Split Verdict on Criminalisation of Marital Rape| Can a Husband be labelled as a rapist? Does MRE provides impunity to offender? One says ‘Yes’, other says ‘No’ [DETAILED REPORT]

Delhi High Court: In a split verdict the Division Bench of Rajiv Shakdher and C. Hari Shankar, JJ., laid down their opinion on “Should a husband be held criminally liable for raping his wife who is not under 18 years of age?”

“Women in most parts of the world are treated as individuals, free to enter into contracts in their own right but when it comes to sexual communion with their husbands, their consent counts for nothing.”

–Justice Rajiv Shakdher

Whether or not Exception 2 Section 375 of the Penal Code, 1860 should remain on the statute?

 Remarks before pronouncing the ruling

I must state, with all humility at my command, that as I began to pen this judgment, the enormity of its impact on the society was not lost on me. I do not lay claim to being the repository of all wisdom that must be brought to bear in dealing with a sensitive issue that I am to rule on. 

— Justice Rajiv Shakdher

Whether Marital Rape Exception should be struck down?

Those wanting to strike down Exception 2 to Section 375 IPC, also seek striking down of Section 376B which concerns sexual intercourse by a separated husband with his wife, albeit, without her consent.

Further, prayer to strike down Section 198B of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 which prohibits a Court from taking cognizance of an offence punishable under Section 376B IPC except upon satisfaction of facts which constitutes the offence once a complaint is lodged by the wife against her husband was also filed.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Justice Rajiv Shakdher’s Opinion

Constitutional Viability of classification between married and unmarried women in the context of Article 14

Justice Rajiv Shakdher expressed that there can be no doubt that the legislature seeks to punish offenders who are guilty of committing rape, the said principle is the bedrock on which Section 375 IPC was founded.

Further, it cannot be doubted that there is a differentia between married, separated, and unmarried couples.

Marital Rape Exception grants impunity to an offender based on his relationship with the victim.

In Justice Shakdher’s opinion, the classification was unreasonable and manifestly arbitrary as it seemed to convey that forced sex outside marriage is “real rape” and that the same act within marriage is anything else but rape.

Sex-worker has been invested with the power to say “no”; by the law; but not a married woman.

In a gang rape involving the husband of the victim, the co-accused will face the brunt of the rape law; but not the offending husband only because of his relationship with the victim. A married woman’s ability to say “no” to sexual communion with her husband when he is infected with a communicable disease, or she is herself unwell finds no space in the present framework of rape law. Thus, the rape law as it stands at present is completely skewed insofar as married women are concerned.

Hence, in his view MRE, violates the equality clause contained in Article 14 of the Constitution and MRE with one stroke deprives nearly one-half of the population of equal protection of the laws.

The immediate deleterious impact of the provisions of MRE is that while an unmarried woman who is the victim of the offence of rape stands protected and/or can take succour by taking recourse to various provisions of the IPC and/ the Code, the same regime does not kick-in if the complainant is a married woman.

Conjugal expectation

Conjugal expectations, though legitimate during the subsistence of a joyful marriage, cannot be put at par with unbridled access and/or marital privilege claimed by the husband vis-à-vis his wife disregarding the circumstances which obtain at the given point in time as also her physical and mental condition.

Non-consensual sexual intercourse is not labelled as “rape” to save the institution of marriage

Justice Shakdher agreeing with Karuna Nundy, Advocate stated that sexual assault which falls within the four corners of Section 375 of the IPC needs to be labelled as rape irrespective of whether it occurs within or outside the bounds of marriage.

Invasion of Private Space 

The prosecution of the offending husband for a rape offence would result in invading the private space of a married couple is nothing but an attempt to keep the law at bay even when a heinous crime such as rape has occurred within what some would refer to as “sacrosanct” space.

In Justice Shakdher’s opinion, the above was morally suspect and legally untenable.

The attempt to keep away the law even when a woman is subjected to forced sex by her husband, by demarcating private and public space is to deny her the agency and autonomy that the Constitution confers on her.

Gathering evidentiary material would be difficult

In the opinion of Justice Shakdher, the difficulty in collecting evidentiary material should not be the reason for keeping an offending husband who subjects his wife to forced sex out of the purview of the substantive rape law.

