A Question of Consent: The Delhi High Court’s Split Verdict on the Marital Rape Exception

Today, a division bench of the High Court handed down its judgment on the constitutional challenge to the marital rape exception [“the MRE”]. Put simply, the marital rape exception states that “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife … is not rape.” Petitioners – supported by amici – argued that the marital rape exception – which, in effect, immunises married men from being prosecuted for rape – violated Articles 14, 15(1), 19(1)(a), and 21 of the Constitution. The two-judge bench delivered a split judgment: Justice Shakder struck down the MRE as unconstitutional on all of the above grounds, while Justice Hari Shankar upheld its constitutionality.

Previously, on this blog, I have analysed the constitutional issues around the MRE in some detail. In this post, I shall argue, first, that the fundamental point of difference between the two judges is on the question of consent. Justice Shakder believes that whether in a marriage or out of it, sexual consent is paramount and inviolable. Justice Hari Shankar – although he denies it from time to time – believes that within a marriage, a woman’s consent to sex carries less weight. Secondly, I shall note that under existing Indian constitutional law, Justice Shakder is correct, and Justice Hari Shankar is wrong. Consequently, when this split judgment goes for resolution before a Full Court (or to the Supreme Court), Justice Shakder’s views ought to be upheld, and the MRE struck down.

The Opinion of Shakder J

The core of Justice Shakder’s argument can be found in paragraph 135.2 of his opinion. Examining s. 375 of the Indian Penal Code in some detail, which sets out the seven circumstances under which a sexual act counts as rape, he observes that:

A close reading of the circumstances would reveal that except for the sixth circumstance (which concerns a girl-child under 18 years of age), willingness (as in the first circumstance) and consent (as in the second to fifth and seventh circumstance)- form the basis of separating acts which are lawful from those which are construed as unlawful. The circumstances are clearly agnostic to the relationship between the offender and the woman victim. [Emphasis supplied]

As Shakder J notes, therefore, the core of the offence of rape is non-consensual sexual intercourse. The MRE creates a “firewall” that protects one class of putative perpetrators – married men – from being prosecuted for this offence, even though the ingredients of the offence are exactly the same. The question then follows: is this distinction constitutional? Shakder J holds that is not, as in essence what it conveys is that “forced sex outside marriage is ‘real rape’ and the same act within marriage is anything else but rape.” (paragraph 137.1) Thus, the MRE “with one stroke deprives nearly one-half of the population of the equal protection of laws.” (paragraph 137.1) This is because:

The immediate deleterious impact of the provisions of MRE is that while an unmarried woman who is the victim of the offence of rape stands protected and/or can take succour by taking recourse to various provisions of the IPC and/ the Code, the same regime does not kick-in if the complainant is a married woman. In this context, one may have regard to the following provisions of the IPC and the Code : Section 228A of the IPC prevents disclosure of the identity of a rape victim except in certain circumstances set out therein. Likewise, Section 26 of the Code provides that the offences concerning rape/aggravated rape shall be tried as far as practicable by a court presided by a woman. Section 53A empowers a medical practitioner to examine, a person charged with committing an offence of rape if he has reasonable grounds for believing that such examination will furnish evidence with regard to the commission of the offence. (paragraph 141)

For these reasons, Shakder J holds that the MRE fails the reasonable classification test of Article 14. He then addresses two counter-arguments: the idea of a “conjugal expectation to sex” and the “preservation of the institution of marriage.” On both issues, his response is grounded in the right to individual autonomy and consent. On the first, he notes that whatever the expectation might be (i.e., “unreasonable” denial of sex counts as a ground for divorce under Indian family law), it does not extend to an “unfettered right to sex” without consent (paragraph 146); on the second, he notes that the marital bond is itself based on the idea of choice, and mutual respect for “physical and mental autonomy” (paragraph 148); once again, therefore, a legal provision predicated upon the denial of consent cannot be saved by appeals to the institution of marriage.

