Section 498A of Indian Penal Code deals with cruelty against women by her husband and in- laws. The bare text of Section reads as if a husband or his relative subjects the women to cruelty, they will be punished with imprisonment for the period of three years and fine. The cruelty as defined by this provision includes conduct which is so grave that it drives the women to commit suicide.
The introduction of this Section into the statute book marks the second criminal amendment which happened in the year 1883. It is appalling to know that even after three decades of Indian Independence there was nothing in law books which addressed the issue of cruelty against women. Many factors could be attributed to it but the major factor is that the safety of women was overlooked and family life was given priority. This Section was passed after laborious efforts of the feminist movement in India during 1970-1980 and made a foremost contribution in getting domestic violence recognised as a form of violence in India. Though intent with which this law was passed was to bulwark the atrocities inflicted on married women within the four walls of the house, as the time passed this Section became notorious for being the most misused provision in Indian jurisprudence.
Here are few landmark judgements which have changed the course of this Section from inception till now.
In the case of Inder Raj Malik v. Sunita Malik, it was argued that the Section 498A totally against the principle against double jeopardy mentioned under Article 20(2) of the Constitution. The said doctrine envisages that a person once tried and acquitted under any provision cannot be punished twice under the same law. Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 makes a demand for dowry or any property punishable by law, and prima facie it might look that both statutes are dealing and providing punishment for the same crime. Delhi High Court rejected the contention and held section 498A is constitutional. The Court held that ‘cruelty’ is precisely defined in the section; hence no arbitrary powers are given to the police. The discretion as to what sentence can be passed is not arbitrary, judges always exercise the power judicially and thus Article 14 is not violated. The Article 20 of Constitution is not violated in the view of the fact that while Section 498A punishes for the demand of property or valuable security coupled with cruelty, on the other hand, the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 penalizes even mention demand for dowry at any time during or after marriage and the element of cruelty is not necessary under this Act and thus these are two distinct offences. Section 498A deals with a serious form of the offence. Hence a person can be prosecuted at the same times under both viz., Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act and Section 498A.
In the case of Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, it was held that no direct and automatic arrest can be made on the complaint under Section 498A.
The facts of the case are such that the wife alleged she was driven out of the house for getting enough dowry. The husband applied for anticipatory bail but the court declined to grant one. Aggrieved by this he filed the special leave petition in the Supreme Court of India. The Court, in this case, laid down guidelines which police officers are to follow while making an arrest under Section 498A of IPC or Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. Police officers can arrest only a reasonable satisfaction that the allegation is genuine. The Court discussed as to how bedridden grandfathers and grandmothers are being arrested and there is no consideration of their age. It is disturbing to see innocent relatives being arrested for no fault of theirs. Thus it was held that husband or his family cannot be arrested because a complaint has been filed by disgruntled wives when at first place charge has not been proved. The judgement directed Police Officers of all states across the country not to make an immediate arrest once a case is filed under Section 498A. The courts and law enforcement agencies cannot stand as mute spectators as this provision continues to unleash terror. The provision cannot be used as an easy opportunity by disgruntled wives to harass their husband and his relatives. Thus laying down the point that arrests should be made only in exceptional circumstances. This judgement drew flak from feminists and other sections of society for giving marital life importance over the safety and rights of women.
In the case of Rajesh Kumar & Ors v. State of UP, various guidelines were laid for the prevention of misuse of Section 498A.
In this case, husband and some relatives were accused of inflicting cruelty to wife in lieu of non-fulfilment of dowry demand. In the petition, it was contended that term “relatives” is very ambiguous and left to open interpretation. Thus innocent, sick and bed-ridden relatives are dragged to courts when they are not even party to the offence. So there is dire need to have guidelines to prevent this gross human right violation. The Supreme Court of India laid down comprehensive and inclusive guidelines to prevent the large scale misuse of the provision of Section 498A, Indian Penal Code to make sure insignificant issues does not escalate into a legal battle. This judgement was criticised for being a death blow to Section 498A of IPC.
Following are important guidelines:-
• Family Welfare Committee
In every district, there shall be Family Welfare Committees consisting of three members. These members should be interested in social work and volunteering. The composition and working of the committee will be reviewed from time to time as prescribed by law by District and Session Judge of the district. In no case shall the committee members be called as a witness in the suit. As soon as the complaint is filed under Section 498A, it has to be referred to this Committee. The Welfare Committee after deliberations and scrutinising every material placed on record submit the report. Till the time report is submitted no arrest under Section 498A of IPC.
• Investigating Officer
After one month in each case, a particular Investigating Officer will be designated to investigate the complaints under Section 498A. The investigating officer is required to undergo training in this regard to specialise to handle domestic violence cases. The time period for such training c cannot be less than a week.
The District and the Sessions Judge is supposed to dispose of the proceedings in cases where settlement was reached between the parties.
• Issuance of Red Corner Notice
In cases where accused is a non -resident, impounding of passports of such persons or issuance of Red Corner Notice cannot be allowed to become a routine.
• Clubbing of cases
The District Judge or a designated senior judicial officer nominated by the District Judge is empowered to club all cases pending between both the parties related to the matrimonial disputes in order to get a holistic view before reaching any conclusion.
• Personal appearance
It is not necessary family members need to be present during the hearing of the case. The court can grant exemption from the personal appearance of persons if it deems fit. The appearance by video conferencing is also allowed provided it does not adversely affect the progress of the trial. The rule does not apply where offences involve serious physical injuries or where death has taken place. The Supreme Court also asked National Legal Services Authority to submit an initial report after a trial of 6 months of such arrangement to check the effectiveness of guidelines and recommend changes, if any, to said guidelines.
In the case of Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar v. Union of India overruled Rajesh Sharma judgement and held that some guidelines laid in said case had entered the legislative field which is not permitted.
This is the latest case with respect to Section 498A of Indian Penal Code. This case revisited and laid importance of having said provision in criminal jurisprudence. The judgment reversed the powers of the police to arrest husbands accused of harassing their wives which had been diluted by earlier judgements. The writ petition was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution contending that it is not a myth that even today women continue to suffer from domestic violence and women misusing the said section is not supported by any concrete data. It was argued that the intention behind Section 498-A IPC is not taken into consideration. They previous judgements led to the massive dilution in the rigour of the said provision and the offence has practically rendered bailable by reason of guidelines laid in Rajesh Sharma case and other restrictions.
The Supreme Court discarded few directions given in the Rajesh Sharma case. It held that the constitution of Family Welfare Committees is not in accordance with the scheme of CrPC, 1973. The offence under Section 498A is non-bailable and cognizable offence but due to the directions, it was impossible to arrest before the report was given by such committee. Thus the guidelines given Rajesh Sharma case has been partly modified by Court and some guidelines totally reversed. Further, direction pertaining to the settlement the parties can approach the High Court under Section 482 of CrPC in case they want to compromise on the issue. The court, therefore held few directions/guidelines given in the Rajesh Sharma case had potentially entered into the legislative field which is against the principle judges cannot legislate. Keeping this in mind, the Hon'ble Supreme Court re-examined the directions and retained the ones that find their bedrock within the Indian Penal. The Supreme of India held that only High Courts have the power to quash cases on settlement; a third party agency created by courts basically referring to Family Welfare Committees cannot exercise statutory functions.