If there is one law that has been abused the most in the country and is dreaded by family counsellors, it’s the Anti-Dowry Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. “A happy marriage is a harbour in the tempest of life, an unhappy marriage is a tempest in the harbour of life” suits aptly to the entangled mesh of socio-legal issues that surround modern-day marriages. And, dowry is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of offences related to marriage in India. While the country brought in timely legislation, with stringent clauses, to protect women against the evils of dowry, the reality is that the law has been widely misused by disgruntled wives and in-laws.
The cases speak for themselves
One of the most famous cases of dowry and related offences was when, in February 2020, Flipkart co-founder and billionaire Sachin Bansal’s wife Priya Bansal filed a dowry harassment case against him and his family. Her complaint read “Given the position and status of Sachin Bansal and his violent and abusive behaviour towards me, I am fearful for the physical safety of my son, Aryaman, and myself.” Details of ‘hardships’ endured from the start of her wedding negotiations 12 years ago in 2008 were also included.
In February 2020, a Family Court in Pune dismissed a suit filed by a woman finding her intention was to harass the husband and in-laws. The judge stated “The applicant (wife) could not succeed in her above proceedings (domestic violence), so she filed present false case application for an offence punishable under section 498A of IPC against the respondents, only with the intention to harass them and grab money.”
Laws to protect the interest of women
India, a country of more than a billion people, is perceived to be ‘dangerous’ for women and known as the ‘rape capital’ of the world. The tag, the result of a craftily-weaved propaganda orchestrated by foreign media houses and entities and supported by domestic elements who have conveniently manipulated data to suit their menacing needs, is a cheap trick that exposes the perpetrators over and over again.
After India won her Independence, there was a real need to bring about legislations that resolved problems of ‘free’ Indians and not suit the whims and fancies of British rulers. The Government of India (GOI) introduced the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 to prohibit the giving or taking of dowry. There are several state level amendments to the Act as well. According to the Act:
If any person who gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years, and with the fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more. And, if any person demands directly or indirectly, from the parents or other relatives or guardian of a bride or bridegroom as the case may be, any dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees.
The Dowry Prohibition (Maintenance of Lists of Presents to the Bride and Bridegroom) Rules, 1985 were introduced later that stated ‘the list of presents which are given at the time of the marriage to the bride and bridegroom shall be maintained by respective individuals’.
However, the increasing incidents of dowry-related cruelty against women and ‘dowry deaths’ – new brides being burnt alive by in-laws and the incidents being dismissed as accidents — meant the penal system had not adequately addressed the social menace. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1983 inserted Section 498A in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860) to safeguard interests of women. The section dealt with ‘Matrimonial Cruelty’ perpetrated on a woman and made it a Cognizable, Non-Bailable and a Non-Compoundable Offence.
Several other laws were introduced to protect women but Section 498A proved to be a milestone in the history of women empowerment in India. The strict provisions of the section read:
– Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation – For the purpose of this section, “cruelty” means –
(a) any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or
(b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.
Law abused by those it set out to protect
However, like every other good law, Section 498A also fell prey to misuse by conniving women and greedy lawyers. The law “made to save lives, has taken many lives,” concurs activist Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj whose documentary titled Martyrs of Marriage narrates first-person tales of various victims of the misuse of the anti-dowry Section 498A.
Deepika had personally experienced the tyranny of 498A when ‘a cousin was falsely accused in a dowry case by his wife’. She was appalled at the helplessness of the family who were told the fight was against a system biased against men. Her experience made her empathise with other men and their families who have no support – legal or otherwise – in such situations. The suicide video of a Bengaluru-based techie Syed Ahmed Makhdoom, harassed by his estranged wife and her parents and prevented from seeing his five-year-old son, drove her to make the documentary.
Crime data gives the real picture
The low conviction rate in such cases is proof that anti-dowry laws have proved to be unsuccessful. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) data, nearly 200,000 people were arrested over dowry offences in 2012, but only 14.4 per cent of the accused were convicted. The intent of legislature is not met, and the strict provisions of the law only meant that the chances of conciliation or settlement between the husband and the wife were bleak.
The NCRB data also revealed between 2006 -2016, for every case that resulted in a conviction, five other cases resulted in an acquittal and one case was withdrawn with the net result being that only one out of every seven cases resulted in a conviction. At the end of 2006, 2,06,000 cases were pending, and this number increased to 5,15,000 cases by the end of 2016, an increase of more than 150 per cent in 11 years.
A complaint under Section 498A enabled immediate arrest and imprisonment of the accused – the husband and/or family members. Section 498A is the most abused law in the country. It is routinely ‘used’ by resentful women to harass the husband and in-laws even at the cost of ripping the family apart.
Lacunae in the legal system addressed
In July 2017, the Supreme Court passed an order preventing ‘immediate arrests’ of the husband and his family under Section 498A and asked the States to set up Family Welfare Committees to prevent ‘misuse’ of the law and probe the veracity of complaints filed under this section. The Court noted the law is being increasingly “misused by some disgruntled wives” to frame their husbands and his relatives.
Soon after, women groups and NGOs protested the order saying it has diluted the original intent of the law. In September 2018, the Supreme Court, reversing the previous order, restored the immediate arrest provision but inserted a rider that those arrested could approach the court for bail. “There should be gender justice for women as dowry has a chilling effect on marriage on the one hand, and on the other hand, there is right to life and personal liberty of the man,” the bench had said.
It is important to have a law to protect the weak but the responsibility lies on the judiciary and the executive to ensure the spirit of the law in maintained and the law should not defeat the purpose for which it was made.