The recent Supreme Court judgement on the alleged misuse of Section 498A IPC, and the setting up of Family Welfare Committees in every district of the country, is nothing short of a death blow to the already heavily-diluted provision in the IPC that criminalises cruelty towards married women by their husbands and in-laws.
The failure of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, to address the various forms of abuse meted out to married women and the alarming increase in dowry deaths prompted the women’s rights movement in the 1970s and 80s to undertake an unrelenting campaign to bring ‘marital cruelty’ under the ambit of criminal law. Due to their sustained efforts and assiduous campaigning, parliament amended the IPC in 1983 and Section 498A, which deals with the “husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty”, was introduced to protect women from abuse in their matrimonial homes.
However, since the very beginning, Section 498A has been targeted by various ‘men’s rights activists’. They claim that women are ‘misusing the law’, ‘misuse is reflected in the low conviction rate and high arrest rate’ and so on. They have succeeded in influencing various institutions of the state, which has now resulted in the complete dilution of the law.
It’s an established fact that mere low conviction rate does not mean the law is being misused. Higher acquittals may also result from inadequate investigation, the benefit of doubt given to the accused or bias against women accessing the law. That apart, violence against women in India is actually higher than what is depicted in the national crime statistics. Various studies suggest that the statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, especially on crimes against women, are grossly underreported. Over 40% in 2005-06 and 30% in 2015-16 of married women in India have faced varied forms of domestic violence, and going by those numbers, not even 1% of married women facing domestic violence actually lodge complaints under Section 498A. In such a scenario, the Supreme Court and the Law Commission of India have repeatedly and very casually used the NCRB statistics to paint a very ugly picture of women using the law to address the violence faced by them inside their marital homes.
In Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar & Anr, the Supreme Court passed certain guidelines regarding the arrest of the accused persons, which has practically made it impossible to arrest. Even before Arnesh Kumar, amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Act, 2008, had laid down certain rules to effect arrest, which has brought down the number of arrests significantly. However, the campaign against 498A has time and again targeted the provision to arrest by quoting the flawed statistics provided by the NCRB.
To counter such flawed statistics and to bust the myth of misuse, Vimochana, a women’s rights organisation, conducted a study in Bangalore for the years 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 to understand the implementation and effectiveness of Section 498A and related offences like Sections 3 and 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. In this recently concluded, unpublished study, we were able to ascertain how exactly men’s rights activists are manipulating NCRB statistics and also how very haphazardly the law courts and law commissions are using that data to promote a deeply problematic idea of ‘misuse of 498A’. Amongst other important conclusions, two major findings of this study are on arrests and suicides of married men.
Men’s rights activists have repeatedly claimed that as the section is non-bailable, the police will indiscriminately arrest the husband and others named in the complaint. Through our study, we were able to understand that over 70% of the accused persons had paid anticipatory bail and only about 24% of the accused persons were arrested in 498A complaints. The NCRB has failed to make this crucial distinction by clubbing those accused persons who get anticipatory bail in the same category of ‘arrested persons’. Persons availing of anticipatory bail do not get arrested but only appear in the police station, which cannot be considered as an arrest. Further, there is a huge nexus between the accused persons and the policemen. The moment they receive a complaint of 498A, the police themselves help the accused persons get anticipatory bail very easily, keeping the victims in dark.
With regard to the other major claim, that trauma and depression which such criminal proceedings bring lead to a large number of married men committing suicide, NCRB statistics for the year 2013 state that 64,089 married men and 29,491 married women have committed suicide. It is observed that social and economic causes have led most of the men to commit suicide, whereas emotional and personal causes have mainly driven women to end their lives. It has to be noted that prior to 2014, there was no separate category called ‘marriage-related issues’. There was only ‘family problems’. The category ‘marriage-related issues’ was added only in 2014 and it accounts for 6,773 suicides, out of which 4,411 are women and 2,362 are men.
In 2013, 24% of the total suicides were due to ‘family problems’ and in 2014, 21.7% cases were categorised as ‘other family problems’. The NCRB statistics do not state what constitutes ‘family problems’ or ‘marriage-related issues’. It does not say that 64,089 (2013) and 64,534 (2015) married men committed suicide because they were tormented by the criminal proceedings initiated by their wives. But the NCRB reports do mention that ‘economic’ and ‘social’ causes have led to most male suicides. ‘Social causes’ could be anything and need not be related to the wife alone. Economic causes needn’t have anything to do with the wife either. It is important to note that the NCRB data for 2015 states that the proportion of female victims were more in ‘marriage-related issues’ like ‘dowry-related issues’, ‘divorce’ and ‘physical abuse (rape)’.
Based on the above analysis, it is atrocious to assume that married men were depressed and traumatised because of criminal proceedings under 498A. There is no qualitative or quantitative data to back such malicious allegations. On the other hand, there is ample unambiguous data available under categories like ‘dowry-related issues’, ‘divorce’, ‘extra-marital affairs’ and ‘physical abuse (rape etc.)’, where the number of suicides committed by married women is much higher than men.
What has to be understood here is the fact that NCRB’s methodology in collating data is severely flawed. Relying on this data to draw conclusions such as the ones drawn by men’s rights organisations and the Supreme Court about ‘misuse’ is truly tragic, and results in grave injustices to the women facing various forms of violence every day.
Systemic biases, prejudices of the police and the judiciary, corruption and socio-economic vulnerabilities of women litigants have a direct correlation with the low conviction rate in Section 498A cases. This law is not misused by the women facing marital cruelty, but in fact is being abused by men’s rights activists, the state and its agencies on the whole.
Bindu N. Doddahatti is an advocate at the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. She was a part of the research team that conducted the study mentioned for Vimochana, Bangalore.