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The abuse of dowry harassment law (Section 498A of IPC)
Jul 31, 2017

[GS Paper I: (Salient features of Indian Society; Role of women and women's organization)]

Why in News?

The Supreme Court has asked for setting up of ‘family welfare committees’ in all districts to act as a vanguard against frivolous complaints of dowry harassment in their localities.

  • These ‘family welfare committees’ will be set up in all districts under the aegis of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA).
  • These committees will sift the genuine cases from the trivial ones and no suspect shall be arrested in a dowry case immediately after a complaint is registered.
  • Police and the courts will have to wait for the committee’s inquiry report. 
  • The SC Bench said Section 498A (dowry harassment) of the IPC had come under much abuse and dowry complaints were being filed in the heat of the moment over trivial issues.

Family Welfare Committees

  • The three-member family welfare committees will be set up by the district legal services authorities. 
  • Members can be appointed from para legal volunteers, social workers, retired persons, “wives of working officers” and other citizens.
  • Every complaint received by the police and the Magistrate will be passed on to the local committee, which will enquire into the genuineness of the complaint and file a report with the police official or Magistrate concerned within a month. 
  • The committee can directly get in touch with the parties involved, but the members will not be called as witnesses in case there is a trial.
  • Till the report of the committee is received, no arrest should normally be effected.
  • Trial judges should close Section 498A cases based on matrimonial disputes once parties reached a settlement. Also, bail should be given the same day on which a complaint is lodged under Section 498A.

A much needed course correction

  • To contain violence against women within the family, the operation of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code automatically presumed the complainant to be an innocent victim. 
  • This progressive discrimination in favour of females was deemed necessary in a country which recorded a dowry death every hour, on average, and where violence against women has been regarded as normal. 
  • However, both the Supreme Court and the Women and Child Development Ministry have acknowledged that the law has been misused too often to be ignored, and moved to ensure that innocent men and their relations are spared the threat of summary arrest. 
  • The apex court has now issued fresh guidelines prohibiting the immediate arrest of family members, except in cases involving physical injury or death. 
  • While the working of Section 498A was tilted in favour of women as a progressive intervention, a course correction is seen to be required in the interest of equality before the law and the prevalence of misuse, which is reflected in the data of the National Crime Records Bureau — less than one in five chargesheets filed has resulted in conviction. 
  • The law must retain its progressive bias in favour of wronged women, without inadvertently wronging men. In practice, it will prove to be a tough balancing act — an impossible feat in the absence of progressive change in societal mindset where women are still made to feel inferior to men at every step.


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