Soon after Supreme Court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), my social media timeline was flooded with people wailing over the striking down of a colonial-era anti-adultery law.
People were lamenting over the ‘loss’ of morality in Indian society. Most of the people I know (majorly small towners), including students, government officials, educators, social and political activists couldn’t stop proclaiming how the verdict would tear the social and moral fabric of the society.
“Mera wo sanskaron ka bharat kahan gaya? (Where has my India which survived on ethical and moral values perished?),” lamented one person.
It is surprising to see people declaring this decision to be a catalyst for societal corruption and adultery, without understanding the whole section and its aftermaths from a critical point of view.
Section 497 criminalised adultery. According to this Act, a man is held criminal if he has a sexual relationship with a married woman, without the consent or approval of the woman’s husband.
The first problem lies here itself- while the intercourse happened between two people, only one is regarded criminal. This is a classic example of how patriarchy is detrimental to men as well.
The woman in question is preconceived to be too innocent and immature to be involved in the act without being ‘tricked’ or ‘brainwashed’ by the ‘evil’ man. This not only declares women to be incapable of free will and choice, but also dilutes the whole idea of gender equality.
The second problem with the Act is more profound and needs critical thinking. According to the Act, the husband of the woman in an extramarital affair has the authority to approve or disapprove his wife’s sexual activity outside marriage. He also holds power to sue the man who sleeps with his wife without his consent. However, this isn’t vice versa. That is, the wife holds no authority, either to give consent or to sue anyone if her husband has extramarital intercourse.
It is almost as declaring the wife to be the property of her husband. Otherwise, if the Act aimed at preserving the ‘social and moral fabric,’ why does a wife has no day in her husband’s extramarital intercourse?
It is highly paradoxical to witness a ‘social and moral fabric’ of society that criminalises and punishes a person with whom she sleeps consensually, but doesn’t raise any questions when her husband rapes her by force. It is as if the sexuality of a woman is something that society flips and tosses as per their convenience.
Decriminalizing this Act will end this double-edged bias that declares one gender villain and other the property of someone. It will allow us to see things from an unbiased perspective where decisions are taken by free will and every individual is liable for one’s and one’s action alone.
And no matter how much you hate to hear it- extramarital intercourse is a Choice. A choice that two individuals take with consciousness and free will. If a third person is being affected- both stand equally liable to present their explanations/justifications. Law and order’s interference in personal lives not only complicates the situation but binds people by force- leading to suffocation in personal lives. It creates a society where partners aren’t necessarily each other’s choice, but obligations.
And this is something to be wailed upon!