Adultery laws in India have long been criticized for their patriarchal roots and bias towards male dominance. Under these laws, a man engaging in sexual relations with another man’s wife is held criminally liable, unless the husband consents or is complicit in the act. However, there’s no legal recourse for a woman whose husband commits adultery. Historically, adultery was condemned as a sinful act, primarily associated with married individuals.

In India, adultery legislation has traditionally portrayed women as victims rather than perpetrators, absolving them of culpability and attributing their actions to being seduced by men. This legal framework is in direct conflict with constitutional principles such as equality, non-discrimination, and the right to live with dignity.

The global trend towards decriminalizing adultery reflects a recognition of its gender discriminatory nature and its infringement upon the right to privacy. Even Lord Macaulay, the architect of India’s penal code, opposed its inclusion as a criminal offense, suggesting it should be treated as a civil matter instead.

Legal judgments in various countries, including South Korea, South Africa, Uganda, and Japan, have underscored the need to evolve laws in accordance with changing societal values and individual liberties. Recent judicial decisions have expanded the scope of fundamental rights, aligning with contemporary moral standards and societal norms.

In a historic move, India’s judiciary has struck down the 158-year-old adultery law, acknowledging its obsolescence in the face of evolving social and moral landscapes. This decision marks a significant milestone in the ongoing process of legal reform, reflecting a commitment to uphold fundamental rights and adapt to changing times.


Joseph Shine, a hotelier, filed a writ petition under Article 32, challenging the constitutionality of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, along with Section 198 of the Criminal Procedure Code, on grounds of violating Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution. Initially, this began as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against adultery.

Shine argued that the provision for adultery was arbitrary and discriminatory, particularly against women, and infringed upon their dignity. He contended that such a law perpetuated gender bias and treated women as property.

A constitutional bench comprising five judges was constituted to hear the petition. Shine’s motive behind the petition was to protect Indian men from potential repercussions of extramarital affairs instigated by vindictive women or their husbands. He cited a personal tragedy, where a close friend in Kerala committed suicide following false rape accusations by a female co-worker.

Furthermore, Shine characterized Section 497 as emblematic of sexual inequality, authoritarianism, and male chauvinism. He argued that the antiquated framework in which the law was conceived no longer aligned with contemporary societal values and norms.

  1. ISSUES: 

The court delineated the following issues:

  • Firstly, it deliberated whether Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code imposed disproportionate punishment, warranting its decriminalization.
  • Secondly, it examined whether Section 497 engendered unjust discrimination, contravening Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Thirdly, it considered whether Section 497 necessitated amendment to uphold gender equality and neutrality.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra, joined by Justice Khanwilkar, emphasized that Section 497 perpetuates the notion of women being treated as property by their husbands. He lamented the omission of unmarried and widowed individuals from its purview and noted the absence of provision for an adulterer to be considered aggrieved under this law. The Chief Justice highlighted the disproportionate power afforded to husbands, allowing them to control their wives arbitrarily, a situation he deemed unjustifiable. Consequently, he deemed Sections 497 and 198 as violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution due to their arbitrary and discriminatory nature.

Justice RF Nariman rejected the argument that Section 497 safeguards the sanctity of marriage, asserting that it wrongly grants husbands proprietary rights over their wives in cases of adultery. He concluded that the sections in question discriminate against women and exhibit arbitrariness, rendering them unconstitutional under Articles 14 and 15(1). Moreover, he emphasized that the law undermines women’s personal dignity, thereby violating Article 21.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud highlighted that Section 497 undermines women’s autonomy and relegates them to subservience within marital relationships. He argued that the provision fails to ensure substantive equality and disregards the protective discrimination intended by the framers under Article 15(3). Additionally, he contended that the law impedes women’s meaningful exercise of their rights under Article 21.

Justice Indu Malhotra observed that Section 497 denies women the right to prosecute their husbands for adultery and lacks gender neutrality, violating the principle of equality under Article 14. Furthermore, she noted its failure to provide benefits to women as envisaged under Article 15(3), thus violating their rights. Consequently, she concluded that the provision restricts women’s liberty under Article 21 and declared it unconstitutional.

In essence, each justice underscored various aspects of Section 497 that infringed upon constitutional principles, leading to its unanimous declaration as unconstitutional.


The discourse on adultery laws in India is entrenched in patriarchal ideologies, perpetuating gender stereotypes and inequalities. While the judiciary often justifies existing provisions by implicitly questioning women’s agency, men’s rights activists demand the removal of women’s immunity from prosecution, further entrenching patriarchal attitudes. This article contends that deleting existing provisions does not remove consequences for adultery but opens avenues for alternative redress, such as civil law remedies. Adultery grounds for divorce, aligning with privacy rights and avoiding criminal prosecution. Additionally, legal provisions like Section 498A and the Domestic Violence Act address mental trauma from adulterous relationships. Shifting focus from punitive measures to holistic, gender-equal legal remedies can dismantle patriarchal structures and foster a just society. Prioritizing women’s empowerment in the legal system upholds human rights principles and addresses evolving societal needs.


