Is adultery no longer such a big deal? The Armed Forces Tribunal is of the view that it isn’t. Overturning the decision by a court martial to dismiss an Air Force officer from service on the charge of ‘stealing the affections of a brother officer’s wife’, it has opined that “Aspects such as marriage breakups, consensual relationships with others and infidelity should not be viewed so seriously as to lead to dismissal of an officer”.
It also felt that the provision under which the offence was being made out smacked of patriarchy, as it held only men responsible for such affairs. This isn’t surprising in the case of the military law, as women have only recently started being inducted into the forces. However, what is surprising is that even Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code which deals with adultery holds only a male liable for the offence. Even the Supreme Court had made strong observations against this in December 2011.
Outdated Military Manual
The Manual of Indian Military Law dates back to the colonial times, and was adopted more or less unchanged after dropping the ‘Indian’ from the title post-independence. It’s easy to see why adultery, or ‘stealing the affections of a brother officer’s wife’ was such a big deal back when the rule must have been framed. In those days, all of the officers and their wives were European.
They were living in a cloistered society in a foreign country with almost no social interaction with the ‘natives’. Also, the number of unmarried, eligible young women would have been extremely scarce.
Under such circumstances, a strong deterrence in terms of fear of harsh punishment including dismissal from service would be necessary to prevent men from succumbing to temptations of illicit relationships with wives of other officers.
But are such harsh provisions valid in 21st century, where live-in relationships and extra-marital affairs have become commonplace in civil society, really necessary? Why should, as the Armed Forces Tribunal observes, military officers face stringent punishment for something which is acceptable outside the forces?
If we look at armed forces worldwide, adultery within the forces is actively discouraged, even in countries such as the US, which has a much more permissive society than ours. In a famous case, Lt Kelly Flynn the first B-52 pilot in the US Airforce, was made to resign from service as an alternative to facing court martial for having an illicit relationship with the husband of another woman officer.
The reason why such provisions are still valid in the armed forces is due to the peculiar environment in which military personnel live and operate. Military cantonments and bases are self-contained islands, often in far-flung places, where the personnel and their families live in close proximity to each other and in relative isolation from rest of the society.
Often, when the men get posted to field (non-family) stations, the families continue to live in the cantonments in separated family accommodations. Under such circumstances, just like in the colonial times, the presence of strict laws against illicit relationships with serious consequences, acts as a deterrent from succumbing to temptations that are bound to arise.
Functioning Could Be Hampered
The other aspect where circumstances differ in the case of military personnel, which necessitates a stricter outlook towards such matters, is the nature of their job itself. Whether it’s in the cockpit of an aircraft, as part of an anti-terrorist team, or as a crew on a battleship, the same people who live close together in those cantonments are thrown together in operations. Under these circumstances their lives depend on each other, and the successful outcome of the operation itself depends on impeccable teamwork amongst them.
Obviously, if there’s a history of something as serious as suspicion of an illicit affair with another’s spouse amongst such comrades at arms, their ability to function as part of a team would be hampered.
In fact, in an operation where bullets are flying, it wouldn’t take long for people with such motives to start shooting at each other. The impact of allowing such promiscuity to go unpunished on the overall morale and effectiveness of the armed forces cannot therefore be understated.
Changing and evolving with time is essential to keep an organisation from stagnating. However, change for its own sake, without due consideration to the validity of status quo on an issue, can be even more harmful in the long run. In this case, the pertinent change would be to modify the law to factor in the induction of women in the services, thereby expanding the ambit of their possible role from just being spouse of a service person. As Lt Flynn’s case has shown, there’s a chance that the law may need to be applied in a gender-reversed situation too.
(The writer is a retired colonel of the Indian army and currently a research fellow at the Ministry of Defence, writing the official history of India’s participation in World War I. He can be reached at @ragarwal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)