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.

Alive - - News - by San­jeev Sirohi

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.

Re­frain­ing ar­rest

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.

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