Misuse of Dowry Law and Domestic Violence Act is a Human Rights Issue

Media suddenly seems to have woken up from slumber in last four-five days on the misuse of section 498A. Every news channel is debating recent judgment by the Supreme Court (SC) – restricting immediate arrests of husband and family members under 498A. I also happened to be on one such debate, last week. Though the judgment is quite comprehensive detailing reasons for such move, anchor of the show I was on, was keen on punching holes in the judgment and showed absolute apathy to the issue.

As soon as I got out of the studio, I got a call. It was Sonia. I thought she was calling me after watching me on television but I was wrong. Moment I said hello, she started crying uncontrollably. “She has beaten my mother in law, my daughter and me. My daughter’s thumb is fractured. She is threatening to kill my daughter. Please help me,” she pleaded. I asked her to calm down and tell me what has happened. She explained that there was no male member at home and Nisha (name changed) – younger daughter in law of the family along with her sister had beaten everyone up!

Let me tell you who Sonia is – She is the elder daughter in law of the family, married for 23 years and a “498A accused.” She, her husband, old mother in law, husband’s brother( Nisha’s husband), married sisters in law, their husbands- almost everyone including her teenage daughter have been accused of demanding dowry by Nisha who has herself been married for 19 years! Reason – Nisha wants property in which joint family is staying in her name! After listening to the entire incident, while I asked Sonia to calm down and register an FIR, I myself wished only one thing- make Sonia talk to anchor of the show I was in and let him hear pain of people abused by 498A. Sonia’s case is peculiar for two reasons – one, she is herself a daughter of another family, so why would she demand dowry from Nisha and second – after 19 years? But – logic/common sense is least a part of 498A.

Misuse of Dowry and Domestic Violence Act is a Human Rights Issue

Media suddenly seems to have woken up from slumber in last four-five days on the misuse of section 498A.

Sonia and her family aren’t alone. There are endless stories of abuse and gross misuse of 498A.

IPC 498A – commonly known as the Anti Dowry law, was passed in 1983 to protect married women from mental and physical cruelty and dowry related demand by husband and his relatives. 30 years on, 498A today is commonly known as the law which is ‘Misused.’

For beginners – 498A is not a case between husband and wife. It’s a case between husband and state where state fights on wife’s behalf. 498A can be filed anytime after marriage – even after 22 years. Since it also considers mental harassment any number of relatives can be named and summoned – even if they have never lived with you, are in different cities or abroad – citing harassment over phone or any incident when they visited India. Married sisters are prime target, dragging even her in laws into the case to exert pressure. There are instances where even friends have been summoned. 498A can be filed from anywhere though it’s a criminal offence. So, if you are from Kerala and wife from Punjab, she can file a case from Punjab and your family travels thousand miles on every date. When 498A is filed, every wedding expense is presented as dowry by the girl side. So even if you did not demand anything from the girl, you can become a dowry case accused. There is no time limit to trial of these cases. Some 498A cases have been pending in Delhi courts since 1991. Even if your divorce comes through, your 498A can linger on for years in court.

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Now, why do I say Misuse of this law is a Human Rights Issue?

The basis of any criminal Jurisprudence around the world is – “innocent until proven guilty” and in words of English Jurist William Blackstone “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This law overturns both these principles. As soon as a woman makes a statement that so and so person demanded dowry from her, that person is treated as a criminal and tried as a criminal. In dowry cases, onus of proof that dowry was not demanded is on the accused. Since the law is cognizable and non-bailable, police has a free hand in arresting anyone who it deems fit as per the written complaint by the woman without ‘any’ investigation. I say without any investigation because the FIR and charge sheet in most of these cases is a replica of each other. Rarely have I seen evidences from husband’s side being considered or presented. So statement of a woman is enough to throw a common man or woman behind bars.

I have been researching on this issue for last two years while working on a documentary on the same. As per National Crime Records Bureau, from 1998 to 2012 – after rounding off, a total of 10 Lac cases have been filed and 21 lac people have been arrested of which 5 Lac are women, 1 Lac are senior citizens and shockingly 10,000 are minor boys and girls. In the same period, 4,48,704 cases completed trial and a mere 89,452 resulted into conviction and rest whopping 3,59,252 resulted into acquittal! These numbers are extraordinary. I understand an acquittal doesn’t necessarily means a false case but I also understand that an acquittal definitely means the case did not stand scrutiny under the court of law. 498A wasn’t made as an alternative for quick divorce or dispute redressal or tool for getting back at husband for revenge – it was a law made to punish the wrongdoers! Courts aren’t blind to look at the actual stories behind these cases and thus the enormous acquittals.

