Bengaluru: It took not a gender activist or a legal expert but a Church-going, happily married Malayalee in Italy to overturn a 158-year-old sexist constitutional law on adultery, which is now hailed as a landmark victory for women’s rights.

What’s in it for him? He says he just wanted to rescue Indian men from being penalised for extra-marital affairs by vindictive women or their husbands.

Meet Joseph Shine, a Malayalee hotelier in Italy, whose petition led to India’s top court abolishing Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized adultery. The judgment is widely reported as a victory for equal rights for women and the evolution of law but the petitioner is shrouded in mystery.

He says his landline in Italy has been ringing since 3 am with calls from Indian journalists as the case went to judgment on Thursday, but he largely avoided them. His lawyer Kaleeswaram Raj said Shine had asked to not share his contact details with the media.

“He is living a happy life, and has no personal interest in the case. He had earlier filed a petition against Kerala’s power minister M M Mani for alleged derogatory remarks against women. He likes to support general causes and is extremely interested in Kerala," said Raj over the phone from Delhi.

When Mint finally contacted him, Shine, however, had a point to share on why he fought all the way to abolish the adultery law, one that is more akin to fashioning himself as a justice warrior. He said the trigger for him was when a close friend in Kerala committed suicide after a woman colleague made a false rape complaint.

“They (married women) might have willingly participated, but it will be the men who suffer (when the husband files a complaint). Something like this (an adultery complaint) will make a man feel isolated. He might not be able to cope with it. This (abolishment of adultery) is a basic step, it can create further changes," said Shine in Malayalam.

Shine thinks the law dented the individuality of men. Under Section 497, the man who committed adultery alone could be punished, his woman partner was exempted.

Coming from Kerala, he says, criminalization of adultery has even led to a deception in daily life. Malayalee men rampantly engage in adultery, but condemn it in public, he said. It is notable that Kerala-based gender scholar J Devika had once remarked about the state as “God’s own country of adultery".

The Supreme Court took down the law, citing it as discriminatory against women. The law said a married man could be imprisoned if he has sexual relations with a married woman without the consent of her husband. It also prevented a wife from prosecuting her husband or the woman with whom he was having extramarital relation.

In effect, these clauses vacuumed out the agency of a woman to be a willing participant in sexual relations, a discriminatory practice, observed the apex court. “It is time to say that the husband is not the master of wife," Chief Justice Dipak Misra, read out from the judgment.

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