Expressing concern over misuse of anti-dowry law by “disgruntled” wives against her husband and in-laws, the Supreme Court ruled that police cannot arrest the accused in such cases “automatically” and it must give reasons for taking such steps which would be judicially examined. In the recent past, many innocent men and their families were victimised under section 498A, as after filing an FIR it was mandatory for police to arrest the family and its members (abettors).
To prevent dowry deaths and cruelty to married woman, anti dowry laws were implemented. However, most of the time ‘victim’ would misuse the laws and complain just to take revenge from husband and her in laws. The ‘dowry’ gift, often as financial assistance, has a long history in many parts of the world. In India, the payment of a dowry has been prohibited since 1961 under Indian civil law. Subsequently, Sections 304B and 498A of the Indian Penal Code were enacted, making it easier for the wife to seek redress from harassment by the husband’s family. Delhi alone accounts for 18.7 per cent of dowry death cases and 17.1 per cent of cruelty by husbands and relatives, according to a 2006 report by the National Crime Records Bureau. Domestic violence is a two-way road and need not always refer to wife-bashing as per popular perception. If you are a married man, you know the deadly effects of silent treatment, constant nagging or sulking for days. But actual cases of male victimisation are far less compared to the abuse and domestic violence women endure everyday across the country. Delhi High Court judge observed that laws were made to protect hundreds of women tortured and killed for dowry every year but have become a tool for urban middle or upper-middle class women looking to make a quick buck through divorce.
Anti-dowry laws are meant to give voice to silent victims of social abuse — a Herculean task in a country where family pride, fear of retribution and illiteracy pose stumbling blocks. The National Commission for Women is campaigning for stricter punishment for offenders and demanding that the scope of the Act be increased. A reality check in largely illiterate rural India, where women fight poverty and domestic violence every day, throws up questions whether anti-dowry laws can be effectively implemented. But in urban areas the cases are quite different.
Time has come to review the impact of anti-dowry laws on the lives of men and women and the burden on judiciary with every false claim of harassment. Often police fail to conduct proper investigations before hauling off an elderly family member to jail based on a complaint by a woman. Laws are necessary to protect women against abuse. Laws that will deter repeat offenders. However, they should be implemented through an unbiased and transparent police system with wider reach and humane approach.
The apex court said the attitude to arrest first and then proceed with the rest is “despicable” which must be curbed and directed all state governments to ensure that police do not resort to arresting in all offences punishable up to seven- year jail term including dowry harassment cases.
It said that the police officer shall furnish the reasons and materials which necessitated the arrest before the magistrate. Section 498-A of the IPC was introduced with avowed object to combat the menace of harassment to a woman in the hands of her husband and his relatives. The fact that Section 498-A is a cognisable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives. In quite a number of cases, bed-ridden grand-fathers and grand-mothers of the husbands, their sisters living abroad for decades are arrested. No arrest can be made in a routine manner on a mere allegation of commission of an offence made against a person.
Referring to crime statistics, the apex court said 1,97,762 persons were arrested in 2012 for offence under Section 498-A and nearly a quarter of those arrested under this provision were women depicting that mothers and sisters of the husbands were liberally included in their arrest net. Its share is 6 per cent out of the total persons arrested under the crimes committed under Indian Penal Code. It accounts for 4.5 per cent of total crimes committed under different sections of penal code, more than any other crimes except theft and hurt. It said the rate of charge-sheeting in cases is as high as 93.6 per cent, while the conviction rate is only 15 per cent, which is lowest across all heads and as many as 3,72,706 cases are pending at trial stage. The apex court said that police in the country has not come out of its colonial mindset.
The Section 498 of the Indian Penal Code which deals with cruelty to a wife states that: Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. In this section, “cruelty” means: (a) Any willful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or
(b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.
The Section 498a of the Indian Penal Code allows the police to arrest the persons mentioned in the complaint without a warrant or without any investigation. The crime is non-bailable, so chances of getting a bail are low and husbands usually lose their jobs. There is no provision of withdrawing a complaint in case of reconciliation.
In July 2005, the Supreme Court admitted that in many instances complaints under the Section 498a of the Indian Penal Code are not bonafide and have oblique motives. The court added that acquittal in such cases doesn’t erase the suffering the defendant has to go through, which is compounded by adverse media coverage. Then the court also directed the legislature to find ways to check such false cases. In August 2010, the Supreme Court directed the government to amend Section 498a of the Indian Penal Code in view of the rising numbers of false or exaggerated complaints against husbands and their relatives by women. It further added that such complaints result in the husband and his relatives remaining in custody until trial or bail, which kills all chances of an amicable settlement. In January 2012, the Law Commission of India recommended that Section 498a should be made a compoundable offense. Let’s see, this new verdict may bring some relief to men’s married life.