The storm around 498A – The Hindu
Feminists say allegations of misuse of law exaggerated
The Union Law Ministry recently launched a countrywide exercise to review provisions of Indian Penal Code dealing with matrimonial cruelty, including cases of dowry harassment. The exercise is particularly aimed at collecting data and opinion from the States to evaluate the perceived “misuse” of the law and the possibilities of changing it.
This is a reflection of the hot debates in the recent years on “misuse” of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deems cruelty to women, including dowry harassment a non-bailable, non-compoundable (not allowing for out-of-court settlement) criminal offence.
There have been demands to scrap it or tone down the provisions of this law by men’s activist groups who argue that it has been used by urban, educated women to settle scores with husbands and their families. Virag Dhulia, an anti-498A activist, claims that complaints under this are treated as “gospel truth” and husbands and his family penalised.
Arguments on these lines have been vociferous, often making more news than dowry death cases which get relegated to crime columns.
The V.S. Malimath Committee on Reforms in Criminal Justice System in 2003 had recommended making Section 498A a compoundable and bailable offence “to give a chance to the spouses to come together”. The recommendation was based on “general complaints”.
In October, 2010, the then Director-General and Inspector-General of Karnataka issued a circular to all police commissioners saying that arrests should not be made under 498A simply because the person’s name figures in the FIR.
Interestingly, the only empirical study available on the alleged “misuse” of 498A is by the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, which says that 6.5 per cent of the dowry harassment cases they studied were found to be false at the time of investigation. It also said that only 0.1 per cent of domestic violence incidents even reach the criminal justice system.
While there is no denying that there are instances of misuse of any law, including 498A, three important questions need to be debated — Is the misuse as rampant as it is made out to be? Are the instances any more than in the case of other legislation? Should we be contemplating change of law or strengthening of the criminal investigation system considering that gruesome cases of dowry deaths and harassment are an undeniable reality?
After all, inclusion of 498A through an amendment to IPC is regarded historic as it was the first attempt to bring domestic cruelty into public domain and make it a criminal offence.
“I would like to ask which law is not misused and if we are really amending them all,” says Vimala K.S. of Janawadi Mahila Sanghatane. “It reflects a mindset that we want to single out women-centric laws and highlighting stray cases of their misuse,” she says.
Pramila Nesargi, advocate and former Chairperson of Karnataka Women’s Commission, says there are several instances of the police adding the section to the charge-sheet under the mistaken belief that it will make the case stronger, while the woman herself is ignorant of its implications. However, as Jayna Kothari, a High Court advocate specialising in women’s issues, points out, conviction only on the basis of Section 498A is almost impossible.
Director-General and Inspector-General of Police S.T. Ramesh believes that one need not be averse to relooking at any law, including 498A. “Conducting an empirical study and collecting data with an open mind should be welcomed,” he says about the ongoing exercise of the Law Ministry.