Did you know that Section 498A is sole provision in Indian Criminal Law that provides protection to women against domestic violence? That too was inserted in the year 1983; this speaks volumes about the fact till three decades even after independence marital violence was not considered as offence at all. This Section is often quoted to be the most misused Section in the law book but ground reality and surveys show altogether different picture. A survey conducted in the year 2011 by The International Men and Gender Equality Survey came to conclusion that 65% of Indian men still believe sometimes it is normal to beat a woman and they need to tolerate violence in order to keep family intact. According to research even today 40-30 % of married women face violence in India but not even 1% of married women facing domestic violence actually lodge complaints under Section 498A.
S.498A was introduced in the year 1983 to ensure that married women are protected from being condemned to cruelty and harassment by their husband and his family and relatives. The penalty for this offense extends to 3 years in jail and/or an imposition of fine. The expression ‘cruelty’ has been demarcated in a broad way so as to include any kind of physical injury to the body or mental health of the woman and any such acts of harassment with an intention to force her or her family to fulfil any kind of unlawful demands for property or other valuable securities. Harassing and asking for dowry comes within the ambit of the latter limb of this section. Causing any kind of situation to drive the woman to commit the act of suicide is also one of the elements of ‘cruelty’. The offence as under s.498A of the Indian Penal Code is cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.
The addition of Section 498A was closely followed by addition of Sec 304B which defined the special offence of dowry-related death of a woman in 1986 and the related amendments in the Indian Evidence Act 1872.
In the 1980s, the occurrences of 'dowry deaths' were increasingly escalating in our country. A dowry death is understood to be the murder of a woman that is committed by the in-laws, when she was incapable of fulfilling their forceful demands for money, articles or property, considered as dowry. Organizations and NGOs across the country pressed and insisted the government to offer legislative protection to women against domestic violence and dowry. The aim here was to allow the state to interfere quickly and stop the murders of young girls who were inept to meet the dowry demands of their in-laws. As a result of the intense campaigning and lobbying, important modifications were made in the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act and the Dowry Prohibition Act, with the purpose of protecting women from marital violence, exploitation and dowry demands. The most vital amendment came in the form of the introduction of Section 498A in the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
There has been trend that there is a steady increase in the false complaints filled by the women against their husbands or in- laws to settle personal scores. The courts were forced to go the extent that this Section has unleashed “legal terrorism”. Organisations working and advocating for men’s rights term this Section as biased and women centric. Their arguments are that this Section at present is cognizable, non bailable and non- compoundable. This leads to their arrest without the offence being proved. They end up losing their jobs and lot of hardships are caused to innocent members of family as well. They argue that these complaints are filed in heat of moment and the offence being non – compoundable the wife even if is willing to condone and forgive the lapse of the husband and live in matrimony, this provision comes in the way of spouses returning to the matrimonial home.
The decision of Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma v. State of U.P explains the latest position of this law in our country. The decision in my opinion is regressive rather progressive. The Supreme Court in this case came up the formation of family committees in each district to which all complaints under Section 498A will go. The court clearly held that in case a complaint is filed under Section 498A then report will be prepared by the committee and no immediate arrest will be made. The decision in my opinion is flawed because sometimes the nature of offence committed against women is so grave that immediate action is required. This decision has led to situation where family and marriage has been given more importance then safety of women.
Also Section 498A should be amended to make the offence under it compoundable but with the permission of court. Also to reduce the misuse of this section it should be made gender neutral. The ambit of Section 498A should be widened to include in it other forms of relationship as well and should not be limited to marital offence. Plus this section as of now only provides for punishment in case of domestic violence but no relief to victim so state must provide rehabilitation to victims of marital cruelty, who are unable to obtain legal and medical help and also for their day to day sustenance. This Section provides no remedy for false complaints being filed so section should be amended to add deterrence clause in case a false complaint is proved.
Also state to direct courts to finish 498A cases on fast track basis because they constitute a different category of offences and needs to be dealt in sensitive way.