Adultery vis-a-vis cruelty: Is the Supreme Court lenient when it comes to husbands?
The Supreme Court ignored the fact that at the time of his wife’s death, the accused was in fact in the village of the person he was alleged to be in an extra-marital affair with.
The Supreme Court judgment in KV Prakash Babu v State of Karnataka has been in the news for holding that adultery of the husband won't per se amount to cruelty towards the wife for the purposes of Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Here, Anjinamma, the wife of the accused committed suicide within seven years of marriage and the husband was accused of not only abetting her suicide under Section 306 of the IPC but was also alleged to have committed "cruelty" punishable under Section 498-A of the IPC. While he was convicted for both these offences by the trial court, with the Karnataka High Court confirming the same in appeal, the Supreme Court has acquitted him of both these offences.
The judgment is a travesty of justice.
Not looking at the evidence
It is very rare for the Supreme Court to overturn concurrent findings of fact made by two lower courts and when it happens, it is usually due to some unconscionable error made by the lower courts. One such glaring example was in Adambhai Sulemanbhai Ajmeri v State of Gujarat where the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence and acquitted the accused, finding the "evidence" against him to have been entirely cooked up by the police, swallowed whole by the lower courts.
In Prakash Babu's case, the Supreme Court does not even do the prosecution the courtesy of discussing the evidence in detail. It brushes it all aside as though it is merely the loose talk of gossipy villagers. What we are not told in this judgment is that no fewer than eight witnesses (three persons related to Anjinamma, and five independent witnesses) all said that the accused was having an extra-marital affair. Indeed, if one does not read the Karnataka High Court judgment in the same case, one may even get the impression that the accused's wife had no reasonable basis to suspect him.
Two other important facts are totally ignored by the Supreme Court.
When the accused's wife alleged that he was cheating on her, an attempt at mediating the dispute was made in the local police station. The people who were involved in the mediation and the local police officer all testified that they had been part of this effort to reconcile the couple. None of them disbelieved her when she alleged that he was having an extra-marital affair. In fact, the couple reconciled when the accused said he wouldn’t do such things in the future.
Also ignored by the Supreme Court is the fact that at the time of his wife’s death, the accused was in fact in the village of the person he was alleged to be in an extra-marital affair with. It is a proven fact that he came from there when informed of her death and no explanation was given by him as to what he was doing there.
Even in the best of circumstances, there is rarely direct evidence of someone engaging in consensual sex with another adult, but all the circumstances here, the testimony of both the relatives of the woman and independent witnesses, all suggest that her suspicions about her husband’s infidelity were not unfounded or entirely baseless. The detailed examination of the evidence by the Karnataka High Court and the trial court are dismissed by the Supreme Court with no justification.
Instead, what the court relies on is an earlier judgment of the Supreme Court in Ghusabhai Raisangbhai Chorasiya vs State of Gujarat (authored by the same judge who delivered the judgement in Prakash Babu’s case) where on somewhat similar facts, the wife’s suicide because of an extra-marital affair by the husband was held not enough to hold him guilty of abetting her suicide and of cruelty.
The best possible interpretation of the thinking informing both these judgments are insensitive. The court does not understand the humiliation heaped upon a woman whose husband is found to have had an extra-marital affair. Society makes it out to be her fault for somehow being incapable of "satisfying" her husband. In both the cases, the court has simply refused to try to understand what it means for a woman to be cheated on by her husband in a patriarchal society such as ours.
When Section 498-A expressly states that "mental cruelty" is also cruelty, the court needlessly whittles down the scope of the section and its intended effect. It puts itself squarely in the shoes of the man in question and wonders how it could possibly be cruelty to the woman, failing to see the psychological and emotional impact that unfaithful behaviour has on the partner.
Only men's feelings count
What is even more galling is that just earlier this month, where a woman who was alleged to have had an extra-marital affair was accused of having abetted the husband’s death, the very same bench had this to say in a judgment: "The imputation of sustained unchaste conduct and the activities of the wife, if true, the possibility of the deceased committing suicide as an extreme step in [an] unbearable anguished state of mind also cannot be wholly excluded."
Even though the charge there was of murder, and the woman was acquitted, this passage unwittingly reveals the judges’ thinking on the issue — the husband’s pain on being cheated is the only one the law understands, the wife’s not at all.
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