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Extramarital Affair = Abetment of Suicide? SC Ruling Spells Danger

The Supreme Court ignored its own past judgments to say evidence of an affair is enough to prove abetment of suicide

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Extramarital Affair = Abetment of Suicide? SC Ruling Spells Danger
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In a troubling development, the Supreme Court recently upheld the conviction of a Karnataka man for abetment of his wife’s suicide because of his “illicit relationship with another woman”.

The judgment, written by Justice R Banumathi, is worrying not only because it appears to have allowed conservative morality to dictate legality, but also because to do so, it ignores clear and established precedent laid down by the Supreme Court itself.

What Happened in This Case?

The accused in this case, one Siddaling, married the deceased, Kavitha, on 6 May 2002. Kavitha took her own life on 17 September 2002, barely four months into the marriage, by jumping into a well of the village. She was alleged to have done so because of dowry demands, and because her husband was having an affair with another woman.

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Since the case involved alleged dowry harassment, you might think it reasonable to consider the husband responsible for the death of his wife. After all, the Indian Evidence Act presumes that a husband has abetted the suicide of his wife if:

  1. She dies within 7 years of marriage; AND
  2. The husband has committed cruelty against her as per Section 498A of the IPC.

Dowry harassment is of course the mainstay of Section 498A, so on that basis you’d be forgiven for thinking this was an open and shut case – Siddaling abetted the suicide of Kavitha, case closed.

But this is where it gets complicated.

The trial court convicted Siddaling and his father for cruelty (Section 498A) and abetment of suicide (Section 306) under the IPC, as well as offences under the Dowry Prohibition Act.

The Karnataka High Court, however, acquitted his father of all charges, and acquitted Siddaling himself of any offences relating to dowry demands.

At the same time, he was still convicted by the high court for abetment of suicide and cruelty – ie, his extramarital affair constituted cruelty against his wife. And it was on this basis and this basis alone that the apex court upheld the conviction.

Too caught up to read the whole story? Listen to it instead:

Why did the Supreme Court Arrive at This Decision?

The judgment of the Supreme Court shows that the only evidence considered by the judges for this case was evidence to establish that the accused had in fact had an extramarital affair with another woman. This included statements by four prosecution witnesses, and a panchayat agreement dated 22 June 2002, where Siddaling admitted to living with another woman, and agreed to end this relationship and live with Kavitha.

  • No oral or documentary evidence regarding what Kavitha felt about the affair.
  • No testimony from mental health experts as to Kavitha’s state of mind and what effect the affair would have had on this.
  • No testimony as to whether or not Siddaling intended to cause mental harm to his wife by continuing the affair.

Despite this, Justices Banumathi and Vineet Saran were convinced that the affair is what led to her suicide. Here’s what Justice Banumathi wrote in the judgment:

The appellant’s illicit relation with another woman would have definitely created the psychological imbalance to the deceased which led her to take the extreme step of committing suicide.
(emphasis supplied)
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Why was This Decision Wrong?

How exactly was this conclusion reached?

How can we presume that knowledge of a spouse’s affair is sufficient to drive someone to take their own life?

And was it not necessary to see if Siddaling intended for his wife to commit suicide?

The judgment in this case is unfortunately silent on all these questions. Even though these are questions which have to be answered in a case like this.

First off, the question of intent. You can’t just declare people guilty of abetment to suicide because they did something mean to another person. In M Mohan vs The State, the Supreme Court had expressly clarified that:

...in order to convict a person under Section 306 IPC there has to be a clear mens rea to commit the offence. It also requires an active act or direct act which led the deceased to commit suicide seeing no option and this act must have been intended to push the deceased into such a position that he/she committed suicide.
(emphasis supplied)

For Siddaling to have abetted Kavitha’s suicide, he needed to have intended that his actions (continuing the extramarital affair) should lead to her committing suicide. However, the judgment doesn’t refer to any evidence that remotely proves any such intent.

Now it is possible to sidestep a requirement to prove this kind of specific intent if you can use a legal presumption – because of some special circumstances, something will be presumed to be true, even without direct proof. As pointed out earlier, the Indian Evidence Act presumes intent to abet suicide if the woman dies within 7 years.

However, this presumption will only apply if in addition to the timeframe, the husband has also committed cruelty against the wife. But does an extramarital affair count as cruelty for this purpose?

Prior to this case, the Supreme Court had considered this question on a few occasions, and the answer had always been the same: No.

To be more precise, the apex court had held that mere evidence of an extramarital relationship cannot amount to cruelty. There has to be something more to it – the affair has to be of such a nature as to ‘provoke, incite or induce the wife to commit suicide’.

It is true, of course, that different people may react differently to the same situation, and this is something the apex court recognised in Pinakin Mahipatray Rawal vs State of Gujarat. At the same time, there has to be some assessment of the specific facts of the case, and why these were sufficient to drive someone to take their own life – which only seems fair.

Despite all the precedents, the judges failed to conduct any such assessment in Siddaling’s case, without even bothering to explain why.

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Why is This Dangerous?

By failing to conduct the assessment set out by the precedents, this judgment runs the risk of setting a new one. In any cases which now come up before the trial courts or high courts, mere proof of an extramarital affair will be enough to convict a man of abetment of his wife suicide, regardless of whether he intended this or not.

This may fit within a conservative (or even progressive) moral view that cheating on a spouse is wrong, but does that make it a crime? It may be legal grounds for divorce, or for maintenance, but should we be sending people to jail for something like this?

It is not unreasonable to say that there may be complex reasons for people to have extramarital affairs. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of it all, choosing a sexual partner is a matter of personal choice, and should fall within the bounds of privacy. There already exists one problematic invasion of this in the form of the crime of adultery (which is also predicated on a sexist view of women as property) – we hardly need the courts to invent another.

It is distressing that the highest court in the land, the very court which affirmed the right to privacy a year ago, that has just finished hearing a challenge against the constitutionality of adultery, should ignore all these considerations. Ignoring the established precedents and not giving any reasons for taking a different view just makes it doubly distressing.

Expanding the ambit of what is considered abetment of suicide is dangerous since you’re holding people criminally responsible for the actions of others without any good reason. The existing tests are strong enough to ensure that someone who has actually played a role in driving someone to take their own life is found guilty.

Justice R Banumathi (L) and Justice Vineet Saran (R)
Justice R Banumathi (L) and Justice Vineet Saran (R)
(Photo: The Quint)

Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be a one-off mistake from Justices Banumathi and Saran. Just a day before the Siddaling judgment, they also upheld another problematic conviction for abetment of suicide – this time for a woman who called a young girl a prostitute. The girl poured kerosene and set herself on fire, and in her dying declaration said that she had done it because of what the accused had said.

Even though no legal presumption was applied, Justices Banumathi and Saran thought this was enough to convict someone of a crime and send them to jail for three years. No other evidence was relied on apart from the dying declaration, nothing to show that the accused had wanted to provoke her into killing herself.

The judgment was a clear deviation from the well-established position set out in the M Mohan case, but yet again, Justices Banumathi and Saran felt no need to explain why they were loosening the tests for what counts as abetment of suicide.

This is dangerous for the rule of law, and for those looking to the Supreme Court for justice. We can only hope that these judgments are struck down as per incuriam as soon as possible, or risk seeing the personal opinions of two judges unravel years of precedent and reasonableness.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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