Anti-dowry laws: Are women misusing positive discrimination?

 

Krishnendu Nair is 20-year-old law student intent on improving the justice-delivery system of the country. She believes that even the smallest unit of a society holds the power to profoundly transform a community. She enjoys spending time with children and getting to know the world from their perspective. In her free time, she’s most likely be found in the company of books, surfing online content or watching documentaries that unveil hard-hitting realities of life.

Anti-dowry laws: Are women misusing positive discrimination?

The Constitution of India believes in the principle of protectionism. This is precisely why we have special treatment for women under Article 15(3) of the Constitution as an exception to the equality clause. The laws relating to women promulgated by Parliament also try to put them on a higher pedestal than men. The basic aim is to eliminate discrimination. All this is done to create a sense of belongingness among women and to encourage greater participation in them.

In 1983, the Parliament, when caught with rising instances of dowry deaths across length and breadth of India, came up with The Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983. Through this amendment the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Indian Evidence Act (IEA) were amended to deal not only with dowry deaths but also cruelty against married women by their in-laws. The star provision, section 498 A of IPC, was also inducted through this amendment which aims at combating instances of cruelty against women by the husband or by his relatives. It is true that a tremendous majority of women in India suffer harassment at some point or the other but in recent years this law has been brought under scanner for its blatant misuse.

The matter has also reached High Courts and Supreme Court on numerous accounts. It is alleged that since offence under S-498 A is cognizable and non-bailable, disgruntled wives often take advantage of the situation to harass their husband and his relatives. In 2014, the Supreme Court observed that women were increasingly using anti-dowry law to harass in-laws and also restrained police from mechanically arresting the husband and his relatives on mere lodging of a complaint under the provision. The court also went on to talk about the heavy misuse of the law wherein bed-ridden grandfathers and grandmothers of the husband and their sisters living abroad have been arrested. The Court has thus propounded a checklist to be referred by the police before any arrest.

The debate around this particular provision has turned so vigorous that there are dedicated websites to help innocent men overcome the clutches of its misuse. All these developments lead us to the question of whether gender biased laws are really making society better?

One thing to be accepted is that nothing can ever be perfect. If there are laws, loopholes are bound to materialize and some people, no matter what, would always try to exploit them. It cannot be denied that there have been cases where innocent men and their relatives have been dragged to Court under anti-dowry laws without any fault of theirs but the fact that some women have benefitted from such laws can also not be denied. On the other end, there are times when a woman is courageous enough to file a complaint against her husband and his relatives but ultimately has to back off and withdraw her complaint. This might be due to the fear of disgrace, lack of support or acceptance from family and society or under threat and pressure from her marital home. Such matters are a serious cause of concern because the society comes to perceive these instances as ‘false cases’.

Indian society is inherently patriarchal. It takes immense daredevilry for a woman to speak up against her husband or the in-laws and even if she does, she is advised to ‘adjust’ with the demands of her husband. This phenomenon is not something restricted only to rural or even uneducated section of society but is almost uniformly observed across all sections.

Based on the mounting displeasure over the misuse of S-498A of IPC, the government has planned to amend the anti-dowry harassment law. This amendment would make the offence compoundable i.e. scope for out-of-the-court settlement would be open. It has also proposed to make the offence bailable. Further, the penalty for bringing fake or frivolous complaint is proposed to be enhanced from Rs.10000 to Rs.15000. If this were to succeed, the anti-dowry law would be dangerously diluted.

Violence against women is on rise in India and bringing forth this amendment would only result in human rights taking a backseat. In 2015, the National Crime Records Bureau reported 3.4 lac cases of cruelty by husband or his relative in past three years. Even if we assume that half of these cases were cooked up, the other half still remains a significant number. Timely action by police can definitely save the life of a woman who otherwise might be on the brink of her sanity.

To deal with fake cases, the crumbling institutions of police and judiciary need to be strengthened first. In India, laws are rarely enforced properly and corruption at smaller level is rampant. These are the problems which if solved would balance the rights of both women and men.

 

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