Many people tell me, every law is prone to misuse. I have a basic question – under which law does a person gets punished or termed criminal just because of being someone’s relative? Under which law does police arrest you just because your name appears in an FIR? Which cruelty exactly can be committed sitting 1000/2000 Kms away? Under which law do you become an accused without any investigation whatsoever and stand in the court for years to prove your innocence? Under which law a 90 year old grandmother who can barely walk is dragged from Delhi to Dehradoon just because a 25 year old woman alleged that the old woman demanded money? Under which law whatever the complainant is saying is taken at its face value without AN IOTA OF EVIDENCE and cases run for years on mere allegations? In my knowledge, none!

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Nowhere in the world, are you and your family labelled criminals because of a failed marriage. But in India, the moment a marriage breaks, this label comes automatically in guise of a ‘dowry’ case. To make things clear, you can get a 498A by your wife if you – refuse to leave your old parents on her demand; incur huge financial losses and can’t afford her luxurious lifestyle; object to her extra marital affair; have a bad equation with her parents, ask for separation citing incompatibility. Even if you have filed for Divorce on grounds of cruelty by her, she can still go ahead and file 498A claiming you are the actual abuser! It doesn’t matter if you are thrashed, abused, beaten up every day and have plethora of evidences of her cruelty, her statement that you demanded dowry will outweigh everything. I am not throwing clichés. These are cases I have seen with eyes wide open including one where a man was thrown into Jail for conducting DNA test on his son, before even the reports came out. No prize for guessing – he isn’t the father of the child!

NCRB statistics related to 498A can never tell the real story of abuse of this law. Behind every FIR there are hundreds of cases that get ‘settled’ because of fear of arrest, harassment for years and humiliation. There is no data as to how many Mutual Consent Divorces are a result of such threats! Lacs are being demanded in exchange of a 498A or 498A settlement. Pay before or after, you make a choice. Everyone including lawyers, police and the girl makes great money in this racket which is approximately a 2000 crore business every year (approximate figure including bails, kickbacks and settlement amounts). Negotiations can be heard at every level in these ‘family dispute’ cases – be it at women cells, police stations, mediation cells or courts. If you decide to ‘not pay’ and fight back, you are in courts for years with not just one case but a package including Domestic Violence Act, Criminal breach of trust and a horde of maintenance cases. Irony is – after fighting for years for honour, all that a man gets is acquittal. Filing a case of defamation or punishing the woman for her wrong is almost impossible as first courts don’t entertain these cases and if they do – you are in courts for another couple of years!

Isn’t it funny that a woman who is accusing in-laws of demanding dowry herself then demands 10-15-20-50 lacs for settling the cases? Isn’t it funny that cruelty or humiliation she has gone through is bartered for money? I know of an old woman who runs a tea shop being asked 25 Lacs to settle dowry case on her son. Her son’s mistake- he doesn’t earn much. I wonder if anyone can define this practice as anything but legal terrorism/blackmail /extortion.

How have we become a society where rights of a young wife are more important than rights of a 90 year old woman or that of an old father and mother who have slogged for years bringing their son up or that of a teenage sister who could be ostracized for being in Jail for rest of her life or that of a married sister whose marriage might collapse because of her husband and in laws being dragged? How have we become a society where to get one woman justice we are doing injustice to so many people? How are we legally allowing these blackmails to happen where a man is snatched of years of his savings just because marriage of his son did not work? How can we jeopardize existence of a man, just because his marriage ‘failed’?

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People argue with me over dowry deaths. I wish I had a law which recognized reverse dowry deaths where a person committed suicide because of a false dowry case or threats of a false case! There are thousands who have committed suicide leaving testimony of innocence through suicide notes. Syed Ahmed Makhdoom, Aarti, Lokesh Singh, Manoj Kumar, Prashant Pandey, Ravi Parmar, Anuj Gupta, Anoop Sharma, Niramala Devi, Ravi Parmar, Mahendra Singh, Harkamaljeet and his wife -are few examples. Strangely, a law that was meant to protect women from committing suicide has become a reason for suicide for many.

Tagging someone criminal for no crime, punishing someone for no wrong, claiming someone’s job, career and peace for no reason, harassing an entire family for a failed marriage, leaving no option to a man to come out of an abusive marriage, slapping him with a dowry/domestic violence case if he files for divorce – If this is not a human rights issue, I wonder what is!

I welcome SC judgment wholeheartedly but I am doubtful of its impact. CrPC amendments that have been stressed upon in the judgment have been on papers since a long time. However, the rut of 498A is so deep, that these judgments have rarely brought a change. I think it’s high time that the government intervenes and amend the law with a misuse clause to punish anyone who misuses it for personal gains. If women organizations opposing this landmark decision really want to get Justice for women, get a time limit on trial of these cases and ask for booking wrong doers whether man or woman. Punish the guilty and spare the innocent. Justice to one cannot come at cost of Injustice to others!

(Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj is a journalist and a documentary filmmaker. She is currently documenting misuse of section 498A of IPC through her documentary film ‘Martyrs of Marriage.’ She can be reached at martyrsofmarriage @ gmail.com)

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