New Offence 

To strike down MRE, would create a new offence, is misconceived for the following reasons:

(i) Firstly, the offence of rape is already defined in the substantive part of Section 375 of IPC. The sexual acts which are described in Clauses (a) to (d) of Section 375 constitute rape if they fall within any of the seven circumstances alluded to in the said provision. There are two exceptions provided in Section 375 and, thus, those who come within the ambit of the exception cannot be prosecuted for the offence of rape. The first exception concerns a circumstance where the woman undergoes a medical procedure or intervention. The second exception (which is the exception under challenge) concerns the act of sexual intercourse or sexual acts which involve a man and his wife who is not under 18 years of age. The exception clearly subsumes the main provision without providing a determining principle or rationale as to why husbands who have subjected their wives to forced sex should not face the full force of the rape law. Since the stated objective of the rape law is to protect women from sexual abuse of the worst kind i.e., rape, there is no perceivable rationale for granting impunity to an offending husband in the context of marital rape. Thus, if MRE is excised, all that would happen is, it would extend the ambit of Section 375 to even offending husbands.

(ii) Secondly, a new offence/new crime would perhaps have been created if the ingredients of the offence had changed. [See People v. Liberta] It is no one’s case that the ingredients of the offence have changed; all that would happen if MRE is struck down is that the offending husband would fall within the ambit of the offence.

iii) Thirdly, reading down, filling gaps (casus omissus) and/or excising parts of an offending provision contained in a statute is a legitimate judicial tool employed by courts for severing what is unconstitutional and retaining that which is construed as lawful. [See C.B. Gautam v. Union of India (1993) 1 SCC 78; Navtej Singh Johar; and Harsora v. Harsora.]

(iv) Fourthly, MRE (Exception 2 to Section 375 of the IPC) seeks to ring- fence the offender based on his marital relationship with the accused. The main provision is neutral to the relationship that may or may not subsist between the offender and the victim. Thus, a person who is a stranger or is in a live-in relationship with the victim can be prosecuted for the offence of rape. As a matter of fact, the legislature pursuant to the Criminal (Amendment) Act, 2013 has brought within the sway of rape law (Section 375) even separated husbands by inserting Section 376B in Chapter XVI of the IPC; a provision which is challenged by the petitioners on different grounds.

(v) Fifthly, what is principally punished under the criminal law is the act of omission or commission, as etched out in the IPC.

MRE violates Article 21 of the Constitution

The fact that the rapist is the husband of the victim does not make the act of sexual assault any less injurious, degrading or dehumanizing.

“Irrespective of who the perpetrator is, forced sex mars the woman-victim physically, psychologically and emotionally.”

 “Non-consensual sex in marriage is an antithesis of what matrimony stands for in modern times i.e., the relationship of equals.”

MRE violates Articles 15 and 19(1)(a) of the Constitution

Continuance of MRE, violates Article 15 of the Constitution since it triggers discrimination against women based on their marital status. The said exception impairs and abstain the power to negotiate contraception, to protect themselves against sexually transmissible disease and to seek an environment of safety, away from the clutches of her abuses.

MRE is violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution as it violates the guarantee given by the Constitution concerning freedom of expression, amongst others, to married women who are citizens of this country.

Separated husbands

Since Justice Shakdher concluded that granted impunity to offending husbands under the MRE is violative of Articles 14, 15, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution, the class which comprises separated husbands would also necessarily have to be dealt with as any other rapist.

“…separated husbands would suffer the same punishment, as prescribed for any other rapist under Section 376(1) of the IPC, as that would be the logical sequitur of striking down MRE.”

Conclusion

(i) That the impugned provisions [i.e. Exception 2 to Section 375 (MRE) and Section 376B of the IPC as also Section 198B of the Code], insofar as they concern a husband/separated husband having sexual communion/intercourse with his wife (who is not under 18 years of age), albeit, without her consent, are violative of Articles 14, 15, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution and, hence, are struck down.

(ii) The aforesaid declaration would, however, operate from the date of the decision.

(iii) The offending husbands do not fall within the ambit of the expression “relative” contained in Section 376 (2)(f) of the IPC and, consequently, the presumption created under Section 114A of the Evidence Act will not apply to them.

(iv) Certificate of leave to appeal to the Supreme Court is granted under Article 134A(a) read with Article 133(1)(a)&(b) of the Constitution as the issue involved in this case raises a substantial question of law which, in my opinion, requires a decision by the Supreme Court.

Justice Shakdher concluded that Exception 2 to Section 375 and Section 376B of the IPC as well as Section 198B of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), as they relate to husband or separated husband having sexual intercourse with his wife without her consent, are violative of Articles 14, 15, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution and therefore deserve to be struck down.

Justice C. Hari Shankar’s Opinion

Justice Shankar stated that it is not to judge whether non-consensual sex within marriage ought, or ought not, to be punished or, if it is, to opine appropriate punishment that should visit the perpetrator of the act.

Re: Article 14

Justice Shankar stated that the act of sex, when it takes place between parties who are joined by marriage, declares the impugned Exception, is in no case rape.

“Applying the “intelligible differentia” test, the impugned Exception would, therefore, infract Article 14 only if the relationship of marriage, between the man and woman involved in the act, does not provide any intelligible differentia having a rational nexus to the object sought to be achieved by the impugned Exception.”

