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The last route

The last route

It is a sort of hope-bringing verdict, indeed. Disagreeing with its earlier order diluting Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, a statute often invoked in dowry-related domestic abuse cases, the Supreme Court's three-judge bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, and Justices A M Khanwilkar, and DY Chandrachud announced that earlier order rendered by the division bench really curtails the rights of the women who are harassed and prima facie, the guidelines issued by it lay 'in the legislative sphere'. While hearing the petition of a Maharashtra-based NGO – that prayed for the inclusion of women in family welfare committees sought to be formed by district legal service authorities so as to achieve at least a 2:1 sex ratio – the Apex Court virtually departed from tradition and decided to revisit the judgment. The Court also issued notices to the ministries of home affairs, and women and child development, and the National Commission for Women to revert with their views and also appointed two senior Supreme Court lawyers amici curiae to assist it. It may be noted that earlier a group of 16 women's rights organisations had sent a memorandum to the then CJI JS Khehar to review the earlier judgment in that case. Notably, the earlier Supreme Court's order received stern criticism for having undone decades of achievements of women's rights movements.

Following a series of bride-burning incidents and harassment by in-laws for dowry, the government included Section 498A in 1983 to protect the victims, which categorically states: "Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine." With its successive judgements, the Apex Court made it clear that the term 'cruelty' was related to any conduct that amounts to dowry harassment or that may drive the wife to commit suicide. But on July 27, this year, the division bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit of the top court thought it fit to issue a set of directions to 'prevent the misuse' of Section 498A of the IPC.
The Bench also asked for the constitution of family welfare committees, comprising para-legal volunteers, social workers, retired people and housewives to look into cases before any FIR is filed. The committees were instructed to furnish a report to the police station within a month of receipt of the police complaint, based on which action would be initiated. The division bench's observation was some sort of check on immediate arrest of the culprits. Not only that, it also decided to grant or reject the post-arrest bail application on the same day. The top court had also decided that the recovery of disputed dowry items from the accused would not be a ground for rejecting the bail petitions and for denial of bail and family members of the accused should not be forced for personal appearance during trial which might be conducted via video-conferencing. Even the NRIs got relief from impounding of passports red corner notices. But, that July 27 verdict had some faulty consequences and that the three-judge bench has realised now. It was obvious that much on the lines of landlords and cow vigilantes, the family welfare committees comprising legally untrained people would bring in their own biases while evaluating a case, which would consequently give a long rope and every chance to flee and victims under pressure would withdraw their police complaints. It may be noted that despite a common misperception among law enforcement agencies that this statute is being widely misused by deceitful, privileged and rancorous women to get back at their aged and infirm in-laws, the Section 498A of IPC is virtually a dead law till date as only 0.03 percent of women filed a case under Section 498A annually. Even the low conviction rates – courtesy slapdash police investigation – indicate that the argument accusing women filing cases for mere harassment has no weight. And, one must not forget that as per the data of National Crime Records Bureau, statistics from which were heavily cited in the July order, 21 dowry deaths still take place in India every day. As the argument of gender neutrality of laws put forward by opponents of an effective Section 498A had been defeated by the existence of the custom of dowry, one can hope that few stronger laws would bring justice to the dowry victims. And, the latest Supreme Court's judgement appears to be proving a 'lighthouse' for the dowry victims – hoping against hope.

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