Wednesday, July 16, 2008
A round table organised by the Ministry for Women and Child Development and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) on building partnerships with men towards women’s empowerment and gender equality had an ironic interruption from a group of men claiming to be victims of Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which relates to dowry harassment. Demanding that they be heard by Union Minister Renuka Chowdhury, they shouted slogans within the premises of the India Islamic Centre where the conference was being held.
The protesters, wearing black badges, represented organisations such as the Save Family Foundation, the Delhi Pariwarik Suraksha Samiti, the Lucknow-based Pati Pariwar Kalyan Samiti and the Kolkata-based Bharat Bachao Sangathan. They demanded that the existing law be redrafted since, according to them, their families, including women, had been arrested by the police on false charges of taking dowry – all under the garb of implementing Section 498A. Under this section, the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty was liable to be punished with imprisonment up to three years and a fine.
The Minister, who was livid at first with the representatives for attempting to disrupt the meeting and for making derogatory remarks about women in government positions, later gave them a hearing; she, however, declined to interfere with the law as it existed, arguing that the law did not discriminate, nor was it designed to be misused.
This is not the first time that a clamour has been kicked up over Section 498 A. And the protests are not confined to Delhi. They have become more strident in the recent past with several organisations, having websites of their own, actively campaigning against the law. One such website is http://www.498a.org/ dedicated to the fight against the dowry law. The Save Indian Family Foundation also makes similar campaigns against the law
From the experience of women’s organisations, the few cases of misuse that may have occurred are an exception rather than the rule. Women’s organisations that have been dealing with violence over the years believe that had the law been actually put to good use, there would be fewer instances of harassment of and violence against women over dowry and fewer dowry deaths. They feel the unabated violence in the name of dowry continues because dowry prohibition laws have not been very effective. It was surprising that the Minister even agreed to meet representatives of anti-dowry law organisations, especially as statistics, national as well as State-wise, show an escalation in the demand for dowry and in dowry-related violence and deaths. Crime records from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the National Commission for Women (NCW) and several research studies on domestic violence show that, if anything, cruelty towards women in India on account of dowry demands has gone up in the past two decades. It is a well-known fact that the increasing desire for a male child and the rejection of the girl child in the womb itself and the consequent female foeticide, which has contributed to the adverse child sex ratio in the country, have a lot to do with the burgeoning demand for dowry.
However, the immediate factor that fuelled the demand from these outfits is an order passed by Y.S. Dadwal, the Chief Police Commissioner of Delhi. On June 22, Dadwal issued a circular stating that no arrests would be made in cases of alleged dowry harassment without prior investigation, in order to prevent misuse of the anti-dowry law. No arrests, he said, would be made under Section 498A (matrimonial cruelty) without the prior written approval of the area Deputy Commissioner of Police. As per the circular,
The list of complaints received by the Delhi Police in 2007 had around 4,400 distress calls made to various police stations, of which 25 per cent pertained to domestic violence and about 17.42 per cent related to rape and sexual assault. The circular also coincided with the results of a survey conducted by a research organisation, which showed that 6 per cent of the complaints in cases of dowry harassment were aimed at settling scores and getting even with the in-laws. This meant that 94 per cent of the cases were genuine.
Sahba Farooqi, general secretary of AIDWA’s Delhi unit, said that each DCP wanted fewer cases in his area of jurisdiction. Hence, she said, getting a complaint registered under 498A was a monumental task . “Every week, we get four or five dowry harassment cases. The women come to us after being turned away by the police,” she said, quoting a recent case where a Delhi resident had been told by the city police to file her complaint in Gurgaon, Haryana, because her matrimonial home was there. She said that the efforts of the Crime Against Women Cells were more towards reconciliation rather than in taking any serious cognisance of the complaints made. Often the women are persuaded to drop their complaints.
Between 2004 and 2007, complaints of dowry harassment constituted the bulk of the complaints received by the NCW. A substantial increase in dowry harassment cases was observed in each passing year; a fairly large number of the cases reported police apathy.
The NCRB in its crime data for the year 2006 recorded an almost 12 per cent increase in cases of dowry death (Sections 302/304B, IPC), 8.2 per cent increase in torture incidents (Section 498A) and a 40.6 per cent increase in cases registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act in 2006 over 2005. These figures do not in any way show that there has been a decline in cases of dowry harassment.
It was after a long and protracted struggle by women’s organisations that the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, was amended and new sections on cruelty and dowry-related murder were inserted in the IPC in 1983. The definition of cruelty was widened to include not only harassment relating to dowry but also other kinds of domestic violence. With the passage of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, women’s organisations have seen more and more women come out of the closet to register complaints of violence and abuse.