The ‘institution of marriage’, and the intelligible differentia that results

Petitioners completely failed to note the uniqueness of marriage as an institution, its peculiar demographics and incidents, and the emotional, psychological, social and other complex equations that exist between a wife and a husband.

“Between a husband and wife, who spend their days and nights together, living in a house which, by the dint of their joint effort, they make a home, there exists a bond which defies, and indeed transcends, all known and identifiable parameters.”

Further, Justice Shankar added that, there can be no comparison, whatsoever, between the relationship between a husband and a wife, with any other relationship between man and woman. It is for this reason that there is an enforceable legal right – which even Ms Nundy acknowledged – of each party in a marriage, to cohabit with, and for the consortium of, the other.

Petitioner’s counsel completely failed to accord to the marital relationship, the status and importance it deserves.

“Marriage is an institution which epitomizes, at the highest level, the most sublime relationship that can exist between man and woman.”

In this relationship, given its unique character and complexity, the legislature has, advisedly, felt that no allegation of “rape” has place. Sex between a wife and a husband is, whether the petitioners seek to acknowledge it or not, sacred. In no subsisting, surviving and healthy marriage should sex be a mere physical act, aimed at gratifying the gross senses. The emotional element of the act of sex, when performed between and wife and husband, is undeniable. The marital bedroom is inviolable. A legislation that seeks to keep out, from the parameters of such a relationship, any allegation of ‘rape’, in my view, is completely immune to interference.

—Justice Shankar

In his view, introducing, into the marital relationship, the possibility of the husband being regarded as the wife’s rapist if he has, on one or more occasions, sex with her without her consent, would be completely antithetical to the very institution of marriage.

Adding to the above observation, it was expressed that,

“Marriage, unquestionably, does not entitle a husband to coerce his wife into sex, if she is not inclined. The impugned Exception does not, however, either expressly or by necessary implication, confer, on the husband in a marriage, an entitlement to insist on sex with his wife, against her willingness or consent.”

 “The expectation of sex of the husband, with his wife is, therefore, a legitimate expectation, a healthy sexual relationship being integral to the marital bond.”

Elaborating further, Justice Shankar remarked that, any assumption that a wife, who is forced to have sex with her husband on a particular occasion when she does not want to, feels the same degree of outrage as a woman raped by a stranger, is not only unjustified, but ex facie unrealistic.

Stating that, if the legislature, decided to treat non-consensual sex by a man with a woman, where the woman is a stranger, as rape, and non-consensual sex by a husband with his wife, as not rape, Justice Shakdher was unable to subscribe to the submission that the distinction violates Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

Re. the argument that the impugned Exception creates “three classes of victims”

In the case of an act of non-consensual sex between a husband and wife, there is no societal ramification whatsoever, unlike in the case of a woman raped by a stranger, as the act takes place within the privacy of the marital bedroom and, more empirically, because the man and the woman are married.

Conjugal right v. Conjugal expectation

The impugned Exception does not, either directly or by necessary implication, state that, by reason of marriage, a husband has a right to have sex with the wife against her will or consent. All that it says is that, if he does so, he, unlike a stranger committing such an act, cannot be treated as a rapist. There is a clear intelligible differentia between the two situations, stated Justice Shankar.

“The impugned Exception does not seek, directly or indirectly, to enforce a non-enforceable conjugal right, or even a conjugal expectation.”

Justice Shankar elaborated its observation stating that, the impugned Exception, applies to subsisting and surviving marriages, where the husband and wife are together, and not separated.

“In a subsisting, and surviving, marriage, where the husband and wife are staying together and cohabiting, if the legislature feels that an allegation of rape – and, consequently, the chance of the husband being called a rapist – should find no place even if, on one occasion or the other, the wife is compelled to have sex with the husband without willingness or consent, can it be said that the legislature acts unconstitutionally?”

In Justice Shankar’s opinion, this Court cannot approach the issue before it with a view of pronouncing on whether non-consensual sex within marriage ought to be punished, or not, and, if it feels that it should, find a way of doing so. That is exclusively the province of the legislature.

Consent and the ‘effect doctrine’

In Court’s opinion, there was nothing in the impugned Exception which obligated a wife to consent to having sex with her husband, wherever he so requests. It does not even obliquely refer to consent, or want of consent.

