New Delhi: *Forty-six-year-old Alam (name changed) would love to get back to his village in Bihar’s Darbhanga district given half a chance. But he has been stuck in the Gulf country he is in now for eight years; he cannot come back home because he is wanted in a dowry case and also one of domestic violence, both of which he claims to be false.
*Navin (name withheld), an engineer from Tamil Nadu, got married in 2007 and flew to the United States, where was working for a long time. Things went horribly wrong when the recession struck. On the verge of losing his job, he asked his wife to go back to India along with their two-year-old daughter. After returning to India, his wife pressed charges under Section 498A of the IPC (dowry harassment and domestic violence) on him. He was arrested at the airport and got bail after five months.
Both would like to speak to their spouses and in-laws and try to settle the matter amicably, but the law does not allow them to do so. Despite a significant reduction in the number of domestic violence cases registered in the country in the past three years, thousands of Alams and Navins get thrown behind bars over petty domestic disputes, many of which have nothing to with dowry.
According to the provisional data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a total number of 16,351, 4,204 and 531 cases have been registered under the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Out of 90,000 to one lakh cases investigated every year, nearly 10,000 complaints of dowry harassment turn out to be false. The figure makes the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act (498A) one of the most abused laws in the country.
The Supreme Court has said in a recent order that Section 498A has “dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as a weapon rather than a shield by disgruntled wives”.
The government is now mulling to make Section 498A compoundable, which means the couple would have provision of reconciliation and settlement, if the court allows, as suggested by Malimath Committee. At present, the offence is non-bailable and non-compoundable. Husbands and in-laws are immediately arrested once a case of dowry harassment or domestic violence is filed against them.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is learnt to have sent a draft note for the Union Cabinet to amend Section 498A of the IPC to the Law Ministry for drawing up a draft bill. Under the amended law, there will be a penalty provision of Rs 15,000 as against Rs 1,000 now if the case is found to be false.
However, the move won’t be so easy as Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and women’s rights activists have been vociferously opposed it. They argue that any dilution of the law will affect millions of women whose cases may be genuine.
“I don’t think the law should be changed. I feel that this is the only law that gives women protection. It should stay as it is,” said Maneka.
Human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam says, “The Supreme Court has already amended the act. Now, husbands and in-laws cannot be arrested immediately after a complaint is registered against them. The police will have to be satisfied first about the need of the arrest. With the proposed amendment, the fear will also go.”
Advocate Satosh Paul, who practices at Supreme Court, believes, “What is the point of having such a law when a person cannot be arrested immediately for stalking a woman?
Harassed husbands and their families are welcoming the government’s move.
“I am extremely happy that the government is thinking on this line. It will come as a great relief for people like me to whom the word marriage now is dreadful. Most of us were set free after being put to untold mental torture and harassment. The conviction rate is very low,” said Suresh C from Andhra Pradesh.
Describing the “harassment of men” as “legal terrorism” perpetrated through “anti-male and anti-family laws”, Amit Gupta of Hridaya, a men’s rights organisation, said, “Section 498A is being widely misused and men are now facing legal terrorism. Large number of such cases are either dismissed or withdrawn.”
He stressed on the need for reviewing the law which deals with cases of women being subjected to cruelty and carries a prison term of three years. He also said that contrary to popular belief, a large section of married men are victims of domestic violence.
“A total of 63,343 married men committed suicide in 2012, with a fair amount of them having faced domestic problems,” he added.
An instrumentation engineer from Ghazipur in eastern UP who is a divorcee and associated with The Indian Family Foundation said, “Soon after my marriage, my wife wanted me to leave the parents and move to a separate house. I refused and when things went out of control, I got separated. She initiated a case under the Domestic Violence Act against me.”
Describing 498A a “draconian law”, he said, “Almost twice as many Indian husbands kill themselves as wives — one husband every 8.55 minutes to a wife every 16.7 minutes. But the society only seems to debate the wife’s death. Wife-beating might be an issue of concern, but there is a flip side to it.”
“So many here have been beaten up by their wives,” says Amit, “But no one uses the term ‘husband-beating’.” Likewise, battering of wives by mother-in-law is not the whole truth. Amit says, “A survey has found that mothers beat their daughters eight times more than mothers-in-law do, but no one discusses that.”
Accusing the judiciary of treating divorce cases like civil cases, Advocate RP Chugh of Crime Against Men said lengthy and cumbersome procedure is applied with the “little care for the human aspect”. “Many divorce cases have been made to linger for decades. It is observed that deaths, suicides, murders, bride and bride groom burning is a direct consequence of defective marriage and divorce laws which do not provide any solution for unworkable marriages.”
He further said, “The attitude of courts is over sympathetic to the wives. This approach, however, ignores the fact that denying divorce to the husband where there is no prospect of a happy married life does not solve the wife’s problem. It rather creates more bitterness in the relationship.”