The scope of my article is to cover Section 498a of the IPC relating to criminal law in which the wife and her family can charge any or all of the husband’s family of physical or mental cruelty. This law is unique to India as it not only discriminates based on gender (man Vs. woman), but also discriminates against women based on their relationship with the husband. Typically, the charged family members in these cases include:
• Mostly women of all ages (unmarried, married and pregnant sisters of the husband, his mother and sisters-in-law, elderly grandmothers and aunts)
• Other maternal and paternal relatives and even young children in the family.
The article will deal with the ingredients of the section and what must be essentially proved to convict an accused under this section. I will also deal with the provisions relating to the cognisable and non-bailable provisions of this section. The non-bailability provision is grossly misused by unscrupulous wives who file false complaints against unsuspecting husbands and her in laws. The police in such cases register and FIR and forward the chargesheet without proper investigation in most of the cases. A lot of men have had their lives ruined because of this drastic section.
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 labelled 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 Centre 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 favouring 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 1 daughter-in-law files a false complaint at least 2 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 unresolved 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 inlaws.
Student, Amity Law School, GGSIP University
[Submitted as an entry for the MightyLaws.in Blog Post Writing Competition, 2011]