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After Section 377, can India change its law on marital rape?

In 2018, alongside the landmark judgment on LGBQT+ rights, the Supreme Court also struck down the section on adultery in the Indian Penal Code. But the law’s position on marital rape is yet to change

In 2009, the Delhi High Court had ruled in favour of decriminalising section 377 - a decision which was overturned only to by a two-judge Supreme Court bench in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
In 2009, the Delhi High Court had ruled in favour of decriminalising section 377 - a decision which was overturned only to by a two-judge Supreme Court bench in 2013. Photo: Getty Images

2018 was a dramatic year for Indian constitutionalism. This was the year the Indian Supreme Court embraced sexuality as an integral part of citizenship. In Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, the Court finally recognized the constitutional rights of equality, dignity, expression, life and liberty of LGBTQ Indians. In Indian Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala, better known as the Sabarimala decision, the Supreme Court found that it was constitutionally obligated to allow Hindu women of faith of a menstruating age to access the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, from which they had hitherto been excluded. Finally, in Joseph Shine v. Union of India, the Court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which enabled a husband to file a criminal complaint of adultery against his wife’s male lover, because it was unconstitutional.

This was also the year that the Supreme Court celebrated constitutional morality. The underlying logic of each of these decisions was that constitutional morality leads the Court to strike down laws that may be justified in the name of social convention, but social morality must bend before constitutional values of equality and dignity. In Johar, constitutional morality led the Court to strike down the sodomy law; in Sabarimala, it held that religious sentiment could not trump women’s right to equality; in Shine, the Court held that constitutional morality would also govern marriage.

Is marriage a private relationship or a public one? Marriage may be the most delicate and intimate of relationships, but it also enjoys social, political and economic functions. Any entry that the law may make into the matrimonial bond has been heavily contested. Recall B.R. Ambedkar’s resignation over opposition to the Hindu Code Bill, the continuing debate over the validity of the cruelty provisions under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and what might be thought of as the failure of the dowry prohibition law.

Marital rape is an area of both matrimonial and criminal law that has remained stubbornly resistant to reform. Exception 1 to Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘the marital rape exception’) provides that non-consensual sexual intercourse by a man upon his wife, when she is above the age of 15, is not a criminal offence…. We argue that by extending the doctrine of constitutional morality to the marital relationship, Joseph Shine is a crucial stepping stone to striking down the marital rape exception….


In Joseph Shine, the Court sought to ensure that marriage enters the domain of the application of constitutional dignity of each citizen, including those of wives. Many years ago, Menaka Guruswamy argued elsewhere that men and women alike possess equal citizenship rights under the Indian Constitution, and that ‘the ability to withhold consent in the context of sex is a crucial ingredient of the constitutional self.’ The article details how India was an outlier when it came to the recognition of marital rape as a crime, and that countries as close as Nepal and Bhutan, along with 102 other countries from the global South and the global North, had criminalized marital rape.

The Penal Code regulates marriage through a number of provisions, including the marital rape exception. Section 376, the rape law provision, excludes marital rape. It says ‘sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape.’ Amendments to the Penal Code in 2013 made it an offence for a man to have non-consensual intercourse with his wife if they were legally separated (Section 376A IPC), but the marital rape exception under Section 375 IPC was left untouched.

In Joseph Shine, the Supreme Court makes a preliminary case for the recognition of marital rape, ‘implicit in the seeking to privilege the fidelity of women in a marriage, is the assumption that a woman contracts away her sexual agency when entering a marriage… Curtailing the sexual autonomy of a woman or presuming lack of consent once she enters marriage is antithetical to constitutional values.’ Since the Court had decided Navtej Singh Johar before Shine, it could look at its own jurisprudence on sexual autonomy and consent from Johar, and rely on it….


Shine establishes a firm foundation to recognize marital rape. No doubt the lack thus far of such recognition is a constitutional embarrassment. That a five-judge Bench grounds their reasoning along lines of female sexual autonomy is one of the most dramatic long-term jurisprudential implications of Joseph Shine.

Sex and the Supreme Court, edited by Saurabh Kirpal, published by Hachette India (352 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
Sex and the Supreme Court, edited by Saurabh Kirpal, published by Hachette India (352 pages, 699

The Misra bench that decided Johar and Shine invoked another common theme, of the role of a constitutional court in unpacking colonial-era laws and the colonial morality that defines them. The Shine Bench, like the Bench did in Johar, responds to the call of precedent that binds us to colonial morality, with a stern call to look to transformative constitutionalism. It argues that the Victorian morality that inspired this penal provision is antithetical to constitutional guarantees of liberty, dignity and equality. And the Court emphasizes that the criminal law must be in consonance with constitutional morality.

It is constitutional morality that leads to the constitutional court ruling against a 160-year-old sodomy law, or the similarly archaic adultery law or a temple entry ban on women. The rejection of constitutional morality would render the loss of a valuable instrument against social or popular morality or even legislative inaction to reform laws that are constitutionally untenable.

Social morality may call for retention of the marital rape exception. Proponents of social morality seem to argue that allowing rape to happen in marriage preserves an aspect of the marital bond that is essential for our society and culture. They may point to a society that is feudal, poor and backward, where women have a subordinate position within the marital relationship; and argue that changing this dynamic will cause social upheaval and chaos.

The doctrine of constitutional morality challenges this status quo. Constitutional morality requires that, when the law governs intimate relationships, it holds them to the standard of the Constitution – ensuring equality and dignity. The doctrine enjoins the Court to play a counter-majoritarian role, protecting individuals and minorities against majoritarianism. Joseph Shine brings the doctrine of constitutional morality to bear in intimate relationships. Shine is a crucial step forward in that it holds that intimate relationships, even within the institution of marriage, must be tested against the standard of constitutional and not social morality.

This is an edited excerpt from the essay, ‘From adultery to Sexual Autonomy: The Constitutional Potential of Joseph Shine’, included in Sex and the Supreme Court: How The Law is Upholding the Dignity of the Indian Citizen, edited by Saurabh Kirpal and published by Hachette India.

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