India: Campaign of misogynic objections to Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act Print E-mail
Volume 25 - Issue 15 :: July 19-August 01, 2008

The real victim


Campaigns to amend Section 498A of the IPC citing misuse of the anti-dowry law are being strengthened in many parts of the country.

MEMBERS OF THE Save Indian Family Foundation staging a protest against Section 498A of the IPC and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, in New Delhi in August last year (V. SUDERSHAN )

ON June 25, a round table organised by the Ministry for Women and Child Development and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) on building partnerships with men towards women’s empowerment and gender equality had an ironic interruption from a group of men claiming to be victims of Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which relates to dowry harassment. Demanding that they be heard by Union Minister Renuka Chowdhury, they shouted slogans within the premises of the India Islamic Centre where the conference was being held.

The protesters, wearing black badges, represented organisations such as the Save Family Foundation, the Delhi Pariwarik Suraksha Samiti, the Lucknow-based Pati Pariwar Kalyan Samiti and the Kolkata-based Bharat Bachao Sangathan. They demanded that the existing law be redrafted since, according to them, their families, including women, had been arrested by the police on false charges of taking dowry – all under the garb of implementing Section 498A. Under this section, the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty was liable to be punished with imprisonment up to three years and a fine.

The Minister, who was livid at first with the representatives for attempting to disrupt the meeting and for making derogatory remarks about women in government positions, later gave them a hearing; she, however, declined to interfere with the law as it existed, arguing that the law did not discriminate, nor was it designed to be misused.

This is not the first time that a clamour has been kicked up over Section 498 A. And the protests are not confined to Delhi. They have become more strident in the recent past with several organisations, having websites of their own, actively campaigning against the law. One such website is dedicated to the fight against the dowry law. The Save Indian Family Foundation also makes similar campaigns against the law

From the experience of women’s organisations, the few cases of misuse that may have occurred are an exception rather than the rule. Women’s organisations that have been dealing with violence over the years believe that had the law been actually put to good use, there would be fewer instances of harassment of and violence against women over dowry and fewer dowry deaths. They feel the unabated violence in the name of dowry continues because dowry prohibition laws have not been very effective. It was surprising that the Minister even agreed to meet representatives of anti-dowry law organisations, especially as statistics, national as well as State-wise, show an escalation in the demand for dowry and in dowry-related violence and deaths. Crime records from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the National Commission for Women (NCW) and several research studies on domestic violence show that, if anything, cruelty towards women in India on account of dowry demands has gone up in the past two decades. It is a well-known fact that the increasing desire for a male child and the rejection of the girl child in the womb itself and the consequent female foeticide, which has contributed to the adverse child sex ratio in the country, have a lot to do with the burgeoning demand for dowry.

The provocation
However, the immediate factor that fuelled the demand from these outfits is an order passed by Y.S. Dadwal, the Chief Police Commissioner of Delhi. On June 22, Dadwal issued a circular stating that no arrests would be made in cases of alleged dowry harassment without prior investigation, in order to prevent misuse of the anti-dowry law. No arrests, he said, would be made under Section 498A (matrimonial cruelty) without the prior written approval of the area Deputy Commissioner of Police. As per the circular, only the main accused would be arrested, instead of the previous practice of booking all the relatives of the accused. The circular stated: “Arrest of the accused should be an exception, not a rule. From the allegations set out in the FIR and other subsequent allegations or material collected during investigation, if necessary, only the prime/main accused whose primary role in the commission of the offence has been established should be arrested and that too after the prior written approval of the DCP.”

The list of complaints received by the Delhi Police in 2007 had around 4,400 distress calls made to various police stations, of which 25 per cent pertained to domestic violence and about 17.42 per cent related to rape and sexual assault. The circular also coincided with the results of a survey conducted by a research organisation, which showed that 6 per cent of the complaints in cases of dowry harassment were aimed at settling scores and getting even with the in-laws. This meant that 94 per cent of the cases were genuine.

