Section 498-A: Use and Misuse
Section 498-A was added to the Indian Penal Code in 1983, and by definition, seeks to address and hold accountable, those who inflict cruelty or other forms of unjust treatment towards a woman in her marital home. The punishment for inflicting cruelty is inclusive of a fine and a prison term which may extend to 3 years or more depending on the extent and duration of violence endured by the woman. Not only the husband, but also the parents and relatives of his family are held accountable and liable to be punished. However, despite its many successes at facilitating justice for women in genuine cases, Section 498-A has come under criticism due to the number of times it has been misused as part of false cases filed by women seeking alimony or divorce from their husbands. Given that it is a cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable offense, which involves a mandatory jail term of up to 7 days, false complaints can cause considerable distress to those families who are innocent of all charges, and can seriously damage their reputations.
It is therefore important to explore both, the positive as well as the negative impact of the act against domestic cruelty.
A recent case which serves the highlight the ability of Section 498-A involves a recently-married woman who was subjected to physical and verbal torture at the hands of her husband and his parents. The reason for this torture appears to be the insufficient amount of dowry brought in by the woman during her marriage; her in-laws and husbands demanded additional items including a luxury car, gold and some household appliances. As per her version of the situation, the woman complained that she was subjected to verbal abuse where her family and she were called unspeakable names; she also stated that it was suggested to her that she should end her life, given that she was a “useless” addition to the household. She complained also, that her mother in-law beat her and forced her to perform menial tasks despite there being ample domestic help to do so. She also alleged that there was an incident in which she suspected her mother in-law of trying to set her sari on fire.
She first filed a GD or General Diary at the local police station to keep them abreast of her plight. She later consulted her lawyer who immediately recommended making use of Section 498 A since she had experienced both emotional as well as physical cruelty. After successfully filing the case, her husband, his brothers and his father were all placed under arrest, and remained in jail for 6 days. Her mother in-law was also charged but not sent to jail owing to legal restrictions. The conclusion of the case was that the woman received both an apology and was also able to file for immediate divorce despite the short duration of the marriage.
On the flip side, an instance involving a woman who wished to exact “revenge” on her husband caused much distress for him and his innocent family. She used Section 498-A to complain about alleged cruelty and torture at the hands of her husband and his brother (her brother in-law) and demanded a lump sum of money in order to retract the case. Given that the process of retracting a case is not as simple and involves a lengthy legal procedure, the husband’s side of the family hired a lawyer to explain their side of the situation. Thankfully, the judge presiding over the case was quick to understand the motive behind the case, and ended the case by charging the woman with cheating. The husband and his family were quick to file divorce papers soon after.
Upon examining Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code therefore, it is clear that it is taking a firm stand against dowry and cruelty against women, which comes as an advantage to women; however given the ratio of false cases to genuine cases, it is recommended that amendments be made in order to support innocent victims as well.