Plans are afoot to amend a criminal law that will allow compromise and settlement between husband and wife at the onset of trial in dowry harassment cases, a move that comes after frequent misuse of the provision to trouble men and their near relatives.
Under the proposal, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code will be made a compoundable offence with the permission of the courts as suggested by the Law Commission and Justice Malimath Committee.
“A draft note for the Union Cabinet seeking to amend Section 498A of the IPC, making it compoundable, has been sent to the Law Ministry for drawing up the draft bill,” a Home Ministry official said.
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Now, the offence is non-compoundable and non-bailable which provides for immediate arrest of the accused. Conciliatory effort by the warring sides is virtually impossible.
A husband or his family members are presumed to be guilty till they prove their innocence in the court. The guilty is punishable with a jail term of up to three years.
There have been allegations that in many cases, husbands and their relatives are often charged with false dowry harassment cases by their wives or her family members when some marital problems arise.
If the offence is made compoundable, misuse of the law may come down hugely as there would be scope for initiating conciliation proceedings and out-of-court settlement.
Permission from a court will be a guarantee against attempts where a wife may be compelled into a compromise by her husband or in-laws, the Home Ministry official said.
Now, if a dowry harassment case is proved wrong or proved that the law is misused, only Rs 1,000 penalty is slapped. But the amendment provides for a Rs 15,000 fine.
Another new section is expected to be inserted to allow an accused to escape jail by paying a penalty.
Opposing the move to dilute the anti-dowry provision of the law, senior Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising said it is a law which gives relief and protection to harassed woman and it should be continued.
“Violence against women is a violation of human rights. There is no compromise of that. I would disagree with the government move,” Jaising said.
The Supreme Court had in a judgement in 2010 said as it stood now, the law had become a “weapon in the hands of disgruntled women”. It had also observed that serious re-look of the entire provision is warranted by the Legislature.
“It is a matter of common knowledge that exaggerated versions of the incident are reflected in a large number of complaints. The tendency of over-implication is also reflected in a very large number of cases,” the apex court had said.
Section 498A was introduced in early eighties to protect married women from being subjected to cruelty by the husband or his relatives involving newly-married brides.
A spate of dowry deaths in Delhi and elsewhere led to a campaign by some leading women members of Parliament pushing the government to bring the amendment.
A punishment involving imprisonment of up to three years is provided in the present law. The expression ‘cruelty’ has been defined in wide terms so as to include inflicting physical or mental harm to the body or health of the woman and indulging in acts of harassment with a view to coerce her or her relations to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security.
The Law Commission recommended that the offence under Section 498A should be made a compoundable offence with the permission of Court.
Justice Malimath Committee on Criminal Justice Reform also recommended that it should be made compoundable as well as bailable.
Last year, the Home Ministry had asked all state governments to be judicious in slapping Section 498A of IPC in matrimonial disputes as the provision may be used as “weapons rather than shields by disgruntled wives”.
In an advisory to the states and union territories, the Ministry had asked them to instruct their police officers not to automatically arrest a person when a case under Section 498-A of the IPC is registered but to satisfy themselves about the necessity for arrest under the parameters laid down flowing from Section 41, CrPC (When police may arrest without warrant).