This focus on choice, autonomy, and equality also leads Shakder J to hold that the MRE violates Articles 21, 15(1), and 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. In paragraph 163, he holds that “modern-day marriage is a relationship of equals. The woman by entering into matrimony does not subjugate or subordinate herself to her spouse or give irrevocable consent to sexual intercourse in all circumstances. Consensual sex is at the heart of a healthy and joyful marital relationship.” For this reason, denial to married women the right to trigger prosecution for the violation of sexual consent infringes Articles 21; it also infringes Article 15(1), as it is discrimination based solely on marital status; and it infringes Article 19(1)(a), as “the guarantee of freedom of expression includes a woman’s right to assert her sexual agency and autonomy.” (paragraph 166)

The Opinion of Hari Shankar J

How does the opinion of Hari Shankar J respond to these contentions? This opinion is based on two prongs. First, Hari Shankar J identifies what he believes to be a fundamental flaw in the petitioners’ logic: i.e., that all non-consensual sex is, by default, rape, and that the MRE is an impermissible departure from this default; and secondly, that when it comes to sex, the marital relationship is distinct from all other relationships, in that it carries with it a “legitimate expectation of sex.” This – according to Hari Shankar J – provides the “intelligible differentia” under Article 14, that justifies the legislative decision of treating non-consensual sexual intercourse within marriage as “not rape.”

Let us examine both steps of the argument. On the first step, Hari Shankar J tries to drive his point home by drawing an analogy with the crime of murder. Just like not every instance of taking a life is not deemed under criminal law to be “murder”, therefore – it follows – that not every act of non-consensual sex is deemed “rape”; rather, it is the legislature that decides which kind of non-consensual act is to be deemed “rape”, just as it defines when the taking of life is deemed murder. (paragraph 103)

In this context, Hari Shankar J repeatedly – and rather intemperately – accuses petitioners’ counsel, and the amici, of making arguments devoid of logic, and attempting to substitute the legal definition of “rape” for “what they feel should be the definition of rape.” If there is anything that demonstrates a complete lack of logic, however, it is Hari Shankar J’s choice of analogy. The relationship between the MRE and the offence of rape is not equivalent to the legislature defining the circumstances under which the taking of a life amounts to murder. The correct analogy – as should be immediately evident – is that of the legislature defining the offence of murder in full detail, and then adding – for example – an “MP exception” that goes “the killing of a human being by a member of parliament is not murder.” This is because – and this is the point of Shakder J’s judgment that Hari Shankar J fails to deal with in any sense – s. 375 exhaustively defines the ingredients of the offence of rape (which – as Shakder J correctly notes – involve non-consensual sex in various forms), and then exempt a class of perpetrators from prosecution on no other ground than that they belong to that class.

It is this simple elision that thus allows Hari Shankar J to dodge the issue of consent entirely, and repeatedly insist throughout his judgment that he supports consent, and indeed – incredibly – that this case is not about consent at all. As is immediately obvious, however, this case is all about consent: the entire scheme of s. 375 is designed to define non-consensual sex as rape, and then shield married men from the consequences of that legislative design.

Hari Shankar J then notes that there are a range of provisions in the IPC where the relationship between the parties matters (in a somewhat disturbingly violent analogy, he argues that a father slapping his child is not an offence, but a stranger slapping the same child is (paragraph 134)). This brings us to the second prong of his argument, which is the intelligible differentia. Hari Shankar J argues that the intelligible differential is founded upon the “unique demographics” (paragraph 104). What are these unique demographics? This comes in paragraph 113:

Equally plain, and real, is the fact that the primary distinction, which distinguishes the relationship of wife and husband, from all other relationships of woman and man, is the carrying, with the relationship, as one of its inexorable incidents, of a legitimate expectation of sex.

