Set up panels to curb false dowry cases: Supreme Court
A woman can now use provisions of anti-dowry law for her own safety but cannot misuse them for vendetta.
To begin with, in a big relief to husbands and their families facing false dowry harassment cases, the Supreme Court on 27 July in the matter of Rajesh Sharma and Ors v State of UP and Anr (2017) sought to restrict the untrammelled powers of the police to arrest those accused under IPC Section 498A till such time a Committee comprising legal service volunteers explores the possibility of a settlement.
The Supreme Court said that such Family Welfare Committees will be constituted in each district. However, it was made clear that the order of the Apex Court will not apply to cases where the wife has died or sustained “tangible physical injuries”.
A Bench of Justices Adarsh Goel and UU Lalit passed the order while dealing with a case of dowry harassment filed in Uttar Pradesh against the husband, his parents, unmarried brother and sister. No doubt, the Supreme Court has done well to explicitly direct the authorities to not arrest people or apply coercive means over complaints of dowry harassment without first conducting a preliminary inquiry.
It is quite ostensible that the latest directive has come in the wake of many complaints that the police are quick to arrest not only the husband or the in-laws over dowry related first information reports but also their all other relatives including small children without even conducting a basic probe into the allegation as should be done always in all such cases! This is what is most troublesome and loathsome!
There is no ambiguity over the indisputable fact that the application of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code has no doubt been grossly misused in so many cases all across the country. This is what compelled Supreme Court to step in and make sure that in future such gross misuse is checked right at the very beginning.
While laying down guidelines to ensure that the random misuse of IPC Section 498A stops, the Bench of apex court minced no words in making it crystal clear that, “It is a matter of serious concern that large number of cases continues to be
filed under Section 498A alleging harassment of married women. Many such complaints are not bona fide. At the time of filing of the complaint, implications and consequences are not visualised. At times, such complaints lead to uncalled for harassment not only to the accused but also to the complainant. Uncalled for arrest may ruin the chances of settlement. Certain safeguards against uncalled for arrest or insensitive investigation have been addressed by this court. Still, the problem continues to a great extent. To remedy the situation, we are of the view that involvement of civil society in the aid of administration of justice can be one of the steps, apart from the investigating officers and the concerned trial courts being sensitised.” There can be no denying it.
The Bench felt that in many cases chances of a genuine settlement can be examined by the Committee by giving them a month’s time. If settlement is reached, the concerned Magistrate shall close the case and even consider granting bail. It merits no reiteration that what the Bench has felt and suggested is highly commendable which needs to be implemented without any further delay!
Large number of cases, few convictions
As things stand, while quoting the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2012 data, the Bench said that a quarter of all arrests were those of women – mothers and sisters of husbands – and while chargesheets were filed at an “exponentially high 93.6 per cent” of cases, only 14.4 per cent ended in convictions. This itself is the biggest testimony to the gross abuse of anti-dowry laws in our country!
It also must be revealed here that the report projected that out of the 3,72,706 cases pending trial in 2012, 3,17,000 would lead to acquittal. This begs the question: What bigger proof is required to substantiate the irrefutable fact that antidowry laws are grossly abused in our country?
It needs no rocket scientist to conclude that the Bench of Supreme Court in this case very rightly decided to finally take steps to prevent the future misuse of antidowry laws!
The Supreme Court Bench ordered that trial courts must decide bail applications in such cases on the same day as far as possible. It was also held that, “Recovery of disputed dowry items may not by itself be a ground for denial of bail if maintenance or other rights of wife/minor children can otherwise be protected.”
This was considered imperative to check the abuse of anti-dowry laws. It also directed that a designated police officer should be appointed to deal with complaints filed under Section 498A. It granted states and Union Territories a month’s time to appoint such officers.
It must be highlighted here that in this latest landmark judgment, the apex court broke away from the dominant perception that woman is always the victim to rule that in dowry cases; the account of the alleged victim need not be taken at face value, undercutting the innocence law enforcement agencies had so far assigned to complainants. It directed states to set up family welfare committee (FWC) in each district and tasked it with testing the veracity of every dowry harassment complaint.
According to the ruling, the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) will form the Committee comprising three members who could be para-legal volunteers, social workers, retired persons, wives of working officers or citizens who may be found suitable and willing. A dowry harassment complaint to the police or Magistrate will be re-
ferred to the Committee that can interact with the parties personally or through electronic communication.
Grant exemption from personal appearance or allow it by videoconference. Don’t make passport impounding or red corner notice routine for people residing out of India. The Committee must submit its report to the authority, which refers the complaint to it within a month.
It was also stipulated that till the report is received, no arrest should be made. Also, after considering the report on its own merit, the police or Magistrate will proceed with further action. The apex court also directed that only a designated Investigating Officer of the area shall investigate dowry harassment cases. Such investigations must be done within a month.
Referring to the National Crime Records Bureau report of 2013, it noted that conviction rate of cases registered under Section 498A was very low at 15.6 per cent which highlighted that complaints were not backed by evidence.
Not stopping here, the apex court further added that these officers must be trained, which the court held must be completed within four months. Also, it was held that in cases where a settlement is reached, it will be open to a District and Sessions Judge or any other senior judicial officer nominated by him in the district to complete the proceedings. Trial Judges should close Section 498A cases based on matrimonial disputes once parties reached a settlement.
The apex court also directed that bail applications of husband and in-laws should be decided expeditiously by trial courts, preferably the same day it is filed.
It must be recalled here that in 2014, a separate Bench of the apex court had criticised the law’s misuse. It held that, “The fact that Section 498-A is a cognisable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives.”
All said and done, the Supreme Court itself in last few years has candidly acknowledged that a woman too can now misuse anti-dowry laws for varied reasons. She too is not now above suspicion. The earlier belief that a women would never come out wrongly in the open against her husband or her in-laws has now been discarded as we see for ourselves that there are so many instances of false reports of dowry harassment.
All States must now follow the latest directive by the Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma case as also the earlier case of Arnesh just mentioned above. One earnestly hopes that after the latest landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma’s case, there will be now at least some check on the gross abuse of antidowry laws as a very potent blackmail tool against not only the husband but also his parents and relatives.
Of course, a woman can no longer randomly misuse anti-dowry laws so easily and yet get away after ensuring jail for not just her husband but also his parents and other relatives. She can use anti-dowry laws but cannot abuse them because now there will be proper verifying by a Committee comprising three members and the chances of lies being exposed after careful scrutiny are now more than ever before.