Section 498A was introduced in the early 80s to protect married women from being subjected to cruelty by the husband or his relatives. A spate of dowry deaths in Delhi and elsewhere led to a campaign by some leading women members of Parliament, prompting the government to bring the amendment.
The expression ‘cruelty‘ has been defined in wide terms so as to include infliction of physical or mental harm to the body or health of the woman and indulging in acts of harassment with a view to coerce her or her relations to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuables.
The Law Commission recommended that the offence under Section 498A should be made a compoundable offence with the permission of court. Justice Malimath Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, too, recommended that it be made compoundable as well as bailable.
The Home Ministry has also asked all state governments to be judicious in slapping Section 498A in matrimonial disputes as the provision may be used as “weapons rather than shields by disgruntled wives”.
With an average 10,000 false dowry harassment cases being registered every year, government plans to amend the criminal law to prevent frequent misuse of its legal provisions.
Under the proposal, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code will be made a compoundable offence with the permission of the courts as suggested by the Law Commission and Justice Malimath Committee.
Provisions will be kept to allow compromise and settlement between husband and wife at the onset of trial in dowry harassment cases, a Home Ministry official said. The offence at present is non-compoundable and non-bailable, which provides for immediate arrest of the accused.
Conciliatory efforts between the hostile parties are virtually impossible. A husband or his family members are presumed guilty till they prove their innocence in court. The offence is punishable with a jail term of up to three years.
There have been allegations that husbands and in-laws are often charged with false dowry harassment when some marital problems arise.
As per data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, a total number of 99,135, 1,06,527 and 1,18,866 cases, respectively, were registered in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in the country under Section 498A for cruelty by husband or his relatives.
After police investigation, 10,193 in 2011, 10,235 in 2012 and 10,864 cases in 2013 were found to be false or suffering from mistake of fact or law. If the offence is made compoundable, misuse of the law may come down hugely as there would be scope for initiating conciliation proceedings and out -of-court settlement.
Permission from a court will be a guarantee against attempts where a wife may be compelled into a compromise by her husband or in-laws, the Home Ministry official said.
Under the existing rules, if a dowry harassment case is proved wrong or it is proved that the law was misused, a penalty of only Rs 1,000 is imposed. The amendment, however, provides for a Rs 15,000 fine.
Another new section is expected to be inserted to allow an accused to escape jail by paying a penalty.
The Supreme Court had in a 2010 judgement said that, as it stood now, the law had become a “weapon in the hands of disgruntled women”. It had also observed that a serious re-look of the entire provision is warranted by the legislature.
“It is a matter of common knowledge that exaggerated versions of the incident are reflected in a large number of complaints. “The tendency of over-implication is also reflected in a very large number of cases,” the apex court had said.