Implementation of Section 498A (anti-dowry law) needs humane approach

Recently, the Supreme Court proclaimed that the false complaints under Section 498A of Indian Penal Code against innocent were increased and making the husband, a victim. The Supreme Court also said women were increasingly using the anti-dowry law to harass and create pressure against husband and his relatives on mere lodging of a complaint. Citing very low conviction rate in such cases, it directed the state governments to instruct police “not to automatically arrest” when a case under Section 498A of IPC is registered but to satisfy themselves about the necessity for arrest under the parameters provided under Section 41 of criminal procedure code.  Section 41 lays down a 9-point check list police to weigh the need to arrest after examining the conduct of the accused, including possibility of his absconding. It also said that, this check-list for arrest and detention would apply to all offences, which are punished with a prison term less than 7 years. Punishment under Section 498A is a maximum of three years but it had been made a cognizable and non-bailable offence, which made grant of bail to the accused a rarity in courts. It said that the police officer shall furnish the reasons and materials which necessitated the arrest before the magistrate. Section 498A of the IPC was introduced with avowed object to combat the menace of harassment to a woman at the hands of her husband and his relatives.

The fact that Section 498A 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. The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision. In quite a number of cases, bed-ridden grand-fathers and grand-mothers of the husbands, their sisters living abroad for decades are arrested. The bench said the arrest curtails freedom, brings humiliation and casts scars forever and no arrest should be made only because the offence is non-bailable and cognisable. No arrest can be made in a routine manner on a mere allegation of commission of an offence made against a person. It would be prudent and wise for a police officer that no arrest is made without a reasonable satisfaction reached after some investigation as to the genuineness of the allegation.

In July 2005, the Supreme Court admitted that in many instances complaints under the Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code are not bona-fide and have oblique motives. The court added that acquittal in such cases doesn’t erase the suffering the defendant has gone 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. However, the court will decide if the particular case in compoundable or not, a married man commits suicide every nine minutes in India due to the alleged misuse of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code against them.

To prevent dowry deaths and cruelty to married woman, anti dowry laws were implemented but mostly these laws are used as revenge against man and his family. The payment of a dowry gift, often financial, 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. However, actual cases of male victimization are far less compared to the abuse and domestic violence women endure everyday across the country. Delhi High Court judge who 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. However, in urban areas the cases are quite different.

Time has come to introspect on the far-reaching impact of anti-dowry laws have on the lives of men and women and the burden on judiciary with every false claim of harassment. Often police fails to conduct proper investigations before hauling off an elderly family member to jail based on a complaint by a woman. At the same time, hundreds of complaints of abuse at the hands of in-laws go unnoticed in rural India. Laws are necessary to protect women against abuse. Laws that will deter repeat offenders. Nevertheless, they should be implemented through an unbiased and transparent police system with wider reach and humane approach

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