Nowadays, there are many Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and individuals are advocating to abolish section 498A of Indian Penal Code. There is a huge social media campaign running against the section. Subsequently, this section is enacted, making it easier for the wife to seek redress from harassment by her husband’s family. Anti-dowry laws have been criticised by men’s rights groups, who accuse women and their families of misusing the laws. In India, large number of deaths are reported due to dowry. Dowry is still a serious issue in rural and even in some urban areas.
Every law is liable to be misused, so is section 498A; more than two lakh complaints have been lodged last year, from which 85 per cent were false. This section has become evil and needs to be addressed and amended. Supreme Court has termed it as “Legal Terrorism”. Section 498A has become gimmick to extort money by police, lawyers and woman’s family. In many cases, this nexus harass and even threaten the husband and his family that if demands not met then they will send the whole family to jail. However, in many genuine cases, even women also suffer without any maintenance or support. I have an example to explain, the divorce between Ujjwal Uke, the IAS officer of 1985 batch and his wife Vibha Uke who was an airhostess. She had suffered a lot when her husband had extra marital affairs which were supported by her in-laws. She was alone fighting for justice and finally he threw her out of house and married another woman. Vibha used 498A for her survival and to seek justice. Otherwise, this battle wouldn’t have been so easy for her to fight. She had settled because of her daughters, her daughter has grown up and Mr. Uke is living with his second family in peace. There are many genuine cases fought under 498A, but at the same time there are many women out who have misused this section for their advantage.
Even Bombay High Court has ruled that a wife who made unsubstantiated allegations in a criminal case that she initiated against her husband and family under Section 498A of India’s Penal Law has thereby committed acts of cruelty sufficient to provide a ground for the husband to divorce her. The problems with the law were the result of a “perfect storm” that was entirely unanticipated when the law was introduced to protect woman in 1983.
The Union Law Ministry recently launched a countrywide exercise to review provisions of Indian Penal Code dealing with matrimonial cruelty, including cases of dowry harassment. The exercise is particularly aimed at collecting data and opinion from the States to evaluate the perceived “misuse” of the law and the possibilities of changing it. This is a reflection of the hot debates in the recent years on “misuse” of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deems cruelty to women, including dowry harassment a non-bailable, non-compoundable (not allowing for out-of-court settlement) criminal offence. There have been demands to scrap it or tone down the provisions of this law by men’s activist groups who argue that it has been used by urban, educated women to settle scores with husbands and their families. Virag Dhulia, an anti-498A activist, claims that complaints under this are treated as “gospel truth” and the complainant’s husband and his family penalised.
Arguments on these lines have been vociferous, often making more news than dowry death cases which get relegated to crime columns. The Supreme Court verdict on Section 498A that police have to investigate before arresting the accused has sparked a debate in Kolkata. While women’s rights groups fear it might weaken battered wives’ only remedy against abuse and torture, legal experts feel it will help prevent misuse of the law and make it more balanced.
In 80 per cent of the registered complaints, the charges are fabricated or exaggerated. One of the main directions given is not to arrest the accused involved in dowry harassment cases without securing the permission of the district SP or any other officer of the equal rank in metropolitan cities.
One shocking aspect of this law is that, a wife willing to divorce can get married even before the divorce decree from the earlier marriage is passed by the court whereas the husband cannot. Such blind and hypocritical laws only exist in this country as no wonder the legislatures framing such laws are just not inept but also inadequately educated if not illiterate. The judiciary is just gender biased and pathetic. This will only lead to ordinary men turning into hard criminals. The judge directed the magistrates to ensure that no accused was remanded in judicial custody in a routine manner. When an accused is produced before the magistrate, the court should examine the matter judiciously and consider it, whether there are valid grounds for remanding the accused to judicial custody. If arrest is not necessary, the police may complete the investigation and file a chargesheet before the court without arresting the accused.
The judge made it clear that in the case of dowry death, suspicious death, and suicide, where the allegations are serious in nature, the police officer may arrest the accused and inform the same immediately to the SP or commissioner concerned. The judge ruled that no accused or witness should be unnecessarily called to the police station, and in case their presence is required for enquiry, they should be sent back immediately after completion of the process. Senior police officers should ensure that there are no complaints of forcible settlements or compromises made by the police. The advocates should play the role of social reformers and try to bring about reconciliation between bickering couples while dealing with such cases, particularly, where the couples have children.
498A has more misuses than uses, but abolishing the section is not the solution. There is a need to amend this section.