IPC section 498a was originally designed to protect married women from being harassed or subjected to cruelty by husbands and/or their relatives. This law was mainly aimed at curbing dowry harassment. Unfortunately, this law has been misused to harass men and their families rather than protect genuine female victims of harassment. The Supreme Court of India itself has labeled the misuse of section 498a as “legal terrorism” and stated that “many instances have come to light where the complaints are not bona fide and have been filed with an oblique motive. In such cases, acquittal of the accused does not wipe out the ignominy suffered during and prior to the trial. Sometimes adverse media coverage adds to the misery. “ In agreement with the above statement, the findings of a study conducted by The Center for Social Research indicated that 98 percent of the cases filed under IPC section 498a are false. Nevertheless, the law has been always justified based on its intention of protecting women. At this point it would be worthwhile to think about how IPC section 498a has really affected women.
It has been argued by Government officials favoring the law that despite the establishment of legal measures to counter harassment of married women, there is an increase in the number of cases of harassment. The first part of the statement suggests that women who are harassed should be utilizing this law as a means of protection. If harassed women indeed used the law then we should see a decrease in the number of cases of harassment over time. Considering the stringent consequences imposed by the law and the inordinate delays inherent in the legal system, no ordinary citizen, male or female, would be impudent enough to risk being implicated under this law for the sake of satisfying their monetary or even sadistic desires for that matter.
The fact is that many women who are actually beaten up and harassed by their husbands and in-laws rarely file 498a or resort to other dowry related laws. A lot of them live in rural areas, unaware of the law or lack the necessary economic and moral support from their natal families. Going by the conviction rate the proportion of women who have genuine cases is 2%. Most women who file 498a are from urban backgrounds and are either capable of fending for themselves or have enough family support to fall back on. The proportion of women who belong to this category is 98%. In the 98% of false cases, in every instance that one daughter-in-law files a false complaint at least two women (an innocent mother-in-law and sister-in-law) are arrested and undergo stress, humiliation and harassment in the hands of the exploitative police, lawyers, staff and officials in Indian courts before being acquitted several years later. So, in every 100 cases 2 women genuinely benefit, 98 women get away with perjury and extortion, and at least 196 women suffer needlessly.
The number of cases that are filed in police stations or courts are the basis for the official statistics of dowry harassment. So, given that the law allows women unlimited scope to fabricate lies (with no penalty of perjury) and given that women are encouraged to keep filing false cases the statistics of “dowry harassment” are bound to rise while the problem of genuine harassment is left unchecked. So, the government has, in the name of protection of women, done grave injustice to two groups of women. The first group constitutes the genuine victims of dowry harassment whose misery remains unmitigated but is constantly alluded to in order to justify the law. The second group consists of innocent mothers and sisters of husbands who are criminalized and harassed by the police and the legal system without any regard to their age, health or marital status. Pregnant women, unmarried sisters, ailing mothers and even aged grandmothers have been sent behind the bars under false allegations but their pain and suffering has not even been acknowledged leave alone addressed by the Government. Through IPC section 498a, the Government is actually protecting those women that indulge in perjury, blackmail, extortion and harassment of their husbands and in-laws.
The recently passed Domestic Violence Bill claims that it will protect women from Domestic Violence which includes physical, verbal, emotional, sexual and economical abuse. According to the law an aggrieved person is defined as “any woman who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the respondent…” and a respondent is defined as “an adult male person who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the aggrieved person…”. Thus, the law only recognizes domestic violence committed by a man on a woman in a household shared in the past or present. While this law is heavily biased against men, many supporters of the law are claiming that this law is good for women. The following are some gross inconsistencies in the law that prove that the DV Act is not good for women either.
There are several instances where a daughter-in-law and/or her blood relatives commit Domestic Violence (as defined by the law) against her mother-in-law, sister-in-law or any other females related by marriage. In addition, mothers or step-mothers abuse their children (who include daughters or step-daughters) physically, verbally, emotionally and economically and vice versa. In such a situation, the law does not provide any protection to female victims of Domestic Violence. Thus, the law can only be used by a wife or a girlfriend (present or former) and their relatives/friends against a man and his family.
According to Clause 17 of the Act legally divorced women and former separated girlfriends/live-in partners can claim right to residence in the home of their former husband or former partner even though the Act says they may not have any right, title or beneficial interest in the same. The law can thus force a former wife or former girlfriend on a man’s household and violate the rights of his present wife or partner. The law does not provide protection to a man’s current wife or girlfriend/live-in partner or even dependent mothers and sisters under such circumstances. Here, the law favors divorced women and former girlfriends at the cost of the rights of a legally wedded wife/live-in partner and other female relatives that share a household with a man.
According to Clause 19 a man can be removed from his own household and him and his relatives can be restrained from entering any portion of the household in which the aggrieved person resides. Through this clause the law supports the encroachment of property by a girlfriend (former or present) at the expense of the right to residence of a man, his legally wedded wife and any other dependent female members of a family. In the name of protecting a section of women who may be making true or false allegations, the law penalizes innocent women who are related to an accused man.
Despite documented evidence that section 498a of IPC has been heavily misused affecting more and more women (along with men) everyday, no amendments to this law have been proposed so far. As with section 498a of IPC, the Domestic Violence Act is replete with loopholes and is bound to be misused. The DV Act will allow legally wedded women, divorced women and girlfriends (former or present) to subject a man and his relatives (male and female) to domestic violence and legal harassment. This Act, like Section 498a of IPC will result in the harassment of many more innocent women than it claims it will protect. It is important for the Government to acknowledge the fact that IPC 498a and DV Act are bad laws that criminalize ordinary citizens (male and female) and violate their fundamental rights. Unless urgent amendments are made to prevent the misuse of these laws, credibility of women will be lost. In addition to lost credibility, an overload of false cases will worsen the delays in the judicial process and deny timely justice to women who are genuinely aggrieved.
Unreasonable and easily misused laws like IPC 498a and DV Act are already creating a situation of fear and mutual distrust and adversely affecting interpersonal relationships between men and women in the society. This is resulting in more and more broken families and depriving children of a healthy childhood. If the Government and women’s organizations were truly interested in improving the living conditions of women in India they would focus on empowering women through education. Education builds self-confidence and gives a person the ability to stand up for oneself. Educating women can also ensure that the next generation of children are raised to treat each other with respect and be better citizens. The Government and women’s organizations can also lend support for rehabilitation of abused women and protect them from further harassment without doing injustice to innocent men. It would behoove the Government and women’s organizations to work in collaboration with social scientists and psychologists to understand human behavior in the context of changing social conditions and standards in India and think about workable solutions to deal with Domestic Violence and other forms of abuse instead of criminalizing ordinary citizens. Positive measures that can bring about domestic harmony are the only way to ensure family stability and long-term social stability.