498A – FEMINISTS LOOK AT IT FROM THE WRONG END OF TELESCOPE
I have watched the feminist reaction after recent SC judgment with the same nonchalance that it deserved. I have heard the same arguments from them time and again, so many times infact, that now it is boring. While the Apex Court had taken a big step forward to curb the misuse, the feminists cry had nothing new. It was the same old arguments they put through, which has not only gone stale, it now stinks.
To give the uninitiated, whenever there is a discussion about misuse of 498A, the most common argument put forward by feminists is that there are still huge cases of ‘Dwory Deaths’ in India. The problem with this argument is that there are only few thousand cases of alleged “Dowry Death” happening; however there are tens of thousands of cases under 498a i.e. “Cruelty by Husband or Relatives”. For record the National Crime Record Bureau put the figures for ‘Dowry Death’ at 7,634 for year 2015 vis-a-vis 113,403 for ‘Cruelty by Husband or Relatives of Husband’. What mainstream media and most feminist do is extrapolate the figures of ‘Cruelty by Husband and Relative’ on ‘Dowry Death’. We often hear lakhs of brides are burnt every year in India for want of dowry.
The narrative is so strong that even the celebrated economist-statistician and journalists like Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their celebrated and acclaimed work “Superfreakonomics” say – More than 100,000 young Indian women die in fires every year, many of them “bride burnings” or other instances of domestic abuse. [Emphasis Applied].
So the moot point does over 100,000 young Indian women die in fires every year as “bride burnings”. Or even 7,634 Indian Women died which could be termed as “Dowry Death”. The answer is unqualified NO.
For the same, we have to understand how the ‘Dowry Death’ or Section 304-B is put in motion. It is not that all 7,634 women would have died because of “Dowry”. The law laid down by Indian Parliament stipulates that when a woman dies because of burns or bodily injury or occurs ‘otherwise than normal circumstances’ it should be registered as probable ‘Dowry Death’ and an inquest be carried out by a magistrate. Hence the fact correctly put is that in year 2015 a total of 7,634 Indian women died within Seven Years of their marriage in other than normal circumstances, which include burns and bodily injury as well. That would include all deaths caused by accidents, fires, drowning or suicide. In a vast country like India which sees Millions of marriages every year this figure is miniscule and the conviction rate is rather poor, because most of these deaths are actually pure accidents and are not linked to Dowry demand soon before the death.
There is a clear distinction between 304-B which deals with ‘Dowry Death’ and 498a which deals with ‘Cruelty by Husband or Relatives of Husbands’. They are not mutually exclusive and in both provisions ‘cruelty’ is a common factor. The offence of ‘Dowry Death’ relates to the cases of death as a result of cruelty caused on account of Dowry by her husband or any relative of the husband. Where in the later offence cruelty itself amounts to an offence and is punishable. On top of it this cruelty or harassment need not be physical. It could be physical or mental. Cruelty postulates a reasonable apprehension on the basis of previous treatment in the mind of a woman that it would be injurious or harmful for the woman to stay with husband or relatives of the husband.
For the purpose of 498A cruelty means any wilful conduct which is of such 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 harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand. It is not that every harassment or cruelty is punishable. It is punishable only if it meets either of the following criteria. a) To drive a woman to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to life b) to cause grave injury c) danger to life or limb, whether mental or physical or d) when the mental or physical cruelty is done for any unlawful demand for property or valuable security (Which is termed as Dowry).
However, one has to see that what constitutes cruelty to a woman depends upon a number of factors. Sensitivity of an individual can be one big factor. In the words of Apex Court of India, “What constitutes cruelty to her (a woman) depends upon a number of factors, like matrimonial relationship between husband and wife, their cultural temperamental state of life, state of health, their interaction in daily life, their social background and education, sensitivity of the individual victim concerned, the intensity of sensitivity and the degree of courage or endurance to withstand with adversaries” Mohd Hoshan v State of Andhra Pradesh [(2002) 7 SCC 414]. In various other situations the Apex Court as well as many High Courts have held incidents as diverse as – Abnormal behaviour, continuous teasing and taunting, keeping a concubine and bringing her child by the husband, or having an illicit relationship with another woman, pressing for obtaining consent of the first wife for the second marriage, depriving a woman from elementary subsistence and spending his earnings on gambling and other vices, frequent false attacks on chastity, series of malicious and vexatious litigations, hurtful and offensive accusations, humiliating remarks, asking for dowry – to be offences under S. 498A. Yes, I have mentioned few of the things which the courts have held would be enough to cause cruelty of the nature that it can grave injury to mental health of the woman.
Now the moot point, an offence which can have so diverse origins that even the legislature found it difficult to straitjacket is looked by feminists from the prism of only one thing – i.e. Dowry Death.
Is not it equating a cold-blooded murder with a brawl, drunken driving, hurt and even racism?
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