Should dowry law be diluted?The gender war carries on

Can the stringent and controversial Section 498A, commonly called the ‘dowry law’ last another quarter-century in its present form? Women’s groups say ‘yes’ because when it was inserted into the Indian Penal Code 25 years ago, it gave women a matchless legal shield against violence and cruelty at the hands of the husband and his family. ”No, Section 498A should go,” say about 30 men’s groups, currently meeting in Goa to find a way to dilute the law. So why has Section 498A become the frontline of India’s gender wars? And whose side will the government take? For the moment it appears to be backing the women with no dilution likely in the law any time soon.

Organisations campaigning to amend Section 498A were euphoric earlier this month, when the Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry agreed to review it. But women’s groups immediately submitted a memorandum to the WCD expressing concern about any dilution. So did the National Commission for Women (NCW), the statutory body set up to protect and promote women’s interests and advise the government on policy matters affecting women.

Women’s rights campaigners repeat as they have for decades that Section 498A is invaluable because it provides a stronger voice to women than usually heard in Indian society. What gives the law teeth and a terrible bite is that any offence under it is non-bailable and non-compoundable, which means it cannot be privately resolved between the parties concerned. It’s also cognizable, which means it allows police to arrest the accused without investigation or warrants if a woman or close relative alleges cruelty in the marital home.

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Those found guilty face a jail term of upto three years. But the unique strength of Section 498A is also seen as a weakness. Many groups of aggrieved husbands say this fearsome law, with its non-bailable and non-compoundable provisions, is being abused by women falsely to implicate the spouse and in-laws and extort money from them.

Organisations that represent men, who claim they are harassed, victimised and abused by Section 498A, insist it must become bailable and thereby, bearable. Swarup Sarkar, coordinator of Save Family Foundation, an organisation that claims to be committed to fight ”all gender-biased law” says, ”For the last three years, we have been trying to make it bailable, but now that the NCW has expressed disapproval, the ministry’s review will amount to little.”

Many other harassed husbands’ groups share Sarkar’s fears. “The announcement is just a sham. They won’t come up with anything,” says Vihan Khera, spokesman of MyNation Foundation, an organisation that also describes itself as “fighting gender bias“. In fact, the Internet is full of men who claim to be victims of this law. There are blogs with names such as, ‘Section 489A’. Their entries vary from earnest to intensely vitriolic.

Mary E John, director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, says the Internet is partly responsible for whipping up emotion against 498A. “Anyone can see how vindictive and vicious these groups are,” she says, adding that the Internet has given far too much visibility to self-styled harassed husbands. She and other women’s activists say that amending 498A because a few men claim it is unfair would be tantamount to changing “the Income Tax Act if people evade tax. The law per se is not defective.”

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But Khera, campaigner for men’s rights, says it is lop-sided and unfair to women as well. In the last four years, 1,15,000 women mothers-in-law or other female relatives of the husband – are alleged to have been arrested without investigation.

Mary John admits that sometimes, even statistics don’t tell the true story and “there are no figures for false cases.” The only figures about Section 498A are its low rate of conviction, perhaps due to lack of evidence. But John says this still does not mean 498A is a bad law. “Based on the rate of conviction, you cannot change the law, whether it’s rape or dowry,” she says.

The pro-Section 498A lobby points out that it’s not that easy to misuse it because its use is hard enough. They say that it is hard for the average woman even to lodge a case under Section 498A and some times, it could take months. They say that making domestic violence a gender-neutral offence misses the point because it’s women who are generally dependent and vulnerable. ‘Harassed’ husbands would, of course, have a different story to tell. Justice may be blind, but it sure cannot afford to be deaf.

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