The police chief’s circular is based on a May 2003 judgment of the Delhi High Court on Sections 498A and 406 of the IPC, which suggested that offences under the two sections be made bailable and compoundable. The judgment said that misuse of these sections was hitting at the foundation of marriage itself and had not proved “so good for the health of society at large”. The same year, the Delhi Commission for Women reported that 80 per cent of all the complaints it handled pertained to dowry demands and harassment. The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), which has condemned Dadwal’s order, had protested even then stating that to suggest that these offences be made bailable was to undermine the violence suffered by Indian women daily.

AIDWA has pointed out that while other sections of the IPC were misused, none had wanted them altered. In 2003, AIDWA had written to the then Chief Justice of India, Justice V.N. Khare, that a survey of judgments under Section 498A showed that most High Courts had only punished the grossest forms of violence and cruelty and that Section 498A had been interpreted in an extremely narrow manner in most judicial pronouncements. The organisation stated that it was not Sections 498A or 405 that hit the foundation of marriage but the violence and inequality faced by women. “We appeal to you not only to find ways and means to gender sensitise the judiciary but also to ensure that an important criterion in the selection of judges be their commitment to the cause of women,” AIDWA had written then.

Talking to Frontline, the Delhi police spokesperson said that the circular was based on several court orders. In fact, similar pronouncements on the misuse of Section 498A had been made by the Andhra Pradesh High Court and the Bombay High Court. In 1990, the latter court, in an order, held that “it is not every harassment or every type of cruelty that would attract Section 498A IPC – beating and harassment must be to force the bride to commit suicide or to fulfil illegal demands.” In 2002, a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court held that harassment itself was not cruelty unless there was a demand for dowry for conviction under Section 498A.

Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary of AIDWA, said that if at all there was misuse of the law, the police had to be blamed for it and not the law itself. “All statistics point out that instances of dowry violence is going up. There is a definite backlash as more and more women are coming out and complaining about their situations. On the other hand, there are people who feel that violence is quite acceptable. Sometimes, they also have links with the police and the system. Their voices, rather than of those beaten up and killed on a regular basis, are heard,” she said. She mentioned a very recent instance in the national capital where a woman was murdered for not being able to procure Rs.20 lakh so that her husband could run his business. “She did not file a case of dowry harassment and ended up dead like so many other women, who go to the police as a last resort,” she said.

A scene from a street play organised in Thrissur in March by the Kerala Women’s Commission to protest against the dowry system (K.K. NAJEEB)

Sahba Farooqi, general secretary of AIDWA’s Delhi unit, said that each DCP wanted fewer cases in his area of jurisdiction. Hence, she said, getting a complaint registered under 498A was a monumental task . “Every week, we get four or five dowry harassment cases. The women come to us after being turned away by the police,” she said, quoting a recent case where a Delhi resident had been told by the city police to file her complaint in Gurgaon, Haryana, because her matrimonial home was there. She said that the efforts of the Crime Against Women Cells were more towards reconciliation rather than in taking any serious cognisance of the complaints made. Often the women are persuaded to drop their complaints.

Between 2004 and 2007, complaints of dowry harassment constituted the bulk of the complaints received by the NCW. A substantial increase in dowry harassment cases was observed in each passing year; a fairly large number of the cases reported police apathy.

The NCRB in its crime data for the year 2006 recorded an almost 12 per cent increase in cases of dowry death (Sections 302/304B, IPC), 8.2 per cent increase in torture incidents (Section 498A) and a 40.6 per cent increase in cases registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act in 2006 over 2005. These figures do not in any way show that there has been a decline in cases of dowry harassment.

It was after a long and protracted struggle by women’s organisations that the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, was amended and new sections on cruelty and dowry-related murder were inserted in the IPC in 1983. The definition of cruelty was widened to include not only harassment relating to dowry but also other kinds of domestic violence. With the passage of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, women’s organisations have seen more and more women come out of the closet to register complaints of violence and abuse.

The campaigns against the misuse of the law has to have some substantive basis, but at least for now, there does not seem to be any. •