This idea of a “legitimate expectation of sex” comes in repeatedly through the judgment, and is the basis of Hari Shankar J’s finding that the MRE is constitutional. In paragraph 116, he notes that marriage “is the most pristine institution of mankind”, and that the “sexual aspect is but one of the many aspects” upon which the marital bond rests; in paragraph 119, he says that “sex between a wife and a husband is, whether the petitioners seek to acknowledge it or not, sacred.” In paragraph 120, he says that “introducing, into the marital relationship, the possibility of the husband being regarded as the wife’s rapist, if he has, on one or more occasion, sex with her without her consent would, in my view, be completely antithetical to the very institution of marriage, as understood in this country, both in fact and in law.” In paragraph 127, he says that unlike live-in relationships, “the expectation of sex of the husband, with his wife is, therefore, a legitimate expectation, a healthy sexual relationship being integral to the marital bond”; in paragraph 130, he says that “any assumption that a wife, who is forced to have sex with her husband on a particular occasion when she does not want to, feels the same degree of outrage as a woman raped by a stranger, in my view, is not only unjustified, but is ex facie unrealistic.” He then adds that “it cannot even be assumed, in my view, that the perceptions of the petitioners reflect the views of the majority of Indian women.”

It is important to extract these observations in some detail, because they are characteristic of the muddled legal thinking that runs through Hari Shankar J’s opinion as a whole. Even if you take all these observations and assertions to be true (and there are many who would contest them!), what they demonstrate – at their highest – is that sex within marriage is somehow qualitatively different from sex outside marriage, because it forms an integral part of a set of reciprocal rights and obligations that constitute the valuable social institution of marriage.

But even if true, this is entirely besides the point. The only evidence that Hari Shankar J can muster up as evidence in his support is that unreasonable denial of sex can serve as grounds for divorce. That is true, as Shakder J also recognises. But there is a chasm of difference between saying – on the one hand – that the reciprocal social rights and obligations in a marriage create a ground for dissolution of that marriage if they are not discharged by either party, and saying – on the other – that they justify immunising the violation of sexual consent from being prosecuted as it normally is, outside of marriage – i.e., as rape.

Indeed, when you strip away the verbiage, what Hari Shankar J is effectively saying is that marriage not only gives the husband a legitimate expectation of sex, but the further right to violently enforce that expectation without suffering the same consequences as other people suffer. This not only flouts the rule of law, but also flouts basic logic, which appears to be particularly dear to Hari Shankar J.

A quick note on paragraph 130, which I found particularly disturbing. First, there is the assertion that a married woman who is subjected to non-consensual sex (since Hari Shankar J objects to using the word “rape”) will not feel as “outraged” as woman who is raped by a non-married person (whether that person is a stranger, a friend, or an intimate partner). This assertion has no business being in a judicial opinion. Secondly, there is the assertion that “the majority of Indian women do not share the views of the petitioners.” Whether true or not, this is entirely irrelevant, and indeed, a return of the infamous “minuscule minority” view that appeared in Koushal v Naz, was seemingly buried in Navtej Johar, but appears to have infinite lives in the halls of the Court.

It is this extraordinary reasoning that allows Hari Shankar J, to hold in paragraph 165, that:

Plainly read, it is clear that there is nothing in the impugned Exception which obligates a wife to consent to having sex with her husband, wherever he so requests. All that it says is that sexual acts by a husband with his wife are not rape. It does not even obliquely refer to consent, or want of consent.

Once again, we see the absence of logic. It is nobody’s case that the Exception itself “obligates” a wife to consent to sex at all times. The case is that the Exception devalues a wife’s consent purely by virtue of her marital status. Hari Shankar J sets up this straw-man to knock it down in the second sentence – and then, in the third sentence, he comes up with a non-sequitur, noting that not only does the MRE not force a wife into non-consensual sex, but that it has nothing to do with consent at all! It is almost trite at this stage to point out the absence of logic: when s. 375 says that non-consensual sex is rape, and the MRE says that “except where it is a married man”, what the section – read as a whole – says is that non-consensual sex between a married man and a wife is not rape. Repeatedly – and belligerently – stating that all this has nothing to do with consent does not make it true.

The intellectual dodge at the heart of the judgment is finally laid bare in paragraph 169, where Hari Shankar J notes, by way of conclusion, that:

…the legitimate conjugal expectations of the man, as the husband of the woman and the reciprocal obligations of the wife, the peculiar demographics and incidents of marriage, vis-à-vis all other relationships between man and woman, and all other legitimate considerations to which I have already referred, and which justify extending, to sexual intercourse and sexual acts within marriage a treatment different from such acts committed outside the marital sphere.

