Marriage is a socially or ritually recognised union between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between those spouses, as well as between them and any resulting biological or adopted children and among in-laws and other family through marriage. It is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. It is a social institution where husband has the responsibility to take care and maintain his wife. He cannot neglect his duties. But on this great institution a stigma called ‘dowry’ still exists. Women are ill-treated, harassed, killed, divorced for the simple reason that they didn’t brought dowry. The practice of such ill treatment and harassment was at its peak few decades back which drew the attention of law makers to make a law to safeguard the interest of woman subject to such cruelty. As a result the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) was amended in 1983 and inserted S.498A which deals with Matrimonial Cruelty to a woman. The object of adding this section is to punish the husband and his relatives who torture and harass the wife with a view to coerce her or any person related to her to meet unlawful demands or to drive her to ultimately take the drastic step of committing suicide.
In addition, a consequential amendment to the Evidence Act was made via Sections 113A and 113B , shifting the burden of proof of innocence on the part of accused as against prosecution in case of abetment of suicide by a married woman and a wife’s death within a period of seven years of marriage.
In Polavarpu Satyanarayan vs Soundaravalli, the contention before the court was that the definition of cruelty as given in explanation is arbitrary and vague and is violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The Andhra Pradesh High Court held that there was no vagueness in the meaning of cruelty, it is not capable of any precise definition and each case has to be adjudged in the light of facts relating to a particular case. The other contention of accused that some relatives cannot be singled out by legislation for punishment and as such new provisions violated fundamental right to equality were also put down by the court and was held that since dowry deaths are hazard faced by women, the husband and relatives may be treated as a class.
Similarly in Inder Raj Malik and others vs. Mrs. Sumita Malik, it was contended that this section is ultra vires Article 14 and Article 20 (2) of the Constitution. There is the Dowry Prohibition Act which also deals with similar types of cases; therefore, both statutes together create a situation commonly known as double jeopardy. But Delhi High Court put down this contention and held that there is no double jeopardy and held that section 498-A is distinguishable from section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act because in the latter mere demand of dowry is punishable and existence of element of cruelty is not necessary, whereas section 498-A deals with aggravated form of the offence. It punishes such demands of property or valuable security from the wife or her relatives as are coupled with cruelty to her. Hence a person can be prosecuted in respect of both the offences punishable under section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act and this section.
The Delhi High Court has taken a pragmatic approach in the impugned case and said that the word cruelty is well defined. The import of the word harassment is also very well known and there can be no arbitrary exercise of power in interpreting those words and it does not come in conflict with article 14 of the constitution.
Indian Courts had been using this provision to safeguard the women from facing the cruelty faced by them at their matrimonial home. Most of the cases are always related to dowry, wherein the woman is continuously threatened for want of more money and property which if remains unfulfilled, the married woman is tortured, threatened, abused- both physically and verbally and harassed. It is the duty of the court to prevent any of these abusers from escaping. The increasing rate of bride burning for want of more dowry and brutal torture of young wives, together with a clear escape of the abuser is a clear indication that the court has not taken any strong measures for the implementation of S. 498A IPC properly. But many a times this victim turns into the abuser and is clearly not wronged but instead wrongs the husband and his family for no fault of theirs. Several cases show that the married woman takes advantage of the section and sends the respondents to jail.
With the rise in modernisation, education, financial security and the new found independence the radical feminist has made 498A a weapon in her hands. Many ill-fated husbands and in laws have become victims of their vengeful daughter-in-laws. Most cases where Sec 498A is invoked turn out to be false (as repeatedly accepted by High Courts and Supreme Court in India) as they are mere blackmail attempts by the wife or her close relatives when faced with a strained marriage. In most cases 498A complaint is followed by the demand of huge amount of money to settle the case out of the court.
Indian Courts in their recent judgements have looked into the matter of misuse of Sec.-498A I.P.C. As this Section provides that when an F.I.R. is lodged all the family members of the husband can be roped in. In their judicial observations and remarks, the courts have expressed deep anguish over this law. Here are some recent judicial observations.
In Sushil Kumar Sharma vs. Union of India and others, Supreme Court observed, the object of the provision is prevention of the dowry menace. But as has been rightly contented by the petitioner that many instances have come to light where the complaints are not bonafide and have been filed with oblique motive. In such cases acquittal of the accused does not in all cases wipe out the ignominy suffered during and prior to trial. Sometimes adverse media coverage adds to the misery. The question, therefore, is what remedial measures can be taken to prevent abuse of the well-intentioned provision. Merely because the provision is constitutional and intra vires, does not give a licence to unscrupulous persons to wreck personal vendetta or unleash harassment. It may, therefore, become necessary for the legislature to find out ways how the makers of frivolous complaints or allegations can be appropriately dealt with. Till then the Courts have to take care of the situation within the existing frame work. It is to be noted that the role of the investigating agencies and the courts is that of watch dog and not of a bloodhound. It should be their effort to see that an innocent person is not made to suffer on account of unfounded, baseless and malicious allegations. It is equally undisputable that in many cases no direct evidence is available and the courts have to act on circumstantial evidence. While dealing with such cases, the law laid down relating to circumstantial evidence has to be kept in view
In Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar and others, while dealing with the case, the Supreme Court thought it fit to record the rampant abuse of 498-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Court observed, ‘There is phenomenal increase in matrimonial disputes in recent years. The institution of marriage is greatly revered in this country. Section 498-A of the IPC was introduced with avowed object to combat the menace of harassment to a woman at the hands of her husband and his relatives. The fact that Section 498-A is a cognizable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives. The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision. In a quite number of cases, bedridden grand-fathers and grand-mothers of the husbands, their sisters living abroad for decades are arrested. The rate of charge-sheeting in cases under Section 498A, IPC is as high as 93.6%, while the conviction rate is only 15%, which is lowest across all heads. Arrest affects the liberty and freedom of citizens and needs to be exercised
In State of Maharashtra Vs Ramesh Damodhar, the Bombay High Court noting that there is every possibility of the deceased committing suicide due to ill-health, observed, “In that view of the matter since case of prosecution of quarrel between deceased and accused immediately prior to incident of deceased causing suicide is itself not reliable to be acted upon. It cannot be said that accused in any manner had abetted the deceased to commit suicide. By now law on the point of offence punishable under Section 306 of Indian Penal Code is well established. For invoking the provisions of Section 306 of Indian Penal Code it is necessary for prosecution to establish that deceased committed suicide as a result of cruelty provided to her within the meaning of Section 498A of Indian Penal Code and that the act of commission of suicide is abated by the accused. In the case in hand on considering evidence as aforesaid there is no material to establish that accused abetted commission of suicide much less immediately prior to deceased committing suicide”
The Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma and others Vs State of UP taking notice of the misuse of section 498A issued various guidelines for its prevention.
Though section 498-A IPC was instituted with the aim of protecting women against cruelty and harassment that they face in their matrimonial relationships but now it has been widely used by women as a sword against their husband and his relatives. The police, civil society, politicians and even judges of the High Courts and Supreme Court have shown concern on the misuse of law.
As a result Supreme Court and the High Courts have passed various directions and guidelines to protect the innocent. But it is the duty of the legislature to make laws in such manner that it cannot be misused and people cannot take advantage from the loopholes, also it is the responsibility of the executive to ensure its proper implementation.