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The anti-dowry law is a shield, not a ‘weapon’

An analysis of Delhi Police data proves that harassment is on an upswing. Therefore, it would be prudent to be careful before assuming that every woman complaining about an abusive family or dowry harassment is “disgruntled” or wishes to exact revenge.

editorials Updated: Aug 15, 2017 13:32 IST
Hindustan Times
Section 498A,Dowry,Delhi Dowry
India outlawed the dowry tradition in 1961 but it continues to be as much a social reality as it was five decades ago.(Reuters)

India outlawed the dowry tradition in 1961 but it continues to be as much a social reality as it was five decades ago.

According to Delhi Police statistics, dowry harassment allegations, filed under Indian penal code’s Section 498A almost doubled in five years, going from 2,046 new cases in 2012 to 3,877 last year. This is in contrast to the trend in other crimes such as murder, robbery, rape or dacoity, which decreased every year since 2012 or only had a marginal increase.

The number of unreported cases of dowry harassment could be sizeable too. Hindustan Times pored over all the 1,330 first investigation reports (FIRs) filed for such cases in the first six months of this year, and found that the tradition cuts across demographics.

Common items demanded, according to the complaints, included gold jewellery (543 cases), refrigerators (566 cases), sofa sets (217 cases), LED television sets (26 cases), flats and land assets.

It cannot be denied that there are several instances of women misusing Section 498A of the Indian penal code, under the aegis of which a man and his family, if named in a dowry harassment case, will be immediately arrested. A Supreme Court bench has now ruled that a family welfare committee in every district will scrutinise dowry harassment cases before the local police can arrest the accused.

The cases studied are in the trial phase, and recent observations from India’s top courts, legal experts and activists suggest that all may not be genuine since the law’s misuse is common. Last month, the Supreme Court restricted automatic arrests under the anti-dowry law and in 2014, a separate SC bench called Section 498A a “a weapon, not a shield used by disgruntled wives”.

But while this issue is being addressed, it must be kept in mind that there are many, many cases still in India of dowry harassment, and many that even lead to the death of the woman. In a deeply patriarchal society, even in the higher economic strata, eligible men are seen as potential earners in the transaction of marriage. Fathers of daughters are forced to “gift” money, gold, cars, etc for the favour of a man agreeing to marry their daughters. It must also be noted that the conviction rates for other crimes such as murder are also very low (some estimates suggest that murder convictions are less than 20%).

Therefore, it would be prudent to be careful before assuming that every woman complaining about an abusive family or dowry harassment is “disgruntled” or wishes to exact revenge. It takes a lot of courage, in a very toxic set up, for a woman to muster up the courage to complain to the authorities. Such women find it very difficult to even move on from the trauma of their lives; and society must take steps to ensure that these women have the support and legal help they need to escape the abuse that they face at home.

First Published: Aug 15, 2017 11:34 IST