|My name is Kumar. I am 28 years old. I wanted to marry a poor girl, so that I could help a poor family. When I told my father about this, he suggested that I marry the daughter of one of his distant relatives, from a town in Andhra Pradesh. I believed that when he had chosen nothing but the best for me until now, he could not go wrong in this decision either. I agreed. I didn’t know much about the family, except that the girl’s father was a bus conductor. We demanded no dowry and even agreed to foot the wedding expenses.
It was a perfect wedding. My wife and I lived together for a month and she went back to her home for some rituals. That’s when I realised I had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents. When I asked my wife about it, she confessed that she had had an affair with someone else and had married me due to pressure from her family. “You didn’t ask for dowry, so we thought you had something to hide too,” she said.
I was shocked. But I wanted to save my marriage, so I asked her to come with me for treatment. She wasn’t interested. She told me that she would give me a divorce by mutual consent if I gave her Rs 5 lakh. And she didn’t want to discuss the matter with her parents because she was afraid they’d take away the money from her.
Still, I was glad she had told me the truth. I told my parents. Then my company sent me abroad for a project. We applied for divorce by mutual consent, and before I left, both of us went to the family court on six occasions. After I returned to India, she went back home saying that her mother was ill, and didn’t return — not even to attend the hearings. All of a sudden, she started saying that she didn’t want a divorce, and demanded that I pay her Rs 25,000 a month as maintenance. She claimed that I was earning far more than I really was, that my family had a lot of property (which is untrue) and said we had thrown her out of the house because she refused to bring Rs 2 lakh from her parents. She claimed that her family had spent a sum of Rs 10 lakh to conduct the wedding. She even went to the extent of saying that we had forged her signature on the divorce petition!
She filed a dowry case, and I was named as an accused — along with my mother, dad, cousin and aunt. I was taken into custody and stayed there for seven days, despite my family producing documents, which refuted her claims. She told me that if I paid her Rs 10 lakh in cash, she would withdraw the case. But she also had another demand —that I give it to her in writing that I am impotent.
My aged parents had to wait for three months to get bail. We were stripped, and our fingerprints taken, as if we were petty criminals.
Until then, we knew very little about the law, and even less about Section 498A. My parents, at one point were on the verge of committing suicide. Due to all the stress, my performance at work suffered. I was terminated. Three years later, the case is still on — and I am still looking for a job. I received three job offers — all of which were withdrawn once they conducted a background check and found out that I had a case pending against me. My future looks uncertain, but there’s one thing I’m sure about: I have lost faith in the institution of marriage. I will never marry again.
Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (Dowry Prohibition and Prevention of Marital Cruelty) is aimed at protecting the woman from harassment — from either her husband or her in-laws. But the loopholes in the law have led to misuse by women across the country. The common perception, that a helpless woman is abused for dowry by her husband’s family and the law is her only saviour — is being turned on its head.
Bangalore-based advocate Shankarappa, who has been practicing law for the last 18 years, handling many high-profile cases, says that he has seen at least 120 cases of dowry harassment in his career, “But unfortunately about 100 of the complainants had falsely implicated their husbands and husbands’ families.”
Advocate M T Nanaiah says that approximately 80 per cent of the 600 dowry-related cases he has handled over 32 years have turned out to be false implications. “Most of the remaining 20 per cent cases are mostly small disagreements that arise in every household. They get converted into dowry harassment cases.”
No warrant, no investigation
What is it about the anti-dowry law that makes such blatant misuse possible? First, the entire case hinges on the statement or allegations made by the wife. A single oral complaint can land the husband’s family in jail. No investigation or warrant is needed before police arrest the husband or his family, or begin proceedings. It is non-bailable; the accused must appeal before the court to seek bail. It is not compoundable: the complaint cannot be withdrawn. Worst of all, there is no punishment against the petitioner if the complaint is proved false. Besides, legal experts argue, since the police do not require any proof before arrest, it takes away a basic human right.
“Once a woman lodges a complaint, the husband and his relatives are implicated. Even the police register complaints without investigation. They drag the husband, aged in-laws and even young children to the station. The charges may be proved false later, but a criminal record is a criminal record, after all,” says Shankarappa.
Lawyers say that most women who file false dowry complaints do so for a few common reasons: to get out of a marriage; to get money, or a favourable divorce settlement; if they had a premarital affair, and were married off by force; for child custody; if they want an attitude change in the behaviour of the husband or the family; to take revenge on their husbands, or in most cases, to get out of a joint family setup.
And ironically, the law that aims at helping women, ends up harassing women too. The Save Indian Family Foundation contends that on an average, 30,000 women are jailed every year in connection with dowry cases. “Once the woman files a complaint, the mother-in-law, sister-in-law are also arrested. Why restrict the law to protecting only the wife? What kind of protection do these women have?” asks Philip, whose family was falsely implicated in a case. Virag Dhulia, a member of the Bangalore Chapter of the Save Indian Family Foundation — an organisation that provides support to harassed husbands — narrates his horror story. “A few months after our wedding, my wife went back to her parents’ home and didn’t return. She said she wouldn’t return unless I agreed to live away from my parents. Then her family filed a dowry harassment case against us,” he says.
