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Calcutta HC Says Women Are 'Misusing' Anti-Cruelty Law: What Are Experts Saying?

The Calcutta HC ruling is the latest in a debate which has raged on for years – do women misuse IPC Section 498A?

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While quashing two criminal complaints filed by a wife against her husband and in-laws, the Calcutta High Court observed on Monday, 21 August, that women are engaging in “legal terrorism,”  by “misusing” Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (which criminalises cruelty against a woman by her husband or his family.)

After the court concluded that the medical evidence on record and the witness statements did not corroborate with the wife’s version, it went on to add:

“The legislature has enacted the provision of Section 498A to strike out the dowry menace from the society. But it is observed in several cases that by misusing of said provision new legal terrorism is unleashed.”

The Calcutta High Court judgment is only the latest in a debate which has raged on for years – do women ‘misuse’ the anti-cruelty law?

Calcutta HC Says Women Are 'Misusing' Anti-Cruelty Law: What Are Experts Saying?

  1. 1. What Does The Law Mean?

    Section 498A is defined as: “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty”  and prescribes punishment of “imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”

    “Cruelty” in the definition has been explained as:

    (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

    Essentially, this is an anti-cruelty law for women, which also takes into consideration dowry-related harassment, but is not restricted to it.

    Expand
  2. 2. Why Was This Law Really Brought In?

    The women's rights movement in the 1970s and 80s launched a campaign to bring 'marital cruelty' under the scope of criminal law in response to the failure of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, to address various forms of abuse against married women and the alarming increase in dowry deaths. 

    Their unrelenting efforts finally led to the amendment of the IPC in 1983, introducing Section 498A which aims to protect women from abuse by their husbands or their relatives in their matrimonial homes.

    “It criminalised violence within homes for the first time and empowered married women who faced violence in the marital house to raise their voice against such abuse,”  Advocate Dr Shalu Nigam, said in a paper titled ‘Countering the Backlash Against Section 498A, IPC.’

    In 2017, a Supreme Court bench of Justices UU Lalit & A K Goel, while laying down guidelines, said that  no arrest of husband and his family members were to be made till the charges are verified under section 498 (A) of IPC.

    The top court, while delivering the set of guidelines, noted that “most of such complaints are filed in the heat of the moment over trivial issues.”

    While months later the top court decided to revisit the judgment, recently in 2022, a bench of Justices SA Nazeer and Krishna Murari, while delivering a judgment in another similar case said:

    "False implication by way of general omnibus allegations made in the course of matrimonial dispute, if left unchecked would result in misuse of the process of law.”

    Expand
  3. 3. ‘Low Conviction Rates’? What The Numbers Are Saying

    While delivering several of these judgments and commenting on the misuse of section 498A, courts have taken into account the “low conviction rates” of these cases.

    For instance, while passing the set of guidelines in 2017, the top court  mulled over NCRB data from 2013, according to which the conviction rate of cases registered under Section 498A IPC “was also a staggering low at 15.6%.”

    Meanwhile, Nearly 31,000 complaints of crimes committed against women were received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in 2022, the highest since 2014. In 2021, the NCW had received 30,864 complaints while in 2022, the number slightly increased to 30,957.

    Of the 30,957 complaints, the maximum of 9,710 were related to the right to live with dignity that takes into account the emotional abuse of women, followed by those related to domestic violence at 6,970 and dowry harassment at 4,600, according to NCW data accessed by PTI.

    Expand
  4. 4. But Do Low Conviction Rates = ‘False Cases?’

    “No attempt is made to clarify the reasons for less number of convictions in 498A cases. Is it apathy on the part of the police that they write incomplete FIRs or because they conduct shoddy investigations or that complainants are forced to withdraw the complaint? No explanations are provided,” Advocate Nigam pointed out.

    A piece by Advocate Bindu N. Doddahatti for The Wire affirms this.

    “Systemic biases, prejudices of the police and the judiciary, corruption and socio-economic vulnerabilities of women litigants have a direct correlation with the low conviction rate in Section 498A cases.”

