NEW DELHI - Criminalizing marital rape could "destabilize" marriages and make men vulnerable to harassment by their wives, said India's government in response to a plea in the capital's high court.
Victims and rights groups are seeking to change the law on marital rape, but the government said husbands risked being falsely accused of rape if the change were to go ahead.
It compared the proposal to outlaw marital rape with India's tough anti-dowry law, which men's rights groups say women are misusing to settle personal vendettas.
"It has to be ensured adequately that marital rape does not become a phenomenon which may destabilize the institution of marriage, apart from being an easy tool for harassing the husbands," said an affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court.
Tuesday's statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing government also said that the country should not blindly follow Western countries that have criminalized marital rape, as illiteracy and diversity make India unique.
Sexual violence against women is widely reported. Stories abound of girls molested en route to school or at home by relatives, or of women picked up by men in cars and gang raped.
The 2012 murder and gang rape of a 23-year-old women on a Delhi bus triggered protests, forcing the government to set up a panel to amend laws related to violence against women.
While India's parliament passed some of its recommendations, such as criminalizing stalking and making acid attacks a specific offense, it did not agree with the panel's proposal to outlaw marital rape.
More than 50 countries, including the United States, Nepal, Britain and South Africa, criminalize marital rape.
In India, conservative and patriarchal norms make it difficult for victims to speak out about sexual violence by their husbands, activists say. As a result, there are no accurate figures on marital rape.
More than 40 percent of married women aged 15 to 49 experience domestic violence, according to government data, rising to 70 percent among child brides.
Activists want India's rape law — which provides an exemption for sexual intercourse by a man with his wife if she is more than 15 years old — to be declared unconstitutional as it discriminates against married women and girls.
The court hearing before a two-judge bench continues.