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The abuse of dowry law

Tears well up in Gautam Banerjee’s (name changed on request) eyes as he recalls the events of June 3, 2008, when he was escorted to his house by the police with a rope tied around his waist to see his ailing father. “My father didn’t know that I had been arrested. I tried my best to sound cheerful but I think he knew that I was in trouble,” recalls Banerjee, who was arrested by the Manicktala police station on June 1, following a dowry harassment complaint by his wife under section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

He was taken into custody as soon as the first information report (FIR) was filed, as is the norm under section 498A. “It was a bolt from the blue. I didn’t know my crime and the only thing that mattered to the police was my wife’s seven-page statement,” he says.

Worse was to follow. His father died on June 4, and he was brought to the house, once again like a common criminal. Apart from the public humiliation, Banerjee also lost his job. There was an arrest warrant against his mother too as she was named one of the accused, but the police did not take her into custody owing to Banerjee’s father’s condition.

According to Banerjee, a content writing professional, his love marriage turned sour within three months. He declares that his only crime was that he had refused to listen to his wife and throw his parents out of the house. Now out on bail, he is looking for another job.

For men like Banerjee who allege that their wives have wrongly used Section 498A against them, help seems to be finally at hand. Recently, women and child development minister Renuka Chowdhury said that the ministry was open to making changes in the dowry law to make it less prone to abuse by women. “Law-making is a dynamic process. We are ready to change the law,” the minister told a meeting of men’s organisations in Delhi.

Implemented in 1983, Section 498A is a criminal law. A case filed under this section is non-bailable (one has to appear in court to get bail), non-compoundable (the complaint cannot be withdrawn) and cognisable (the police has to register and investigate the complaint). The law says, “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”

Naturally, most men consider the law an unfair tool in the hands of women, pointing out that women can easily invoke it to torment husbands and in-laws. So the government’s recent statement on making the law less open to abuse would no doubt be music to their ears.

Women’s activists, however, claim that tinkering with a law that is one of the most important legal safeguards for women is unacceptable. “498A of the IPC is not just an anti-dowry law. It is the first provision in the Indian criminal law that addresses violence within marriage for purposes of dowry or otherwise,” asserts Rukmini Sen, lecturer, National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta. “Besides, it has to be remembered that though all laws are misused, it is the misuse of 498A that is spoken and written about the most.”

There is enough evidence to suggest that violence against women on dowry-related issues is actually on the rise. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which has figures till 2006, states that cases falling under the ‘cruelty by husbands and relatives’ category, which pertains to 498A, rose from 58,319 in 2005 to 63,128 in 2006. Even dowry deaths are increasing in number. There were 7,618 deaths in 2006 as opposed to 6,787 in 2005. But the conviction rate in all such cases stood at a mere 33.7 per cent.

According to a 2005 study by the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi-based women's advocacy group, the accused are convicted in only 2 out of 100 cases under 498A. “With proper police investigation, convictions are easier, but that’s not happening. This calls for the strengthening of the law rather than its dilution,” says Ranjana Kumari, director, CSR.

The long trial process, according to Kumari, is also one of the reasons for the high acquittal rate in cases under 498A. According to the CSR study, the normal trial period is between five to ten years.

Ironically, men’s organisations cite the low conviction rate as an indication that the law is deeply flawed. “This was meant to be a special law to get more convictions, but the opposite has happened because there are too many false complaints. Many women are using the law to blackmail their husbands,” alleges Swarup Sarkar of Save Family Foundation, a group of men’s organisations in Calcutta.

Men also find it unfair that their family members are arrested in the event of the wife naming them in the FIR. “Anybody named in the FIR is arrested. It can even be the man’s parents who are living in a different town,” says D.S. Rao of Bharat Bachao Sangathan, a Calcutta-based men’s advocacy group.

Men’s organisations are now demanding that the Centre should direct state governments to make no arrests under Section 498A without proper investigation. In fact, the Delhi and Hyderabad police have already issued circulars stating that no arrests will be made unless the case has been investigated first.

Many legal experts feel that such a step could make the law less draconian. “The law requires no change except that the government should clearly instruct the police to investigate the cases before carrying out arrests,” says Y. Rajagopal Rao, who fought the landmark Deb Narayan Halder vs Anushree Halder case in 2003, on the issue of the misuse of the anti-dowry law.

498A is also criticised for its non-compoundable and non-bailable provisions by people on both sides of the fence. Even the Committee on the Reforms of the Criminal Justice System headed by Justice V.S. Malimath had recommended in 2003 that the law ought to be made bailable and compoundable.

As it stands, the law is no doubt a powerful means to punish violence against women. But its misuse cannot be wished away. A CSR study states that 6.5 per cent of the total cases brought under 498A were found to be false at the level of investigation. And men haven’t stopped crying foul. A website, www.498a.org, dedicated to the alleged abuse of the law, gets around two million hits a month. “We receive at least 8-10 complaints each day by harassed husbands on the site,” says Satya Kumar, the website’s founder.

Although the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the law in 2005, it also asked the legislature to find ways to stop the misuse: “The object is to strike at the root of the dowry menace. But by misuse of the provision a new legal terrorism can be unleashed.”

The minister for women and child development has called for another round of discussions with men’s groups on the issue of 498A. Will the government be able to bring in steps to stem the misuse of Section 498A without diluting its potential to punish men who torture their wives? Only time, as they say, will tell.

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