Indian traditions are very dear to the hearts of Indian people, especially rules related to marriage. However, traditions become problematic when they fail to evolve with society. Dowry was one of the most widely practised traditions of marriage where the girl's family should give 'gifts' to their daughter and their son-in-law. Until 2012, India recorded more than 8,000 dowry deaths. In simpler terms, a bride was burnt every 90 minutes in India just until ten years ago. Moreover, dowry caused 1.4 deaths per year for every 1,00,000 women in India.
In 1983, under Indira Gandhi's government, India came up with Section 498A in the Indian Penal Code to protect married women from becoming a victim of cruelty at the hands of their husband and their family. When established, the law aimed to protect women from dowry-related harassment from their husbands. However, soon the law became notorious as women started using it for their benefit by filing false cases against their husbands or harassing their NRI husbands. Section 498A became the most controversial of Indian laws soon after its establishment.
What Was The Need Of The Law?
The need for the law against dowry-related harassment dates back centuries. Women have been the more disadvantaged gender among men and women. The discrimination starts in childhood when boy-children and their education are prioritized over girls'. Secondly, thousands of people still believed girls to be a burden on their shoulders because, with their marriage, the family would also have to pay the dowry. On the other hand, if they had a boy child, they would receive money and property as a dowry from the new bride's family. Back then, nearly 9 out of 10 deaths of young brides were related to dowry.
Women are continuously forced, tortured, threatened or abused to demand something or the other. Section 498A of the IPC helps the woman approach the court of law and punish the wrongdoer, and this section is the most fiercely debated section of the IPC. The IPC crimes against women have increased over the years, and most numbers of cases are reported from Delhi, India.
On paper, the law described cruelty as any wilful conduct that could drive a woman to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to the woman's life, limb or health, either physical or mental. Moreover, the law mandated punishment for anyone who harasses a woman with the intent of coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or on account of her or her relative's failure to meet such a demand. However, in several cases, women have missed the law to falsely frame their husbands and their families to obtain money or to cause pain and discomfort to their families.
While Supreme Court has identified the misuse of the section as 'legal terrorism', several governments have failed to address the issue for fear of being called anti-women and losing out on their vote bank. While it provides lasting power to women to speak up against any discrimination they are subjected to, the law also conveniently ignores how it makes the male gender vulnerable. Men are worse sufferers of mental health issues than women, and marital discords drive many suicides by men.
One cannot argue that the intention behind the law was a noble cause, which took a step to empower women to speak up for themselves and avail of the country's justice mechanism. One of the primary benefits of including this section is that it protects women from being exploited. If any woman is subjected to cruelty as described in the section, it will be considered a punishable offence and the convict would be sentenced to prison for up to three years and a fine. Nonetheless, the law has inspired women to come forward and file complaints against domestic abuse.
The Many Goods Of The Law
Initially, women hesitated to raise their voices against the harassment for fear of not being heard. With the increased number of cases under this section, women no longer feel hesitant to register their complaints. Women are now voicing against their husbands or in-laws rather than staying silent in such gravity situations.
One of the most influential factors for the law to be still in place is that the number of dowry deaths went down significantly after was implemented the law. If a woman is abused mentally or physically because she did not bring a dowry, she has every right to file a complaint and seek justice, and this gives them the option of fighting for their right to live rather than committing suicide.
On the other hand, Soumali Bardhan, a Clinical Psychologist in the Kolkata-based Mpower Centre, told The Logical Indian, "As a society, we must make ourselves consciously aware that a person's gender cannot be the sole proof of their guilt or innocence! Any human being is capable of causing harm. Although statistically, individuals who identify as women or third gender often face aggression and ill-treatment in a patriarchal world, these findings should not be mistaken as an absolute and unshakable fact that men are always the abusers. A false accusation can shatter the world of the innocent individual. It may lead to undeserved harassment, legal hassles, societal rejection and isolation and bring about mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. Not only that, false accusations indirectly insult the experiences of survivors of domestic abuse and may potentially lead people to invalidate and reject their true trauma".
Criticisms Of The Law
Husbands can fight a case of misuse of Section 498 A if they have been proven innocent in the eyes of the law. For instance, in the Arnesh Kumar versus the state of Bihar, the judgement mentioned that even bedridden grandfathers and grandmothers and even relatives residing abroad were arrested. Moreover, an FIR under section 498A does not require any proof for arrest. Secondly, the arrival of Police often harms the reputation of a family in Indian society.
Social activists counter the laws made especially for women by mentioning that pro-women laws are most welcome in India. The problem occurs when pro-women laws are often perceived as anti-men laws. They argue that with the implementation of Section 498A, women took advantage of several loopholes, and Judiciary, in turn, became 'agents of wives'. The law has provided full freedom to women to hit their husbands and find an easy escape.
Section 498A is non-bailable, and a cognizable offence and the Judiciary should change it to a bailable and non-cognizable crime. Bails should be granted to the husband so that if the case is filed on false grounds, there is a course of action left. Section 498A can and has proven to be both a sword and shield for women in India. The government of India needs to bring about modifications in the law that are gender-neutral and tightens handcuffs against harassment.