What could we have told the woman who took her own life this week in Chennai – after her cheating husband allegedly told her that adultery was no longer a crime – about how that law had never been meant to protect her? The now defunct Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which had read: “Adultery: Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offense of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”
Note that precise phrasing: “consent or connivance”. Conveniently, the law as well as those who upheld it understood consent, and applied it so alliteratively – to connivance! Unless a man participated willingly in his cuckolding, his wife’s lover could be charged with a crime.
Could we have explained to that deceased woman how she had never had any recourse to justice through this law? That it had been devised for one man to punish another, and that for any woman (as per the moral codes of our society), shame itself would have been the first among various insidious punishments. If wives, being chattel, were allowed to emote, anyway.
If we’d been ignorant of this archaic decree, that was also likely to have been because as a law that men could invoke against one another, it hadn’t received much exercise in public memory. Men don’t so often go after one another in quite that way. Not as often as women get the blame. Not as often as women are turned on each other, conditioned for example to hate the one who got caught in a deceitful husband’s web and not the husband himself who so dexterously spun it. Or even if she hates that husband, to possibly not love or know her selfhood without even him.
This law had no provision for women to lodge a case. Not for women whose husbands were having affairs, nor for women who had been fooled by married men. In fact, lawyers speaking to the press suggest that one of the rare usages of Section 497 was as an act of retaliation by men facing dowry harassment proceedings. It’s vaguely disquieting how when a law that was hardly ever used was repealed, the fact of its rare usage only reinforces many things about misogyny in our social fabric.
I wish the deceased Chennai woman whom that law was used against, at least in speech, this week will be the last one ever to suffer because of it. And I wish also that after the striking down of the sexist Section 497 and the homophobic Section 377, the next to go will be Section 375, which considers rape within marriage to be criminal only if the survivor is below 15 years old. Where is consent here? All that’s evident is connivance.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 4th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.