Let’s admit that neither dowry nor dowry deaths have been eliminated.
Violence against women within domestic peripheries is a fact. In the case of India, the problem of dowry and harassment related to dowry was seen as the main cause of domestic violence, and hence the amendments in the 1980s to address the issue of domestic violence focused only on that aspect. A law under Section 498A was introduced into the Indian Penal Code in 1983, applicable in cases where the complainant is a married and is subjected to cruelty by her husband or a relative of her husband.
Such cruelty consists of (a) wilful conduct by her husband or relative of husband of such nature as is likely to drive her to commit suicide or cause her grave injury, or (b) harassment to coerce her into meeting dowry demands. Further, in 1986, another section was added to the IPC — Section 304B. This applies in cases of unnatural death, death by burns or bodily injury taking place within seven years of marriage, and where there are allegations of dowry demand. Presumption of guilt arises only in cases of such unnatural deaths within seven years of marriage, and not in allegations of cruelty under Section 498A.
The debates in and around Section 498A need to distinguish between these two. The same set of arguments cannot be used to sweep aside the serious nature of the crime addressed under the second part of Section 498A and under 304B, where the woman’s life has been lost. Faulty and corrupt investigations, together with a misplaced sympathy for the groom’s family, result in routine acquittals. There is a need for stricter implementation of these provisions, a fact lost in the general cacophony around the “misuse of dowry laws”.
Let’s admit that neither dowry nor dowry deaths have been eliminated. Also, there are cases of extreme domestic violence leading to death that may not be related to dowry. Dowry as an angle may not exist in some of the cruelest cases of domestic abuse, and an attempt to establish the same in order to secure a conviction under these sections leads to some storytelling and evidence-building even in genuine cases. Who is at fault? The complainant or the structure of the law?
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Since the first clause defining physical/ mental cruelty under 498A does not use the term “dowry”, it can be used by women who are victims of domestic violence but not necessarily of a dowry demand. Thus, a woman who has faced repeated violence over 10-15 years of married life should be able to invoke this section and get a conviction.
Until the Domestic Violence Act was passed, this was the only provision a victim of domestic violence not necessarily interested in seeking a divorce on the ground of cruelty could take recourse to. However, since the genesis of 498A lay in the anti-dowry struggle, neither the police nor the courts entertained such cases unless accompanied by allegations of dowry. Therefore, invariably some lines are inserted relating to dowry. Which, ultimately, goes to discredit the entire, otherwise genuine, case. Again, who is at fault? The complainant or the investigative and judicial machinery that fails to uphold the law as is?
Another allegation against women filing 498A cases is that they are filed only to extract money from the husband and the in-laws, since the majority of cases are settled after some payment has been received by the complainant. While it is true that the majority of 498A cases are settled by parties filing for mutual consent divorce, it is hardly indicative of the genuineness of the case. Women are advised to settle and start afresh from the onset. The courts have also facilitated this, laying down guidelines from time to time.
The Delhi High Court has passed detailed guidelines on registering FIRs to carry out arrests in 498A cases. There is a liberal attitude adopted in the compounding of offences and quashing of FIRs on the basis of a compromise arrived between the parties. Even from the perspective of women caught in a violent marriage, it is not always the conviction that offers a balm to her wounds but a dignified exit with some financial security. It also needs to be understood that the settlements offered are meticulously calculated. What a woman gets is not the price for the withdrawal of a criminal complaint, as often projected, but the full and final settlement of all her legal claims that she is otherwise entitled to, such as alimony and maintenance.
The Supreme Court’s July 3 judgment unfortunately only considers one aspect of the issue and is likely to have disappointing effect at the bottom levels of the judiciary and police, which are the first line of contact for victims. For instance, after the SC’s judgment in Batra vs Batra, where it refused to grant residency rights to the victim in the house belonging to her mother-in-law, magistrates routinely reject prayers for protection orders with respect to the matrimonial home if it is owned by the in-laws. There are already obiter dicta from the highest court, calling for amendments to Section 498A. There are also decided cases of various high courts, where guidelines have been laid on the registration of FIRs in 498A cases and the investigation. There are enough safeguards in place.