Debate I New Anti-Dowry Law Shoves Us Back to the Patriarchal Era
(In a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court has issued new directions in dowry-related cases that rules out immediate arrest of the accused. The Quint debates whether the new anti-dowry law will prevent misuse of Sec 498A. This is the View. You may like to read the Counterview by Rakesh Dubbudu here.)
When Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code was introduced in the statute books in 1983, it was meant to deter or punish husbands and in-laws who tortured women for dowry. It was meant to stem the tide of dowry deaths. One of its most important and stringent provisions was that the offence was cognisable and non-bailable. A complaint by the victim or her relatives could put her tormentors behind bars at once.
Strangely, in the decades since its implementation, the conversation around 498A has not been so much about how effective it has been. The conversation has mostly been one of consternation.
A growing outcry that the law is being grossly misused by armies of dishonest, scheming women who have no respect for family values and whose sole agenda is to drag their husbands and in-laws to jail.
Relief for the Accused
On Thursday a Supreme Court bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit gave a huge boost to that specious narrative. The judges ruled that the police could no longer make immediate arrests of those accused in cases filed under Section 498A.
Instead, a Family Welfare Committee, to be set up in every district, would scrutinise dowry harassment cases. Based on its report, the police would decide whether or not it should act — the assumption being that this would filter out frivolous cases and instances of the law’s misuse.
There are other reliefs for the accused: bail applications to be decided on the same day, no need for personal appearances in the court, and no need to impound passports if the accused resides outside India. The only exceptions can be in cases where there is “tangible” injury to the victim, or, better still, death.
The ruling is truly landmark, for it amounts to a tectonic shift in the way the criminal justice system will look at Section 498 A henceforth. From protecting a woman who is tortured for dowry, the emphasis seems to be shifting towards making life easier for the accused.
Is new anti-dowry law against women?
- SC judgement says police can
no longer make immediate arrests in cases filed under Section 498A.
- Other reliefs for the
accused include bail application to be decided on the same day, no need for personal
appearances in court, etc.
- A total of 24,771 dowry
deaths have been reported in India from 2012-2014.
- Activists suggest reason behind
low conviction in dowry-related cases is delay in judicial process.
- Few instances of misuse of
anti-dowry law cannot be the excuse to dilute the law and deny its benefit to
22 Dowry Deaths Reported Every Day
This is astonishing, to say the least. It is not as if dowry-related crimes have evaporated from our midst and a law such as 498A is no longer relevant.
That’s so many women every day who didn’t have the nerve or the agency to file a complaint against their demonic husband and in-laws and ended up being murdered or committing suicide. It is safe to assume that the figure would have been higher if 498A had not been in existence.
Any law is abused. So is 498A, and there’s no doubt that there are people out there who have been wrongly accused under the law.
The question is, do the few instances of misuse justify endangering the vast majority of women who are in genuine distress? The Family Welfare Committees may certainly detect some frivolous cases. Equally, genuine and urgent complaints may get mired in delays and paternalistic pressure to abide by “family values”, bite the bullet and brave the abuse.
Low Conviction Rate
But let us see the grounds on which the apex court made the point that most cases under 498A had little legal heft.
The point is, should we undermine a law just because its conviction rates are low? The conviction rate for rape trials in 2013 was 27.1 percent — hardly an encouraging figure. Again, according to minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju’s statement in Parliament last year, only 13 persons were convicted out of the 639 chargesheeted in 2014 under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.
That’s an abysmal 2 percent conviction rate. Does that mean we ought to amend the rape law and the DV Act to show more consideration to the accused – because, hey, they may eventually get acquitted?
As far as Section 498A is concerned, activists working on the ground have long pointed out that the main reason for the low conviction rate is that the cases drag on for years, and many exhausted complainants settle for a compromise or are forced to drop the cases altogether.
Diluting Provisions of Sec 498A
Of course, Thursday’s ruling is not the first time that the Indian judiciary has thrown its weight behind men who have been crying themselves hoarse over the “unjust” law.
In 2014 Supreme Court Judge CK Prasad had said that the police should not make any arrests under 498A without subjecting the complaint to the 9-point checklist provided under Section 41 of the IPC. “The fact that Section 498A is a cognisable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives,” he said.
In 2003 the Malimath Committee on Criminal Justice Reforms too suggested that Section 498A be made bailable and compoundable (where the case can be withdrawn and settled by mutual agreement between the parties). “…a less tolerant and impulsive woman may lodge an FIR even on a trivial act… innocent persons may languish in custody,” wrote Justice Malimath.
The judicial indignation over the depredations of “disgruntled wives” and “less tolerant” women notwithstanding, no studies have been conducted to ascertain the extent of misuse of Section 498A. The so-called evidence is anecdotal and rides almost entirely on patriarchy’s self-fulfilling outrage over the law.
There have been some cases of abuse, yes. But most have been by savvy urban women. This cannot be the excuse to dilute the law and deny its benefit to countless women who are physically and psychologically assaulted for dowry.
This week, the Madras High Court ruled that a husband should not be “mechanically” asked to provide maintenance to his wife and children as he needs to take care of his aged parents too. Though the ruling is unrelated to the 498A judgement, it chimes in with the growing anti-woman stance of the courts. It’s a signal that we may be returning to a time when men decided what was good for women and when to rein them in.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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