The Supreme Court of India has ruled that adultery is no more a crime, declaring that the law that criminalized the act was a colonial-era law that punished the offence with jail time which is now unconstitutional and discriminatory against women.
Indian Times reports that the law which has been in existence for more than a decade prescribed that any man who slept with a married woman without her husband’s permission had committed adultery.
The crime, on conviction, carried a five-year prison term in the Asian country known for its conservative nature.
A petitioner had challenged the court to strike down the law describing it as arbitrary and discriminatory against women.
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In declaring adultery legal, the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously noted that ‘thinking of adultery from a point of view of criminality is a retrograde step.’
Before now, women could not file a complaint under the archaic law nor be held liable for adultery themselves, making it solely the realm of men. The court said it deprived women of dignity and individual choice and ‘gives license to the husband to use women as a chattel’.
In delivering the landmark ruling, Supreme Court Justice D. Y. Chandrachud said:
“It disregards the sexual autonomy which every woman possesses and denies agency to a woman in a matrimonial tie. She is subjugated to the will of her spouse.”
This is the second time this month that the Supreme Court in that country has overturned old-age laws governing the sexual choices of India’s 1.25 billion citizens.
Earlier this month, the court had struck a ban on gay sex introduced by British rulers in 1861, arguing that Section 377 of the Indian constitution had become ‘a weapon for harassment’ of homosexuals and that ‘history owes an apology to the members of the LGBT community and their families’.
However, government lawyers have argued that adultery should remain a crime as it threatens the institution of marriage and causes harm to children and families.
But in its ruling, the court said extramarital affairs, while still a valid ground for divorce, was a private matter between adults.
In 1954, a court had upheld adultery as a crime arguing ‘it was commonly accepted that it was the man who is the seducer, and not the woman’. But in their ruling on Thursday, September 27, the judges said this narrative no longer applied, noting also that Britain did away with its own laws penalizing adultery long ago.
“The man being the seducer and women being the victim no longer exits. Equality is the governing principle of a system. The husband is not the master of the wife,” the verdict added.