To start with first we have to look that what this word marriage means. ‘Marriage 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.
For safeguarding the interest of woman against the interest of woman against the cruelty they face behind the four walls of their matrimonial home, the Indian Penal Code,1860(herein after referred to as I.P.C.) was amended in 1983 and inserted S.498A which deals with ‘Matrimonial Cruelty’ to a woman.
Matrimonial Cruelty in India is a cognizable, non bailable and non compoundable offence. It is defined in Chapter XXA of I.P.C. under Sec. 498A as:
Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty.
Whoever being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects her to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to a fine.
Explanation – for the purpose of this section, “cruelty” means:
(a) any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or
(b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demands for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.
The section was enacted to combat the menace of dowry deaths. It was introduced in the code by the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983 (Act 46 of 1983). By the same Act section 113-A has been added to the Indian Evidence Act to raise presumption regarding abetment of suicide by married woman. The main objective of section 498-A of I.P.C is to protect a woman who is being harassed by her husband or relatives of husband.
Section 113-A of Indian Evidence Act, reads as follows:
Sec. 113-A, Presumption as to dowry death- When the question is whether a person has committed the dowry death of a woman and it is shown that soon before her death such woman has been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, the Court shall presume that such person had caused the dowry death.
The object for which section 498A IPC was introduced is amply reflected in the Statement of Objects and Reasons while enacting Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act No. 46 of 1983. As clearly stated therein the increase in number of dowry deaths is a matter of serious concern. The extent of the evil has been commented upon by the Joint Committee of the Houses to examine the work of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. In some of cases, cruelty of the husband and the relatives of the husband which culminate in suicide by or murder of the helpless woman concerned, which constitute only a small fraction involving such cruelty. Therefore, it was proposed to amend IPC, the Code of Criminal Procedure,1973 (in short ‘the Cr.P.C’) and the Evidence Act suitably to deal effectively not only with cases of dowry deaths but also cases of cruelty to married women by the husband, in- law’s and relatives. The avowed object is to combat the menace of dowry death and cruelty.
The act of harassment would amount to cruelty for the purpose of this section. Drinking and late coming habits of the husband coupled with beating and demanding dowry have been taken to amount to cruelty within the meaning of this section, but this section has been held not to include a husband who merely drinks as a matter of routine and comes home late. In a case before Supreme Court it was observed that this section has given a new dimension to the concept of cruelty for the purposes of matrimonial remedies and that the type of conduct described here would be relevant for proving cruelty.
Meaning of Cruelty:
It was held in ‘Kaliyaperumal vs. State of Tamil Nadu’, that cruelty is a common essential in offences under both the sections 304B and 498A of IPC. The two sections are not mutually inclusive but both are distinct offences and persons acquitted under section 304B for the offence of dowry death can be convicted for an offence under sec.498A of IPC. The meaning of cruelty is given in explanation to section 498A. Section 304B does not contain its meaning but the meaning of cruelty or harassment as given in section 498-A applies in section 304-B as well. Under section 498-A of IPC cruelty by itself amounts to an offence whereas under section 304-B the offence is of dowry death and the death must have occurred during the course of seven years of marriage. But no such period is mentioned in section 498-A.
Sec 498A and the Allegation of Misuse:
In the last 20 years of criminal law reform a common argument made against laws relating to violence against women in India has been that women misuse these laws. The police, civil society, politicians and even judges of the High Courts and Supreme Court have offered these arguments of the “misuse’ of laws vehemently. The allegation of misuse is made particularly against Sec 498A of the IPC and against the offence of dowry death in Sec 304B. One such view was expressed by former Justice K T Thomas in his article titled ‘Women and the Law’, which appeared in The Hindu.21 The 2003 Malimath Committee report on reforms in the criminal justice system also notes, significantly, that there is a “general complaint” that Sec 498A of the IPC is subject to gross misuse; it uses this as justification to suggest an amendment to the provision, but provides no data to indicate how frequently the section is being misused. It is important therefore that such “arguments” are responded to, so as to put forth a clearer picture of the present factual status of the effect of several criminal laws enacted to protect women.
Domestic violence and abuse by spouses and family members are complex behaviours and the social organisation of courts, the police and legal cultures systematically tend to devalue domestic violence cases. Sec 498A was introduced in the IPC in 1983 and the reforms of the past 20 years have not been adequately evaluated at all by the government with respect to their deterrence goals, despite the institutionalization of law and policy to criminalise domestic violence. A program of research and development is urgently required to advance the current state of knowledge on the effects of legal sanctions on domestic violence. The narrow or perhaps almost negligible study done by law enforcement agencies about the deterrent effects of legal sanctions for domestic violence stands in high contrast with the extensive efforts of activists, victim advocates and criminal justice practitioners in mobilising law and shaping policy to stop domestic violence. It is important to do these studies to correct the general misconceptions that women are misusing the law by filing false cases against their husbands and in-laws in order to harass them and get them convicted. The perspective of the state and its agencies needs to change from that of protecting the husbands and in-laws against potential “misuse” of the laws of domestic violence to that of implementing their real purpose – to recognise that such violence is a crime and protect women who have the courage to file complaints against their abusers.
Use of Section 498 A by Indian Courts:
Indian Courts had been using this provision to safeguard the women from facing the cruelty faced by them at their matrimonial home.
9 out of 10 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. Like in the case of Ram Kishan Jain &Ors v State of Madhya Pradesh due to insufficiency of dowry demands the woman was administered calmpose tablets and thereafter she even cut the arteries of both her hands. Sometimes, dowry may not be the cause but the woman for several reasons like her complexion or family status is tortured to death.
In the case of Surajmal Banthia & Anr. V. State of West Bengal, the deceased was ill-treated and tortured for several days and even not given food several times. Her father- in-law also misbehaved with her quite often. This is the treatment that several young brides face when they move out of their parents’ home and into the house of her in-laws’. 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.
As stated earlier 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 under the ambit of this section.
Many women rights’ groups justify the abuse of this section as being a common feature with all other laws and that also the ratio of false cases to that of true ones as being very low. But this still does not change the truth that there is slowly a rise in the abuse of S.498A IPC.
In many judgments, the court has not considered mental cruelty caused to the woman but has concentrated only on any sign of physical cruelty. If evidence does not show that the woman was
Physically harassed, then the court does not look into the case. What the court does is call the woman hyper- sensitive or of low tolerance level and having an unstable mind.
Also S.498A IPC does not only deal with dowry deaths but also any willful conduct on part of the husband which causes harm to the wife’s ‘ life, limb or health (whether mental or physical).’To prove that cruelty was caused under Explanation a) of S.498A IPC it is not important to show or put forth that the woman was beaten up- abusing her verbally, denying her conjugal rights or even not speaking to her properly would fall into the ambit of mental cruelty.
Showing any mercy to abusers or giving them the ‘benefit of doubt’ when some proof to torture at their hands is present is completely wrong. Like in the case of Ashok Batra & Ors v Stateeven though letters of the deceased stating that harassment had taken place was present, not treating them as strong evidence and giving the appellants a benefit of doubt without ordering for a further investigation into the matter is wrong.
The judges have in several instances made a very narrow interpretation of this section, considering it to be only cruelty in relation to unlawful demands or dowry demands. In a particular case, the court went to the extent of stating that ‘merely because her in-laws or husband were to chastise the woman for improper or immoral conduct, it does not necessarily amount to cruelty.’ This act of chastising the woman clearly amounts to mental cruelty, something that the court apparently failed to notice. Here, considering the woman to be a hyper- sensitive woman not used to usual wear and tear of social life is completely erroneous.