From time immemorial, married women in India have been defencelessly enduring cruelty and domestic violence at the hands of men. Cruelty against women was difficult to prove and to make it worse, there was no specific law aiming to safeguard women against such cruelty. It is not unfamiliar that crimes against women have been a barrier to the holistic development of the society.
Responding to the dire need of gender equality and curbing the menace of marital cruelty upon women due to the evil of dowry prevalent in our country, the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983 was enacted by the Indian Legislature which amended the Indian Penal Code, 1860 by inserting Section 498A, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Indian evidence Act, 1872 (by inserting section 113-A into it) which has shifted the burden of proof to the accused and the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.
The section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was introduced into the Indian criminal law system with an objective to prevent the menace of dowry death and cruelty inflicted upon women. This was a momentous change introduced in the Indian criminal law system intending to provide protection to the women as the offence of marital cruelty in India became cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence.
Section 498A is given under the heading, “Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to Cruelty.” Under this section, “cruelty” has been explained as (a) Any willful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or (b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demands for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand. Aiming towards the complete wellbeing of the married women, apart from physical cruelty, section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has recognised ‘mental cruelty’ by husband or relatives of the husband as a psychological harm and made it a punishable offence.
Recently, in the name of preventing misuse of Sec. 498A, the guidelines laid down by the Honorable Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma & Others vs. State of U.P. & Another, blatantly defeated the objective of sec. 498A IPC. It requires that every complaint under sec. 498A received by the Police or Magistrate shall be referred to a particular committee which shall have to submit its report within one month from the date of receipt of the complaint. Moreover, until the report is submitted, no arrest should be made. However, his judgement has undermined “mental cruelty” and it has been made clear that these directions will not apply to the offences involving tangible physical injuries or death of a woman.
The incidences of mental cruelty are no less harmful to any woman. Instead of taking action to prevent cruelty and save the life and dignity of a woman, the judgement instructs to take action only when the woman has been hit, thrashed, beaten up or killed. The Indian women are made to suffer to such an extent to get eligible for access to justice. During the one month period of enquiry to confirm the veracity of the facts of the complaint, the psychological cruelty may continue and even aggravate to harm of a serious nature including psychological depression or even suicidal tendencies in the victim women.
The ground reality regarding the implementation and effectiveness of the law provided under sec. 498A is quite dismal. According to the reports of National Crime Report Bureau, crimes against the female population in India have increased manifold in the recent time. The guideline of the Supreme Court in the above-mentioned case is regressive in nature and it has sabotaged the ongoing effort to bring about gender equality.
According to a report of the CHRI, the Police in India refuses to register complaints of sexual harassment and other crimes against women. It said that “the survey points to a significant proportion of unaddressed and unreported crime, signalling worrying levels of insecurity among the public, particularly women”.
Stringent implementation of the existing laws is required to curb crime against women because there is massive under-reporting of crime against women in India. The real concern for us should be the lower conviction rate for crime against women according to various official data. Guidelines should also be framed to encourage abused women to report crimes and fight her case till the end. The instruction to refrain from filing FIR until a thorough enquiry has been a big demotivating factor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She is a legal professional working in a Law Firm in Kolkata. She has a brief experience of content writing for a few Law portals. Currently, Shampa is pursuing a course on Cyber Law Practice, Information Technology and Social Media Law from NUJS.