In order to contain violence against women within the family, the operation of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code was weighted against husbands and their birth families, and automatically presumed the complainant to be an innocent victim. Progressive discrimination was deemed necessary in a country which recorded a dowry death every hour, on average, and where violence against women has been regarded as normal. However, both the Supreme Court and the Women and Child Development Ministry have acknowledged that the law has been misused too often to be ignored, and moved to ensure that innocent men and their relations are spared the threat of summary arrest. Minister Maneka Gandhi has asked the National Commission for Women to be accessible to men who claim to be falsely accused, and the apex court has issued fresh guidelines prohibiting the immediate arrest of family members, except in cases involving physical injury or death. The automatic assumption of guilt has been seen as a problem, with police proceedings, seizure of passports and issuing of Interpol notices precluding any chance of a compromise.
While the principle of fairness demands it, striking a balance may prove to be difficult. Both the ministry and the court have recommended a filter to sift grain from chaff. Maneka Gandhi has recommended a more stringent filing process which insists on identity proof, and has warned that while opening a window to the victims of false claims, the NCW should not open the door wide to false counter-claims. The SC wants the establishment of family welfare committees in every district, to which all complaints are to be referred. Its members would have to interact with the complainant and the accused, and submit a report within one month. Police can proceed only thereafter and, given that the woman in question may fear severe bodily harm, the period seems to be far too liberal. Besides, the court has prescribed that bail applications must be decided on the date of application. Since bail is a right, courts may be more inclined to grant rather than withhold, which could again increase the risk to the complainant.
While the working of Section 498A was tilted in favour of women as a progressive intervention, a course correction is seen to be required in the interest of equality before the law and the prevalence of misuse, which is reflected in the data of the National Crime Records Bureau — less than one in five chargesheets filed has resulted in conviction. The law must retain its progressive bias in favour of wronged women, without inadvertently wronging men. In practice, it will prove to be a tough balancing act — an impossible feat, in the absence of police reform.