Conclusion

(i) the petitioners’ case is premised on a fundamentally erroneous postulate, for which there is no support available, either statutory or precedential, that every act of non-consensual sex by any man with any woman is rape,
(ii) the impugned Exception does not violate Article 14, but is based on an intelligible differentia having a rational nexus with the object both of the impugned Exception as well as Section 375 itself,
(iii) the impugned Exception does not violate Article 19(1)(a),

(iv)  the impugned Exception does not violate Article 21,

(v)  none of the indicia, on which a statutory provision may  be struck down as unconstitutional, therefore, can be said to exist, and

vi) in such circumstances, the Court cannot substitute its subjective value judgement for the view of the democratically elected legislature, hence challenges laid by the petitioners to the constitutional validity of Exception 2 to Section 375 and Section 376B of the IPC, and Section 198B of the Cr PC, have to fail.

Lastly, Justice Shankar concurred with the opinion of Justice Shakdher in his decision to grant certificate of leave to appeal to the Supreme Court as the present matter involved substantial questions of law.[RIT Foundation v. Union of India, 2022 SCC OnLine Del 1404, decided on 11-5-2022]


Advocates before the Court

….. Petitioner
Ms Karuna Nundy with Mr Mukesh Sharma and Mr Raghav Awasthy,

….. Respondent
Mr Tushar Mehta, SG and Mr Chetan Sharma, ASG with Ms Monika Arora, CGSC along with Mr Vinay Yadav, Mr Amit Gupta, Mr Akshya Gadeock, Mr Rishav Dubey, Mr Rajat Nair, Mr Sahaj Garg and Mr R.V. Prabhat, Advs.

for UOI.
Mr Rajshekhar Rao, Sr. Advocate/Amicus Curiae with Mr Karthik Sundar, Ms Mansi Sood and Ms Sonal Sarda, Advs.
Ms Rebecca M. John, Sr. Adv. As Amicus Curiae with Mr Harsh Bora, Ms Praavita Kashyap, Mr Chinmay Kanojia, Mr Pravir Singh and Ms Adya R. Luthra, Advs.
Mr Amit Lakhani and Mr Ritwik Bisaria as Intervenors for Men’s Welfare Trust.

W.P.(C) 5858/2017 & CM No.45279/2021

… Petitioner
Mr Colin Gonsalves, Sr. Adv. With Ms. Olivia Bang, Ms Sneha Mukherjee, Ms Mugdha and Ms Aimy Shukla, Advs

….. Respondents

Mr Ruchir Mishra, Mr Sanjiv Kumar Saxena, Mr Mukesh Kumar Tiwari and Mr Ramneek Mishra, Advs. for UOI. Mr Gautam Narayan, ASC, GNCTD with Ms Nikita Pancholi, Adv.

Mr Rajshekhar Rao, Sr. Advocate/Amicus Curiae with Mr Karthik Sundar, Ms Mansi Sood and Ms Sonal Sarda, Advocates.

Ms Rebecca M. John, Sr. Adv. As Amicus Curiae with Mr Harsh Bora, Ms Praavita Kashyap, Mr Chinmay Kanojia, Mr Pravir Singh and Ms Adya R. Luthra, Advs.

Mr R.K. Kapoor, Advocate for applicant in CM 19948/2016.

W.P.(C) 6024/2017

…Petitioner

Ms Karuna Nundy, Ms Ruchira Goel, Mr Rahul Narayan, Mr Nitish Chaudhary, Ms Ragini Nagpal, Ms Muskan Tibrewala, Mr Utsav Mukherjee and Mr Shashwat Goel, Advs.

…. Respondent
Mr Chetan Sharma, ASG with Mr Anil Soni, CGSC along with Mr Devesh Dubey, Mr Vinay Yadav, Mr Amit  Gupta, Mr Akshya Gadeock, Mr Rishav Dubey, Mr Sahaj Garg and Mr R.V. Prabhat, Advs. for UOI.
Mr Rajshekhar Rao, Sr. Advocate/Amicus Curiae with Mr Karthik Sundar, Ms Mansi Sood and Ms Sonal Sarda, Advocates.
Ms Rebecca M. John, Sr. Adv. As Amicus Curiae with Mr Harsh Bora, Ms Praavita Kashyap, Mr Chinmay Kanojia, Mr Pravir Singh and Ms Adya R. Luthra, Advs.

W.P.(CRL) 964/2017

…… Petitioner

Mr Sahil Malik, Adv.

….. Respondents Ms Nandita Rao, ASC for State.

Mr Rajshekhar Rao, Sr. Advocate/Amicus Curiae with Mr Karthik Sundar, Ms Mansi Sood and Ms Sonal Sarda, Advocates.

Ms Rebecca M. John, Sr. Adv. As Amicus Curiae with Mr Harsh Bora, Ms Praavita Kashyap, Mr Chinmay Kanojia, Mr Pravir Singh and Ms Adya R. Luthra, Advs.


Read More:

Split Verdict on Criminalisation of Marital Rape Decision: One strikes down the exception, one upholds [Report to be updated]

Husband owns wife’s body after marriage: What is holding back India to criminalise this misogyny?

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