Section 498 A of Indian Penal Code was introduced by Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act of 1983, which came into force with effect from 25th December 1983. This section reflects the anxiety to extend protection to the weaker spouse. Let us see what Section 498 A speaks about;
"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".
For the purpose of this section, "Cruelty" means- (a) Any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether physical or mental) of the woman; or (b) Harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any lawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.
The perusal of clause (a) would show that the prosecution has to establish firstly the wilful conduct of the offender, secondly that then nature of such conduct was likely to drive a woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether physical or mental). On proof of these facts to the satisfaction of the Court under the circumastances of a particular case the husband or the relatives of the husband shall be presumed to have treated the woman with cruelty.
Clause (b) of the above mentioned explanation shows that the harassment with a view to coercing her or any person related to her meet any unlawful demand for property or valuable security or on account of the failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand would amount to cruelty for the purpose of Section 498 A of IPC.
Some State High Courts have held that where the parties were living like husband and wife, Section 498-A would be attracted.
The expression "cruelty" takes within its sweep both mental and physical agony and torture. The concept of "cruelty" varies from place to place and individual and according to the social and economic status of the person involved. To decide the question of cruelty the relevant factors are the matrimonial relationship between the husband and wife, their cultural background and temperment, status in life, status of health, their interaction in their daily life, which dominate the aspect of cruelty.
Though the provision covers both physical as well as mental cruelty, each and every harassment is not cruelty. The harassment has to be with the object to coerce the woman or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demnad. In order to come into the ambit of cruelty under clause (b) by husband, the harassment must be to extract money unlawfully from the woman by the man. Unless this is proved, no offence under Section 498 A can be alleged to have been committed.
The word harassment has not been defined in Section 498-A of IPC. The meaning of the word "harass" in the Webster's Dictionary reads thus: "to subject someone to continuos vexatious attacks, questions, demands or other unpleasantness".
How is it misused?
There and several cases that have raised a debate on whether the stringent and well meaning provisions of the laws governing dowry and cruelty against women were actually being increasingly misused to settle scores.
``Husbands and their families are harassed by the stringent and outdated Dowry Act as majority of the cases these days are either exaggerated claims or are simply fabricated. This results in endless mental torture to the boy's family who have no way out,'' says Neena Tiwari, president of an NGO, Nari Jagriti Manch, which has started ``crime against men'' cell five months ago to provide counselling to the `suffering' husbands.
More and more `victims' coming for advice and counselling suggests there is an upward trend of men searching for an outlet to give vent to their harassment. The NGO had received about 50 such complaints in the first month of its operation and since then month after month these complaints are piling up.
``The law is certainly one sided and its exploitation by the girl and her family is rampant,'' says Rajinder Kumar Singla, a high court lawyer. The reason behind this abuse is ``to teach a lesson to the husband's entire family.'' He says that the problem of abuse worsens because of the fact that the FIR is registered on the prima facie evidence wherein it becomes easy to rope in anyone whom the girls accuse. There is little that the accused can do to prove their innocence, he adds.
The lawyers and social activists say generally the quarrels begin from minor adjustment problems in the matrimonial relationship which are given shape of dowry and torture because of the strict repercussions in form of issuing of non bailable warrants.
``In a modern society women have become quite advanced and the definition of cruelty as in Section 498 of the IPC is diluted. It is quite common for trivial matters to be flared up and the law is abused,'' said Deepali Puri, a city-based lawyer.
The legal experts and social activists are one in suggesting that in today's social set up where things have drastically changed, the real solution lies in being tolerant and making an effort to make adjustments in a relationship. But young couples are finding this the toughest thing to do.
Says Madhu Anil, a social activist, ``Egos have to be contained by both the spouses otherwise this upward trend of the Dowry Act abuse will continue.'' ---- the information was published in Times of India (TOI), the leading National News Daily. Here's the link to the article from TOI.
What say you?