In Yusuf Abdul Aziz v. State of Bombay (1954) SCR 930, the court grappled with the constitutional validity of Section 497, which was challenged on the grounds of potentially infringing upon Article 14 and Article 15 by excluding wives from being considered abettors in cases of adultery. Despite the contention, a three-judge bench upheld the provision’s validity, reasoning that it served as a special safeguard aimed at protecting women’s interests. They argued that this classification based on gender fell within the scope of Article 15(3), which permits special provisions for women. Additionally, the court emphasized that Article 14 should be interpreted alongside other constitutional provisions, and gender-based classifications could be considered legitimate.

Similarly, in Sowmithri Vishnu v. Union of India & Anr. (1985) Supp SCC 137, where a challenge was mounted under Article 32 against Section 497 of the IPC, the court maintained the provision’s validity. The contention was that it unfairly discriminated against women by denying them the right to prosecute the female party involved in adultery with their husband. However, the court ruled that the expansion of offenses fell within the legislative domain, rather than the judicial sphere. The severity of disrupting a family was equated with breaking a home, justifying the provision’s retention. Furthermore, it was emphasized that only men could commit such an offense, thus bolstering the provision’s constitutionality.

In V. Revathi v. Union of India (1988) 2 SCC 72, the court reiterated the constitutionality of Section 497, coupled with Section 198. Here, the provision was defended as it prevented both spouses from prosecuting each other for adultery, thereby eliminating discriminatory practices. The court construed this as a form of reverse discrimination in favor of women, rather than against them, as it aimed to protect the sanctity of marriage.

Lastly, W. Kalyani v. State through Inspector of Police and another (2012) 1 SC 358, although not directly challenging the constitutionality of Section 497, underscored that women were immune to adultery charges solely by virtue of their gender. This observation emphasized the unique legal position women held under the provision, shielding them from prosecution for adultery.


In the landmark case of State of UP v. Deoman Upadhyaya, the Supreme Court underscored the practical considerations inherent in assessing the constitutionality of statutes, particularly concerning equal treatment under the law. The Court acknowledged the complexities faced by legislators in addressing societal issues, emphasizing that legislative decisions must be evaluated within the context of real-world challenges rather than hypothetical scenarios. This recognition reflects the judiciary’s awareness of the inherent limitations faced by lawmakers in crafting legislation that adequately addresses multifaceted social issues.

The legislative intent behind the drafting of statutes, such as Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), often reflects a desire to protect certain segments of society, particularly vulnerable groups like women. The historical context of Section 497’s enactment in the mid-19th century sheds light on the primary focus of legislators at the time, which was primarily concerned with holding male offenders accountable for acts of adultery. While contemporary perspectives may challenge the gender-specific nature of such laws, it remains within the purview of the legislature to determine the scope and applicability of criminal statutes.

Adultery not only impacts the individuals directly involved but also has far-reaching consequences for their families, including children. The breakdown of marriages due to adultery often leaves children from both offending and victimized spouses in precarious situations. With divorce often being the only recourse, children are left to navigate the emotional and practical challenges of fractured family dynamics. However, the recent judgment striking down Section 497 fails to address the plight of these children, leaving a gap in legal remedies for those affected by adulterous relationships.

Section 497 of the IPC serves as a deterrent against adultery, aiming to prevent repeat offenses by imposing criminal penalties on adulterers. While critics may argue that the law’s enforcement has been inconsistent, its existence nonetheless contributes to shaping societal attitudes towards adultery. Despite its limitations in enforcement, the law plays a role in deterring individuals from engaging in extramarital affairs, thereby upholding societal norms surrounding marital fidelity. This aspect underscores the broader societal implications of criminal statutes and the role they play in shaping individual behavior and social norms.

It is essential to recognize that India’s socio-economic landscape, characterized by semi-feudal structures and diverse cultural norms, complicates attempts to apply Western legal frameworks and notions of justice wholesale. The adjudication of legal principles must consider the unique socio-economic factors and cultural contexts that influence the Indian legal system. Factors such as caste dynamics, economic disparities, and traditional familial structures significantly impact the interpretation and application of laws, including those related to adultery.


The discourse on adultery laws in India is entrenched in patriarchal perspectives, perpetuating gender stereotypes and failing to address women’s disempowerment within criminal law. While the judiciary justifies existing provisions, implying women lack agency, men’s rights activists demand the removal of women’s immunity, further entrenching patriarchal attitudes. Deleting provisions doesn’t negate legal consequences; rather, it allows for civil law remedies. Adultery grounds for divorce, aligning with privacy rights and avoiding state resource allocation. This shift prioritizes gender equality and women’s empowerment, addressing systemic oppression and fostering a more just legal framework.

Existing legal provisions such as Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code and the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, adequately address the mental trauma inflicted on women by their husband’s adulterous relationships. These laws offer comprehensive protections against various forms of abuse within marital relationships, including emotional distress caused by infidelity. By prioritizing holistic legal remedies grounded in gender equality, the judiciary can contribute to dismantling patriarchal structures and promoting a more inclusive society. This approach upholds human rights principles and responds to the evolving needs of Indian society, fostering the well-being and agency of all individuals, irrespective of gender.


Case Brief on Joseph Shine v. Union of India (UOI) AIR 2018 SC 4898 – BareLaw

Case Analysis: Joseph Shine vs Union of India (2018) – LawLex.Org

Joseph Shine vs Union Of India on 27 September, 2018 (indiankanoon.org)

Joseph Shine v. Union of India : case analysis (ipleaders.in)

Case Analysis: Joseph Shine v Union of India (Adultery Is No Longer Be A Criminal Offence) (lawcorner.in)

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