    In fact, according to  Advocate Nigam’s paper, men who oppose Section 498A, a law aimed at protecting women from domestic violence, claim it is destroying the institution of marriage and family. They accuse women of falsely accusing husbands and their families of abuse. However, these claims are not based on evidence and stem from patriarchal anxiety. In reality, the law empowers women and challenges male domination. 

    Nigam adds that the misogynistic propaganda has led to the police, judiciary, lawmakers, and executives working against the law, and false allegations of misuse have been made. Despite low conviction rates being cited as proof of misuse, this is due to difficulties in obtaining conviction, not misuse. 

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Does The Law Mean?

Section 498A is defined as: “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty”  and prescribes punishment of “imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”

“Cruelty” in the definition has been explained as:

(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

Essentially, this is an anti-cruelty law for women, which also takes into consideration dowry-related harassment, but is not restricted to it.

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Why Was This Law Really Brought In?

The women's rights movement in the 1970s and 80s launched a campaign to bring 'marital cruelty' under the scope of criminal law in response to the failure of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, to address various forms of abuse against married women and the alarming increase in dowry deaths. 

Their unrelenting efforts finally led to the amendment of the IPC in 1983, introducing Section 498A which aims to protect women from abuse by their husbands or their relatives in their matrimonial homes.

“It criminalised violence within homes for the first time and empowered married women who faced violence in the marital house to raise their voice against such abuse,”  Advocate Dr Shalu Nigam, said in a paper titled ‘Countering the Backlash Against Section 498A, IPC.’

In 2017, a Supreme Court bench of Justices UU Lalit & A K Goel, while laying down guidelines, said that  no arrest of husband and his family members were to be made till the charges are verified under section 498 (A) of IPC.

The top court, while delivering the set of guidelines, noted that “most of such complaints are filed in the heat of the moment over trivial issues.”

While months later the top court decided to revisit the judgment, recently in 2022, a bench of Justices SA Nazeer and Krishna Murari, while delivering a judgment in another similar case said:

"False implication by way of general omnibus allegations made in the course of matrimonial dispute, if left unchecked would result in misuse of the process of law.”

0

‘Low Conviction Rates’? What The Numbers Are Saying

While delivering several of these judgments and commenting on the misuse of section 498A, courts have taken into account the “low conviction rates” of these cases.

For instance, while passing the set of guidelines in 2017, the top court  mulled over NCRB data from 2013, according to which the conviction rate of cases registered under Section 498A IPC “was also a staggering low at 15.6%.”

Meanwhile, Nearly 31,000 complaints of crimes committed against women were received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in 2022, the highest since 2014. In 2021, the NCW had received 30,864 complaints while in 2022, the number slightly increased to 30,957.

Of the 30,957 complaints, the maximum of 9,710 were related to the right to live with dignity that takes into account the emotional abuse of women, followed by those related to domestic violence at 6,970 and dowry harassment at 4,600, according to NCW data accessed by PTI.

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But Do Low Conviction Rates = ‘False Cases?’

“No attempt is made to clarify the reasons for less number of convictions in 498A cases. Is it apathy on the part of the police that they write incomplete FIRs or because they conduct shoddy investigations or that complainants are forced to withdraw the complaint? No explanations are provided,” Advocate Nigam pointed out.

A piece by Advocate Bindu N. Doddahatti for The Wire affirms this.

“Systemic biases, prejudices of the police and the judiciary, corruption and socio-economic vulnerabilities of women litigants have a direct correlation with the low conviction rate in Section 498A cases.”

In fact, according to  Advocate Nigam’s paper, men who oppose Section 498A, a law aimed at protecting women from domestic violence, claim it is destroying the institution of marriage and family. They accuse women of falsely accusing husbands and their families of abuse. However, these claims are not based on evidence and stem from patriarchal anxiety. In reality, the law empowers women and challenges male domination. 

Nigam adds that the misogynistic propaganda has led to the police, judiciary, lawmakers, and executives working against the law, and false allegations of misuse have been made. Despite low conviction rates being cited as proof of misuse, this is due to difficulties in obtaining conviction, not misuse. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from news and law

Topics:  Section 498 (A) 

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