Section 498A, which is made to contain violence against women within the family has been widely misused. Supreme Court in the recent Rajesh Sharma and Ors v State of UP and Anr case delivered a judgment, announcing a set of guidelines to prevent the misuse of Section 498A of the IPC. So there is high probability that a question could be asked from this.
In order to contain violence against women within the family, the operation of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code was weighted against husbands and their birth families, and automatically presumed the complainant to be an innocent victim. Progressive discrimination was deemed necessary in a country which recorded a dowry death every hour, on average, and where violence against women has been regarded as normal.
What is Section 498-A?
In 1983, ‘Section 498-A of the IPC was introduced with the objective to combat the menace of harassment to a woman at the hands of her husband and his relatives.
Why it is needed?
- A total of 24,771 dowry deaths have occurred in India from 2012 to 2014, averaging more than 20 dowry deaths every single day.
- Thus, Section 498A is not only relevant but also vital for the protection of genuine victims.
What are the issues involved?
- Operation of IPC was weighted against husbands and their birth families, and automatically presumed the complainant to be an innocent
- Both the Supreme Court and the Women and Child Development Ministry have acknowledged that the law has been misused too often to be ignored, and moved to ensure that innocent men and their relations are spared the threat of summary arrest.
- There were opinions that complaints under section 498A were being filed on the basis of personal vendetta.
- Prevalence of misuse, is reflected in the data of the National Crime Records Bureau — less than one in five charge sheets filed has resulted in conviction.
- The SC Bench said Section 498A (dowry harassment) of the IPC had come under much abuse and dowry complaints were being filed in the heat of the moment over trivial issues.
New procedure under 498A
- The Supreme Court on July 27 2017, in the matter of Rajesh Sharma and Ors v State of UP and Anr, delivered a judgment, announcing a set of guidelines to prevent the misuse of Section 498A of the IPC.
- Family Welfare Committees
- In order to prevent the perceived misuse of the criminal law of cruelty against women, welfare committees, have been put in place to scrutinise a complaint by a woman
- Welfare Committees in every district: It includes paralegals, volunteers, social workers, retired persons, wives of working officers and other citizens, who are found suitable and willing
- The police must ensure that every complaint under Section 498A is referred to the welfare committee
- Then committee within one month will prepare a report, give its opinion and send it back to the police. Till the report of the committee is received there will be no arrest . . Critical analysis of the verdict
- Establishment of family welfare committess can be seen as virtual privatisation of the policing function. That the members of the committee will be given remuneration makes it a parallel justice dispensation system. Only after the report of the welfare committee is submitted, can the police perform the policing function.
- By creating the Family Welfare Committee, the court creates one more layer between the victim and the justice system, and as a result, her access to justice is compromised.
- Welfare committees drawn from the civil society has the potential to become non-state vigilante groups.
- Low conviction rates exist across the board, in relation to all crimes. To isolate crimes against women is to miss the point that the criminal justice system is in need of serious repair.
- The judgment has relied upon the data of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) of 2005, 2012 and 2013 to arrive conclusion that since the conviction rate is low, most of the cases registered under 498A are “false”. This data does not give a clear picture as there can be a number of reasons for acquittal, such as poor investigation by the investigating officer, settlement through mediation, or intimidation of witnesses and the complainant herself.
- Given that the woman in question may fear severe bodily harm, the period of one month seems to be far too liberal.
- Besides, the court has prescribed that bail applications must be decided on the date of application. Since bail is a right, courts may be more inclined to grant rather than withhold, which could again increase the risk to the complainant.
- Minister Maneka Gandhi has asked the National Commission for Women to be accessible to men who claim to be falsely accused.
- Maneka Gandhi has recommended a more stringent filing process which insists on identity proof, and has warned that while opening a window to the victims of false claims, the NCW should not open the door wide to false counter-claims
While the working of Section 498A was tilted in favour of women as a progressive intervention, a course correction is seen to be required in the interest of equality before the law and the prevalence of misuse.
However, the law must retain its progressive bias in favour of wronged women, without inadvertently wronging men.
In practice, it will prove to be a tough balancing act — an impossible feat, in the absence of police reform and progressive change in societal mind-set where women are still made to feel inferior to men at every step.