On a reading of the provision, it is demonstrable that women are treated as subordinate to men inasmuch as it lays down that when there is connivance or consent of the man, there is no offence. This treats the woman as a chattel. It treats her as the property of man and totally subservient to the will of the master.
It is interesting to note that Section 497 IPC does not bring within its purview an extra marital relationship with an unmarried woman or a widow. As per Black‘s Law Dictionary, adultery is the voluntary sexual intercourse of a married person with a person other than the offender‘s husband or wife. However, the provision has made it a restricted one as a consequence of which a man, in certain situations, becomes criminally liable for having committed adultery while, in other situations, he cannot be branded as a person who has committed adultery so as to invite the culpability of Section 497 IPC.
Section 198 CrPC deals with a ‘person aggrieved’. Sub-section (2) treats the husband of the woman as deemed to be aggrieved by an offence committed under Section 497 IPC. It does not consider the wife of the adulterer as an aggrieved person.
The offence and the deeming definition of an aggrieved person is absolutely and manifestly arbitrary as it does not even appear to be rational and it can be stated with emphasis that it confers a licence on the husband to deal with the wife as he likes which is extremely excessive and disproportionate. We are constrained to think so, as it does not treat a woman as an abettor but protects a woman and simultaneously, it does not enable the wife to file any criminal prosecution against the husband. Indubitably, she can take civil action but the husband is also entitled to take civil action. However, that does not save the provision as being manifestly arbitrary.
If the entire provision is scanned being Argus-eyed, we notice that on the one hand, it protects a woman and on the other, it does not protect the other woman. The rationale of the provision suffers from the absence of logicality of approach and, therefore, we have no hesitation in saying that it suffers from the vice of Article 14 of the Constitution being manifestly arbitrary.
Treating adultery an offence, we are disposed to think, would tantamount to the State entering into a real private realm. Under the existing provision, the husband is treated as an aggrieved person and the wife is ignored as a victim. Presently, the provision is reflective of a tripartite labyrinth. A situation may be conceived of where equality of status and the right to file a case may be conferred on the wife.
In either situation, the whole scenario is extremely private. It stands in contradistinction to the demand for dowry, domestic violence, sending someone to jail for non-grant of maintenance or filing a complaint for second marriage. Adultery stands on a different footing from the aforesaid offences. We are absolutely conscious that the Parliament has the law making power. We make it very clear that we are not making law or legislating but only stating that a particular act, i.e., adultery does not fit into the concept of a crime. We may repeat at the cost of repetition that if it is treated as a crime, there would be immense intrusion into the extreme privacy of the matrimonial sphere. It is better to be left as a ground for divorce.
For any other purpose as the Parliament has perceived or may, at any time, perceive, to treat it as a criminal offence will offend the two facets of Article 21 of the Constitution, namely, dignity of husband and wife, as the case may be, and the privacy attached to a relationship between the two. Let it be clearly stated, by no stretch of imagination, one can say, that Section 498-A or any other provision, as mentioned hereinbefore, also enters into the private realm of matrimonial relationship. In case of the said offences, there is no third party involved. It is the husband and his relatives. There has been correct imposition by law not to demand dowry or to treat women with cruelty so as to compel her to commit suicide. The said activities deserve to be punished and the law has rightly provided
In case of adultery, the law expects the parties to remain loyal and maintain fidelity throughout and also makes the adulterer the culprit. This expectation by law is a command which gets into the core of privacy. That apart, it is a discriminatory command and also a socio-moral one. Two individuals may part on the said ground but to attach criminality to the same is inapposite.
When the parties to a marriage lose their moral commitment of the relationship, it creates a dent in the marriage and it will depend upon the parties how they deal with the situation. Some may exonerate and live together and some may seek divorce. It is absolutely a matter of privacy at its pinnacle.
The theories of punishment, whether deterrent or reformative, would not save the situation. A punishment is unlikely to establish commitment, if punishment is meted out to either of them or a third party. Adultery, in certain situations, may not be the cause of an unhappy marriage. It can be the result. The issue that requires to be determined is whether the said act should be made a criminal offence especially when on certain occasions, it can be the cause and in certain situations, it can be the result. If the act is treated as an offence and punishment is provided, it would tantamount to punishing people who are unhappy in marital relationships and any law that would make adultery a crime would have to punish indiscriminately both the persons whose marriages have been broken down as well as those persons whose marriages are not. A law punishing adultery as a crime cannot make distinction between these two types of marriages. It is bound to become a law which would fall within the sphere of manifest arbitrariness.
As we have held that Section 497 IPC is unconstitutional and adultery should not be treated as an offence, it is appropriate to declare Section 198 CrPC which deals with the procedure for filing a complaint in relation to the offence of adultery as unconstitutional.