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Is the dowry law being misused? Statistics can be interpreted to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’

More women took recourse to the law to get justice and freedom from cruel marriages, but there were also claims that innocent men and their families were implicated falsely by extortionists

mumbai Updated: Aug 21, 2017 15:37 IST
Manoj R Nair
Manoj R Nair
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Dowry,Law
Under the old laws, proving marital cruelty was difficult for complainants because the violence happened behind closed doors. (Representational photo/Shutterstock)

In 1983, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was amended and a section — 498a — to deal with ‘matrimonial cruelty’ was introduced. India already had a Dowry Prohibition Act, and general provisions of the IPC dealing with murder, abetment to suicide, causing hurt and wrongful confinement, could be used to book culprits, but these laws had offered no protection to the thousands of women who died of dowry-related violence.

The new section called the ‘Dowry Law’, though this description is inadequate, according to lawyers, as it also dealt with cruelty, was radical. Under the old laws, proving marital cruelty was difficult for complainants because the violence happened behind closed doors. The 498a put the burden of proof on the accused. The offence was now non-bailable — the husband and in-laws could be arrested immediately after the woman’s complaint.

More women took recourse to the law to get justice and freedom from cruel marriages, but there were also claims that innocent men and their families were implicated falsely by extortionists. Groups of men campaigned in Mumbai for what they call ‘gender-neutral laws’. A few years ago, some of them stood at railway stations, collecting signatures from supporters. They formed legal aid forums to help members accused in false cases. They brandished anecdotal evidence that some women were misusing the law. Some cases were absurd: in 2009, a two-month-old girl was named as an accused in a case filed in Kurla, Mumbai.

The men also have statistical evidence to prove their point that the law has been misused. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that on average about 1,00,000 cases are filed under section 498a annually. The rate of conviction — where the accusation was proven — varied between 20% in 2011 and 14% in 2015. The conviction rate under all IPC sections was 46% in 2015. According to men, this gap in conviction rate is proof that a large number of false cases were being filed under section 498a.

Last week, the Supreme Court put an end to the automatic arrests under the law. The court said that complaints under the law would have to be referred to the Family Welfare Committees that will be set up in every district. No arrests can be made until the committee investigates the matter. The new rules will not be applicable in case of injury and death of a woman.

For the men campaigning for a change in the law, the court’s orders are acknowledgment of their claim that the section is being misused. “The Supreme Court’s order is in the right direction,” said Amit Deshpande of Vaastav Foundation, a group campaigning for changes in section 498a. “The extortion aspect has been done away with. The law has been used as weapon rather than a shield. It has been used as an extortion tool by women accused of adultery by their husbands.”

Women’s right groups have found these changes disturbing. They have pointed out that the low conviction rate is not an indicator that the law is misused. The National Crime Records Bureau data shows that 1,13,403 cases were registered in the country in 2015 under the section. Of these cases, charge sheets — which indicate that the complaints were genuine enough to be investigated — were filed in 90% of cases.

Advocate Flavia Agnes, who runs an organisation in Mumbai which helps women who face domestic violence, said, “We got this law in 1983. Fortunately for women, it deals with not only dowry, but cruelty also. Now the media, police and the courts only talk about the dowry part. That is where the false cases have piled up,” said Agnes.

The stringent aspects of the law – like arrest and denial of bail – has gone but men’s groups say that the changes may not end the law’s misuse. “The family welfare committees — the Supreme Court has set a month’s deadline for the formation of the bodies – could become a tool to harass and pressurise men,” said Deshpande .

Advocate Abha Singh said the police misuse their powers to arrest the accused. “Police rush to file FIR (First Information Reports). For them it is a money making racket. Law is elitist, so rich people are involved. He (the accused) is ready to dole out money to the police and victim,” said Singh.

Singh said the low conviction rate indicated the law is being misused. “Charge sheets may be filed in most cases, but the main issue is the cases that go for out-of-court settlements. That should not be allowed. That itself leads to blackmailing (of the accused.”

Other activists said the number of cases filed with the police may not be an inadequate indicator of the extent of domestic violence that women face. “Women hardly go to the police to file a complaint,” said Agnes.

First Published: Aug 20, 2017 20:49 IST