To begin, we must examine what the term “marriage” entails. ‘Marriage is the consensual union of one man and one woman for life, to the exclusion of all others.’ It is a social institution in which the husband is responsible for the care and maintenance of his wife. He can’t afford to ignore his responsibilities. However, a stigma is known as “dowry” remains in this excellent institution. Women are mistreated, tortured, killed, and divorced just because they did not bring dowry.
To protect the interests of women against the brutality they experience within the four walls of their marital house, the Indian Penal Code,1860 (hence referred to as I.P.C.) was revised in 1983 and Section 498A was introduced, which deals with ‘Matrimonial Cruelty‘ to a woman.
In India, matrimonial cruelty is punishable with imprisonment, non-bailable, and non-compoundable offences. Section 498A of Chapter XXA of the I.P.C. defines it as a spouse or relative of a husband subjecting a woman to cruelty.
Whoever subjected a woman to cruelty, whether her husband or a relative of her husband, must be punished by imprisonment for a duration of up to three years, as well as a fine.
Explanation – In this section, “cruelty” means:
(a) any deliberate behaviour that is likely to push the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave harm or risk to the woman’s life, limb, or health (whether mental or physical); or
(b) harassment of the woman if the harassment is intended to force her or any person connected to her into meeting any unlawful demands for any property or valued security, or if the harassment is the result of her or any person related to her failure to satisfy such demand.
The provision was created to address the threat of dowry deaths. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1983 included it in the code (Act 46 of 1983).
Section 113-A of the Indian Evidence Act has been inserted by the same Act to enhance the presumption of abetment of suicide by a married woman. The primary goal of Section 498-A of the I.P.C. is to safeguard a woman who is being harassed by her husband or his family.
According to Section 113-A of the Indian Evidence Act:
Sec. 113-A, Presumption of dowry death- When the question is whether a person committed the dowry death of a woman and it is shown that such person subjected such woman to cruelty or harassment shortly before her death for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, the Court shall presume that such person committed the dowry death.
Explanation: For this section, the term “dowry death” shall have the same meaning as it has in Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).
The purpose for which section 498A of the IPC was enacted is adequately represented in the Statement of Objects and Reasons adopted when Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act No. 46 of 1983 was enacted. As stated plainly, the rise in dowry fatalities is a cause for significant worry.
The Joint Committee of the Houses to investigate the work of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, made comments on the scope of the evil. In rare situations, the cruelty of the husband and his family leads to the suicide or murder of the defenceless lady involved, however, this is just a small percentage of cases involving such cruelty.
As a result, it was suggested to alter the IPC, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (abbreviated “the Cr.P.C.”), and the Evidence Act to deal effectively not only with cases of dowry killings, but also with incidents of cruelty to married women by husbands, in-laws, and relatives. The stated goal is to combat the threat of dowry killing and maltreatment.
Harassment would be considered cruelty under this provision. The spouse’s drinking and late-arriving habits, combined with beating and demanding dowry, have been ruled to constitute cruelty within the meaning of this provision, but this section has been held not to encompass a husband who just drinks as a matter of routine and gets home later.
In a case before the Supreme Court, it was noted that this provision has added a new dimension to the idea of cruelty for matrimonial remedies and that the sort of behaviour specified here would be appropriate for demonstrating abuse.
Cruelty: In the case of ‘Kaliyaperumal vs. State of Tamil Nadu,’ it was determined that cruelty is a common feature in both sections 304B and 498A of the IPC. The two laws are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct offences, and persons acquitted for dowry murders under section 304B can be condemned under section 498A of the IPC.
The definition of cruelty is provided in section 498A explanation. Although section 304B does not define it, the concept of cruelty or harassment in section 498-A also applies to section 304-B. Cruelty is a crime under section 498-A of the IPC, whereas dowry death is an offence under section 304-B, and the death must have happened during the first seven years of marriage.
Section 498-A, on the other hand, makes no mention of such a time limit. The term “cruelty” was defined in the explanation in the case of ‘Inder Raj Malik vs. Sunita Malik,’ which provides, inter alia, that harassment of a woman to coerce her or any connected individuals to satisfy any unlawful demand for any assets or anything of value constitutes cruelty.
Sec 498A and the Allegation of Misuse:
During the previous 20 years of criminal law reform in India, a prominent argument made against legislation prohibiting violence against women has been that women abuse these provisions. The police, civic society, politicians, and even judges of the High Courts and Supreme Court have all spoken passionately against the “misuse” of legislation. The abuse charge is levelled specifically against Section 498A of the IPC and the offence of dowry death under Section 304B. Former Justice K T Thomas voiced one such viewpoint in his piece titled ‘Women and the Law,’ which was published in The Hindu.
21 Significantly, the 2003 Malimath Committee report on criminal justice reforms notes that there is a “general complaint” that Section 498A of the IPC is subject to gross misuse; it uses this as justification to propose an amendment to the provision but provides no data to indicate how frequently the section is misused. It is thus critical that such “arguments” be addressed to provide a clearer picture of the current factual state of the effect of many criminal laws enacted to protect women.
To counteract such flawed statistics and dispel the myth of misuse, Vimochana, a women’s rights organisation, conducted a study in Bangalore in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 to better understand the implementation and effectiveness of Section 498A and related offences such as Sections 3 and 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. In this just completed, unpublished study, we were able to determine how precisely men’s rights activists manipulate NCRB numbers, as well as how carelessly law courts and law commissioners utilise that data to promote a fundamentally flawed concept of misuse of 498A.’
This study’s key findings include arrests and suicides of married males, among other noteworthy conclusions. Relying on this data to derive conclusions about misuse, such as those reached by men’s rights organisations and the Supreme Court, is truly terrible, and results in severe injustices for the women who face various types of abuse every day. The low conviction rate in Section 498A cases is directly related to systemic biases, prejudices of the police and courts, corruption, and the socioeconomic vulnerability of women litigants.