Delhi Commission for Women Chairperson Swati Maliwal voiced concerns on the Supreme Court’s verdict on adultery. The court ruled that the 158-year-old Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code that made adultery a punishable offence only for men, no longer applies. Now, adultery may be grounds for divorce but is no longer a criminal offence. Maliwal questioned what legal options remain for a woman abandoned by a spouse. “In a way you’ve given licence for people to be in marriages and at the same time, have illegitimate relationships with others,” said Maliwal. Social activist Brinda Adige asked, “If adultery is not a crime how can a woman file a case for desertion?” (The Indian Express, September 27.)
It is baffling that a law based strictly on prim convention, on the social construct of marriage actually existed — the non-adherence to which could technically land you in jail (though it rarely did). Linking morality with monogamy, tragically enough, still causes people to be stoned to death in some parts of the world. By finally striking down Section 497, the SC tacitly acknowledges that trying to police human behaviour is fundamentally self-defeating. When our courts have a backlog of cases that can’t be finished in 20 years, precious resources cannot be put to use figuring out what’s going on in a relationship between two adults, or three. Having said that, as Maliwal points out, there are strong reasons for the state to control the power hierarchy in marriage, that is often unfair to women, especially in India. For example, among the lakhs of women domestic workers in cities, there is one commonly heartbreaking theme — of husbands vanishing with impunity. Legal recourse is a distant dream for the poor. Male abandonment leads to devastating consequences for struggling wives and children that perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Alas, we live in the age of Tinder and the end of Section 497 is a concession to the prevailing culture, a wry acknowledgement of the evidence strewn all around us, that love is not always eternal. People don’t deserve to be arrested for an inability to adhere to love’s utopianism, the frustrating expectation of happily ever after. It’s bad enough that wanting change is seen as a personal failing, for it to be a crime is to ignore the mysterious forces that propel us to chase love’s fleeting satisfactions. Fidelity may well be the foundation on which wedlock is based but what should be done about straying spouses is a question that has perplexed mankind through the centuries. Biblical metaphors like “Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet getting scorched?’ has wound up humanity in puritanical guilt but it’s done precious little to counter the inherent contradictions in modern marriages.
It is worth noting, that the greatest art, literature and music has not been produced by the faithful, or the happily married. Pop music, in fact, as a genre would probably not exist in the absence of marital strife and lurid affairs. Whether it’s the 30-year-old track by Fleetwood Mac that goes Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies or Beyonce’s latest album Lemonade that allegedly references her emotionally fraught relationship with errant husband Jay Z, the angst of domestic arrangements, has, if nothing else, fuelled creativity. Who knows if the turbulent and ultimately doomed romance within Anna Karenina would have come to light if Leo Tolstoy had been a family man? Popular culture provides a far more accurate picture of current, intimate relationships and it’s clear that what’s ordained by law matters not a jot to those in the throes of a romance. What’s right and wrong is endlessly debatable. Small mercies that the consequences (while many) are at least, not criminal.