Dowry is a big social evil, unfortunately, still prevalent in the Indian society. Dowry is the property and money that a bride brings to her husband’s house at the time of her marriage. Although dowry was legally prohibited in 1961 in India, it continues to be practiced throughout the country, particularly in the rural areas and smaller cities. The husband’s family makes demands for dowry from the bride’s family such as large sums of money, furniture, jewelry, vehicles and so on. When the dowry is not considered sufficient or is not forthcoming, the bride is often harassed, abused, or threatened and in severe cases, even burnt to death.
In an effort to combat this social evil, the Dowry Prohibition Act was introduced in 1961 which prohibits presenting, demanding or obtaining dowry by either party to the marriage. Further, in 1983, Section 498A was introduced in the criminal law of India – the Indian Penal Coode 1860 (IPC). Section 498A of the IPC makes ‘cruelty by husband or relatives of husband’ a cognizable and non-bailable offence and includes within its purview dowry related harassment of the wife. Under this section, the wife can bring charges for any dowry related abuse or harassment suffered by her. Once the wife or any of her relatives filed a complaint, the police had no option but to proceed to arrest the accused. While Section 498A was enacted with all intents and purposes to prevent cruelty to women, it is a double edged sword. This section has often times, been misused by disgruntled wives to harass their husbands and in laws.
The Supreme Court of India has now put an end to the “automatic arrest” resulting out of Section 498A complaints. On July 27, 2017 (Rajesh Sharma & Others v. State of U.P. & Another), the apex court held that no arrest can be made or coercive action taken on a complaint under Section 498A of the IPC without verifying the allegations. The Court reasoned that many such 498A complaints are frivolous and not bona fide and any uncalled for arrest may ruin the chances of settlement between the parties. Per the Court’s ruling, every 498A complaint will have to be referred to Family Welfare Committees – to be constituted at every district; no arrest of the husband and/or his family members can be made until report of such committee is received. The Court has also directed for the appointment of a designated police officer to deal with these complaints.
Zeenat Phophalia, Esq., Senior Associate