In what comes as a timely check on widespread misuse of dowry prohibition provision under the Indian Penal Code's Section 498A, the Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a slew of safeguards, including 'involvement of civil society and sensitisation of investigation officers and magistrates'. Acknowledging a growing trend among women involved in marital discord to abuse Section 498A of IPC to rope in their husbands' relatives — including parents, minor children, siblings, and grandparents — in criminal cases, a bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit said it was high time for committees of social workers, homemakers, retired persons other upstanding citizens to form the vanguard against frivolous cases which violated human rights of the innocent embroiling them into unjust legal traps. This is a shift from the dominant judicial conception of women as victims who would silently suffer injustice rather than bring disrepute to their family by taking domestic conflict outside the four walls of the home. Going by the popular portrait, it is only the worst victim of abuse among women who approach the court for redressal.
"It is a matter of serious concern that a large number of cases continue to be filed under Section 498A alleging harassment of married women. But, many such complaints are not bona fide. At the time of filing the complaint, implications and consequences are not visualised. At times, such complaints lead to uncalled for harassment not only of the accused but also of the complainant. Uncalled for arrest may ruin the chances of settlement," the bench observed, adding, "We are conscious of the object for which the provision was brought into the statute.
At the same time, violation of human rights of the innocent cannot be brushed aside." The court ordered setting up of Family Welfare Committees in every district to look into complaints of dowry harassment, asking the District Legal Services Authorities to set up the panels. The Court had also asked the police or magistrates to refer the complaints they receive under 498A. "Till report of the committee is received, no arrest should normally be made," the court said. It also ordered there should be a designated officer to investigate such complaints and more caution should be exercised while dealing with matters of bail. The court said that a trial court ought to grant them exemption from a personal appearance or permit appearance by video conferencing. It made it clear that these directions will not apply in offences where there is tangible physical injury or death. "After seeing the working of the arrangement for six months, the National Legal Services Authority may give a report on changes if necessary," the court said.