For the reasons I have explained in some detail, the dodge is simple: it is not enough for Hari Shankar J to show that sex within a marriage is in some way “different” from sex outside of marriage. He has to show that it is different in such a way that justifies diluting a married woman’s consent to sex. He does not show this, because he – incorrectly – attempts to argue that the entire case is not about consent in the first place. And the only way he can show that is by ignoring the actual text of s. 375 altogether – the text that is the starting point of Shakder J’s judgment – and which makes clear that consent is baked into the very ingredients of the offence of rape.

Endnotes

Having deconstructed the fundamental flaws of law – and of logic – that constitute Hari Shankar J’s opinion, it should be obvious that the opinion is unsustainable. In 2022, Indian constitutional law does not support the dilution of sexual consent based on marital status. One does not need to look too far for this: the issue is considered squarely in the Puttaswamy judgment, where Chandrachud J’s plurality opinion is explicit on this point, while many the other judgments make it clear the decisional autonomy is a fundamental facet of the right to privacy, and is not lost or in any other way compromised through social institutions such as marriage. Decisional autonomy within the marriage was also the fundamental basis upon which adultery was decriminalised in Joseph Shine; and sexual autonomy was at the core of Navtej Johar. It is – thankfully – too late in the day to go back on this rather fundamental precept.

Three final points. First, I have not in this post analysed all parts of the two opinions. For example, the two judges differ on whether striking down the MRE would lead to the creation of a new offence. I have analysed this issue in some detail in my previous post, and interested readers may refer to that.

Secondly, as this post shows, I believe that Shakder J’s judgment is opinion, and ought to be upheld on appeal. However, I also believe that the appellate forum needs to do more than that. I believe – and I say this with due consideration – that parts of Hari Shankar J’s opinion have no place in a jurisprudence that is formally committed to the basic idea of individual autonomy, dignity, privacy, and equal concern and respect. These include, for example, the frankly repulsive statement – that occurs on more than one occasion – that a married woman who is raped will “feel” less outraged than an unmarried woman who is raped. Examples can be multiplied; and when this judgment goes on appeal, the least that can be done is a formal expunging of these observations from the record.

And finally, this judgment shows – if anything does – the often Janus-faced character of the courts. We have two opinions – delivered in the same case – that, like ships in the night, sail past each other without even the chance of a conversation, because their premises are so very different. One opinion sees the task of constitutionalism to be interrogating power differences and breaking down social hierarchies, in order to achieve genuine substantive equality and freedom. The other opinion takes upon itself the task of defending and entrenching those hierarchies. I think we don’t see the first face of the courts often enough; but when we do – as in Shakder J’s opinion – it’s a powerful reminder of what constitutionalism, at its best, can be – and do.


[Disclaimer: The present writer was involved in the initial drafting and hearing of the petitions challenging the MRE. He has not been involved in the case since 2019.]

2 thoughts on “A Question of Consent: The Delhi High Court’s Split Verdict on the Marital Rape Exception

  1. With regards to the first argument (i.e. that there is no general understanding that rape means any non-consensual sexual intercourse), Justice Shankar argues that the formal structure of the rape provision (i.e. a broad statement followed by exceptions) is not dispositive as to the understanding of rape. He says that the fact that marital rape has been drafted as an exception to the general wording and not as a part of the general wording could simply be a matter of drafting convenience. I actually agree with him here. I don’t think the formal structure should be dispositive. Instead, the Court should have gone beyond the formal structure and analyzed the historical understanding of rape to see whether rape was seen as action specific, actor specific or both. In other words, the Court should have seen whether historically non-consensual sexual intercourse between as a husband and wife was considered as rape but the husband was nevertheless shielded from legal consequences or whether it was not considered as rape at all. (To be fair, I don’t think Justice Shankar has done such an historical analysis either)

  2. It is hard to accept a husband having sex should secure a prior approval. In bed , Normally, he presumes it to be a part of life. One cannot expect a married man to take in writing, to avoid prosecution later , that his woman has consented for an act. The reasoning of both the judges has many loose ends. Ultimately, it is for the third judge to decide fairly protecting the institution of marriage

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