For years, there has been loud debate and even orders from courts to do away with or, at least, amend Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with the offence of matrimonial cruelty. This clause is considered to be rampantly abused, with several examples of husbands and their families being arrested without a preliminary inquiry on allegations of harassing their wives for a range of reasons, including dowry.
Now the Ministry of Home Affairs has written to all state governments, advising them that arrest for an alleged offence under Section 498A should be the “last resort,” not the first step. In a communication sent to the Chief Secretaries and DGPs of all states and the Administrations of the Union Territories on October 13, the MHA has cited misuse of the clause.
“In some cases, every member of the husband’s family has been arrested, irrespective of whether they had a role in inflicting cruelty on the married woman or not. In some cases, the provisions have been used to settle personal scores. Cases have been reported where momentary anger has resulted in invocation of Section 498A, which resulted in the arrest of the members of the family shutting down any possibility of reconciliation in future and total collapse of the marriage. Even where there is a divorce proceeding, the case under Section 498A continues to persist because of the offence being non-compoundable,” the letter says.
Section 498A, incorporated in the IPC in 1983, provides for adequate punishment for any cruelty inflicted on a married woman by her husband and his relatives. The maximum punishment under the Section is three years and/or fine.
The MHA letter, incidentally, says that in light of judicial pronouncements, an attempt was made earlier to find a via media by amending Section 498A to make the offence compoundable. “However, this could not be pursued because of the opposition from women organisations,” the letter says.
Incidentally, in its judgment in Savitri Devi vs Ramesh Chand and others in 2002, the Delhi High Court observed: “…the misuse of the provisions of Section 498A…is hitting at the very foundation of marriage itself and has proved to be not so good for the health of the society at large.”
This was echoed by the Supreme Court in Sushil Kumar Sharma versus Union of India and Others. “The object of Section 498A is to prevent dowry menace. But…many instances have come to light where the complaints are not bonafide and…filed with oblique motive. It may become necessary for the legislature to find out ways how the makers of frivolous complaints or allegations can be appropriately dealt with.”
In 2003, the Justice Malimath Committee, submitted a report to the MHA on reforms in the Criminal Justice System, recommended that the Section be made bailable and compoundable to give a chance to the spouses to come together.