Dhulia recalls how his parents, who are in their sixties, suffered for months — the fear of being arrested, anxiety about the regular court visits, and the outcome of the case, the shame and humiliation, all adding to their health problems.
In what is probably the first such instance in the State, Dhulia has filed a complaint against his wife for giving dowry. “My wife has, in her complaint, stated that she and her parents gave me dowry in the presence of their relatives. According to the Dowry Prohibition Act, taking, giving and abetting the giving of dowry is a crime — the giver and taker are equally culpable. I have not accepted dowry; but if as per her claim, she says she has given dowry, then she is guilty too.”
He says that at first, the police refused to file an FIR. “Then I went to the ACMM Court. The magistrate there took cognizance of this complaint and asked the jurisdictional police to investigate into the matter and file a report,” he explains.
Even four months after the court’s order, no action has been taken, Dhulia alleges. “I have now filed an RTI application to get information about the progress of the investigation, but have still not received any info.”
Help is at hand
The social stigma was what prompted Arun Murthy, yet another ‘498A victim’ to set up Sangyabalya — a helpline for ‘husbands and families victimised by the anti-dowry laws.’
The helpline was set up in 2003, after Murthy’s sister-in-law filed a dowry harassment complaint against his younger brother. “She was from an orphanage, and she said we had demanded dowry. It was ridiculous,” Murthy says. After his entire family — including his mother and sister were implicated — Murthy’s brother, a hardware engineer, lost his job and became a mental wreck. “I saw how the system works — people are arrested on Friday evening, so they cannot get bail. They have to stay in jail till Monday. And consider this — if you are a government employee, and you are in jail for more than 24 hours, even if under false accusations, then your job is in jeopardy.”
Murthy then wrote to a newspaper, and received many calls from other victims. That’s when he set up a helpline for these harassed husbands. A few months later, Sangyabalya was registered as an NGO. “A lot of people are on the verge of suicide after being arrested. We give them moral support. Sometimes, the lawyers take them for a ride, so we extend legal aid too. But most importantly, it is a collective voice for proper representation of our problems,” he says.
The Save Indian Family Foundation, another organisation that aid people implicated under Section 498A, was first set up as an online community, but later evolved into an NGO. The Foundation now has set up helplines for men in distress. The members of the Bangalore chapter meet at Cubbon Park every Saturday. New members who approach the Foundation are given moral support, and legal advice. “Usually when someone is implicated like this, he tends to feel that he is the only one facing such a problem. When they come here and see that they are not alone, then they feel that they have some support.”
Members of the foundation, who come from various backgrounds — from software to government service — study the law and help each other with inputs on how to fight their cases.
There are several other organisations working for these ‘harassed husbands’, but most of them have common demands. “The problem arises from extravagant marriages. The giving and taking of dowry should be tackled. No one makes it a point to stop this at the source. After all, prevention is better than cure,” says Dhulia.
Murthy agrees, “There should be a mandatory registration of marriages with a record of all gifts exchanged. These gifts are referred to as dowry when things go wrong. And such disputes are family matters. There should be proper counselling available, before the woman goes to the police.”
He adds, “The law in itself is not bad. What we need is thorough checks and balances to ensure that it is not misused. We assume that women are all white and men, all black. We must acknowledge that there are shades of grey everywhere.”
But most important, these organisations say, is to make provision for action against those who file false complaints, and to ensure that no arrests are made without proper evidence. “Once the complainant sends her husband and his family to jail, chances of reconciliation are few. She thinks its a victory. But that’s the only victory, things go downhill from there,” Murthy says.
That probably underlines the need for a thorough review of the law as it exists now. The loopholes have to be plugged, activists say, and soon. For the welfare of the women, so that genuine victims of dowry harassment do not suffer because of those who have misused the law. That is the only hope, for the welfare of hundreds of women across the country.
(Some names have been changed to protect identities.)
Justice J D Kapoor of the Delhi High Court had recommended a review of the dowry laws. He suggested that Sections 406 (misappropriation of dowry articles) and 498A (harassment for dowry) be made bailable and if necessary, compoundable, in cases where no grave physical injury has been inflicted.
He had observed, “There is a growing tendency to come out with inflated and exaggerated allegations roping in each and every relation of the husband and if one happens to be of higher status or of vulnerable standing, then he or she becomes an easy prey for blackmailing and bargaining.” Some suggestions of the judge are:
Such cases should be investigated by civil authorities, and cognisance taken only after findings. Only police officer above the rank of ACP should investigate harassment and misappropriation of items. A DCP should investigate dowry death cases.
When minor, schoolchildren are named, they should not be arrested or sent to court.