Women-protection laws or “legal terrorism”?

Domestic violence is a serious problem faced by men, women, and children. However, laws are only designed to confer legal protection to female victims of violence, ignoring violence against men and children. In addition, these laws often violate the civil rights of men, children and even fellow women. Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code is one such law which is not only badly formulated but also very badly implemented, providing enormous scope for its misuse, thereby unleashing “legal terrorism” on innocent citizens.

What is 498A ?

IPC section 498A was introduced in 1983 to protect married women from being harassed or subjected to cruelty by husbands and/or their relatives.
According to this section cruelty is defined as follows:
a) any wilful conduct which is of a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to her life, limb, or health (whether physical or mental) of the woman;
or
b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.”

The law was mainly aimed at curbing dowry harassment. The offence is non bailable (the accused have to be presented in a court of law to obtain bail), non-compoundable (a complaint once filed cannot be withdrawn) except in the State of Andhra Pradesh, and cognizable (arrests are made without issuing a warrant) on a complaint made to the police officer by the victim or by designated relatives. Offenders are liable for imprisonment as well as a fine under the section.

The downside of 498A
Women protection laws such as Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code assume that:
· victims of marital cruelty are always women; the aggressors being always a man and his family.
· women are always honest victims, and, hence, requiring proof of their claims is unnecessary.
· the accused man and his family are guilty until proven innocent.
Due to several loopholes in the law, and the absence of penalty for filing false cases, IPC 498A has been blatantly misused to harass men and their families rather than to protect genuine female victims of dowry related abuse. To make things worse, the Indian law enforcement system is replete with corrupt officials who, for their own monetary gains, embolden women to take undue advantage of the credibility granted to them by law.

Extent of misuse

Many women who are actually harassed by their husbands and in-laws rarely file cases under Section 498A. 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 reported by several judges and the Center for Social Research, the proportion of women who have genuine cases is 2%. 98% of women who file 498A cases are from urban backgrounds, and are either capable of fending for themselves, or have enough family support to fall back on. 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.

Every year, there is a rising number of cases fabricated by wives only to threaten, extort money from, and wreak revenge on husbands and their relatives, in case of marital discord. According to data obtained (using RTI) from the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the year 2005 alone, 58,319 cases were registered under charges of cruelty by husband and relatives (IPC 498A), and resulted in the arrest of 127,560 individuals including 339 children and 4,512 adults over the age of 60. Less than 10 percent of the cases resulted in conviction of the accused. In the same year, 15, 409 individuals were arrested in Andhra Pradesh, including 417 senior citizens and 14 children.

The Supreme Court of India 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. “

The Delhi High Court recently stated that “Provisions under this (Domestic Violence) Act should not go the IPC’s section 498 A’s way (anti-dowry law), which, to our view, is the most abused provision.”

The World Health Organization, in its Report on India clearly cited Section 498A as one of the major reasons for the “Increasing Abuse of the Elderly in India”.

The NRI predicament

The perception that NRIs are affluent and more likely to part with money under duress makes them easy targets for threats and blackmail using IPC 498A. Misuse of Section 498A has far reaching consequences on the personal and professional lives of innocent NRIs and their India based families:

1. Some lose their hard-earned overseas jobs, and are forced to relocate to India to fight long-drawn legal cases in order to prove their innocence.
2. NRIs, who unwittingly land in India for various reasons are arrested, ill treated and exploited by the police and the legal system.
3. The passport of a falsely implicated NRI is invariably seized as one of the conditions for granting bail, and subsequently, the NRI is required to furnish enormous amounts of security in order to retrieve his/her passport.
4. NRIs who choose to remain overseas due to the fear of legal harassment are either declared “proclaimed offenders” or threatened of being declared “proclaimed offenders”.
5. Passports of NRIs are being impounded indiscriminately, thus ruining their career prospects abroad.
6. Red corner notices are being issued by the Government of India, through the Interpol, seeking the extradition of several innocent NRIs, thus equating innocent citizens with dreaded criminals like Dawood Ibrahim.

While NRIs are being tormented in this manner, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in collaboration with the National Commission for Women, has been making blatant generalizations denigrating NRI husbands. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, under the auspices of Minister Vayalar Ravi, has released a booklet on marriages with NRIs. This booklet assumes that only women married to NRI men are victims of fraud, abandonment or harassment whereas the truth is that many NRI men have been defrauded, abandoned, harassed and tortured by conniving women. Despite the repeated suggestions by NRI organizations to make the MOIA booklet balanced and truly informative to Indian citizens, the biased version with lopsided views was published, reflecting utter disregard to the concerns of the NRI community. The Indian Government has betrayed the NRI community at large through its antagonistic attitude and apathy towards the problems of NRIs who have enormous financial, intellectual and emotional investment in India.

Role of womens groups
Women’s groups parrot statistics of violence against women to justify stringent legal provisions like IPC 498A. It should be noted that the number of cases that are filed in police stations or courts (and not the number of actual convictions) are the basis for the official statistics of dowry harassment or violence against women. 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 on dowry harassment and domestic abuse 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 mainly. 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, married and 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. Many falsely charged, poor and illiterate women are languishing in prison every year. 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.

Effect on society

Unreasonable and easily misused laws like IPC 498A are already creating a situation of fear and mutual distrust, and adversely affecting interpersonal relationships between men and women in the society. There is a fear psychosis among men who find it difficult to repose faith in women or marriage. There is also an increasing number of unhappy women who, misled by false notions of liberation and empowerment, have been shunning the simple joys of family life that no women’s organization or law enforcement authority can restore. Senior citizens are being denied peace during the last leg of their lives, and children are being deprived of a healthy childhood. Aspirations of young men and women are being crushed, and their most fruitful years are wasted in litigation. The accused families suffer immeasurable economic hardship and emotional trauma due to false criminal cases. There is widespread public disappointment and loss of faith in the government and judiciary. Many individuals have ended their lives unable to endure the humiliation of being arrested and the trauma of fighting false cases, which typically span 5-7 years. Left uncorrected, this situation will only worsen into largescale public unrest.

– Uma Challa

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