. Therefore, while the classification may be intelligible, and there may exist a rational nexus with a goal, that goal itself (in this case, the subordination of women) is ruled out by the Constitution:

Hence, the offence of adultery was treated as an injury to the husband, since it was considered to be a “theft‟ of his property, for which he could proceed to prosecute the offender. The said classification is no longer relevant or valid, and cannot withstand the test of Article 14, and hence is liable to be struck down on this ground alone. (paragraph 12.2)

This is an important step forward in centering the “illegitimate purpose” prong of the classification test under Article 14.

One last point: when adultery was upheld in 1954, it was upheld on the basis of Article 15(3) of the Constitution, which allows for “special provisions” to be made for women and children. Not punishing women for adultery was held to be a “special provision” for their benefit. All four opinions make it clear, however, that Article 15(3) cannot be pushed into service where the entire rationale of the law is discriminatory against women. Justice Malhotra articulates the point most clearly:

The true purpose of affirmative action is to uplift women and empower them in socio-economic spheres. A legislation which takes away the rights of women to prosecute cannot be termed as “beneficial legislation.” (para 14)

Treating Article 15(3) as an affirmative action provision (even though the language is broader) is, to my mind, an important step forward in articulating a clear and principles interpretation of this clause. Of course, as the example of President v Hugo shows us, this is not always as easy an enquiry as the adultery case allows. Often, disadvantage and stereotypes are bound up together, because stereotyping is the prelude to disadvantage. When you are trying to remedy disadvantage, then, sometimes you need to take stereotypes as your bases to do so. How the Court negotiates this, of course, is a question for the future.

Two Objections 

Two quibbles. The first is procedural. In 1954, the constitutional validity of the adultery provision was upheld by a five-judge bench. The present bench was bound by that. The Chief Justice and Chandrachud J. are both aware of this, and try to get around it. The Chief Justice argues that that case was on the “narrow point” of Article 15(3), while Chandrachud J. argues that it was on the distinguishable point of the woman not being made an abettor. I am unconvinced. Here is the first line of Yusuf Abdul Aziz:

The question in this case is whether section 497 of the Indian Penal Code contravenes articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.


15(3) or no 15(3), abettor or no abettor, you can’t get clearer than this. The case was about a constitutional challenge to Section 497, and the constitutional challenge was rejected. Maybe there is a case that Article 21 was not raised, and that therefore, a five-judge bench could rule on that. I do think, however, that if Yusuf Abdul Aziz was to be overruled on the grounds of Article 14 and 15, a seven-judge bench needed to be constituted.

Secondly, at one point in his judgment, Nariman J. notes that Hindus never had the concept of divorce, because marriage was considered a sacrament. This is, with respect, historically inaccurate. It is true that among caste Hindus, divorce was an anathema; divorce, however, was frequent and accepted among lower castes, and this is a fact that has been recorded in multiple works of social and cultural history. It does, however, raise some interesting questions about what exactly do we talk about when we talk about transformative constitutionalism. As Karl Klare noted in the famous article that began it all, transformative constitutionalism is not simply about how you interpret the Constitution, but also about how law is taught and discussed. One important part of that is to focus more closely on the sources (both historical and otherwise) that are relied upon in judgments: for example, it is notable that, in a case of gender equality under the Indian Constitution, the first footnote in the Chief Justice’s opinion refers to John Stuart Mill, a British and white man, who lived in the 19th century. Transformative constitutionalism, I feel, must also deepen the sources that it relies upon – otherwise, we’ll still be decriminalising adultery while also making sweeping statements that are both incorrect and result in historical erasure, about the nature of marriage and divorce “among the Hindus.”