Punish misuse

Misuse of dowry harassment laws sees to be assuming worrying proportions. According to a study by Bangalore-based women’s helpline, Vanitha Sahayavani, most complaints of dowry harassment lodged with the helpline are unfounded. Of the 92 harassment complaints filed with the helpline in November 2013, it found that just 20, allegations had substance.

Studies in other parts of the country have revealed a similar trend. It appears that urban middle and upper-middle class Indians are using the anti-dowry law as a weapon against their husbands to settle scores, teach them a lesson, opt out of marriage, pressure them into forking out more alimony, etc. Enacted in 1983 amid growing concern over bride-burnings and dowry-related murders in the country, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code deals with ‘cruelty’ meted out to a woman by her husband and his relatives over demands for dowry.

This is a stringent law, which allows the police to arrest without a warrant and even before an investigation, the accused named in a complaint. Offences under this law are non-bailable, and conviction could mean a prison term of up to three years. Section 498A has empowered women to act to protect themselves in the event of dowry harassment. Its timely use prevented thousands of dowry-related murders. 

Its misuse is therefore unfortunate. When unfounded complaints are filed, the accused – this often includes aged parents of the husband and other relatives – suffer undeserved jail time and public humiliation. This law’s misuse has prompted calls its dilution. In 2010, the Supreme Court called on the government to relook the law and the Law Commission is said to be considering making dowry harassment a bailable and compoundable offence.

The government must think through the consequences of some of these amendments. The dowry problem persists in the country and number of dowry deaths has grown. In the circumstances, dilution of the dowry harassment law could render women helpless again. Making dowry harassment a bailable offence will enable the accused to tamper with evidence and to pressure witnesses. A stringent dowry law therefore continues to be relevant in our society. However, steps to prevent misuse have become necessary. The government should consider stern punishment for those who misuse this law or who file complaints on flimsy grounds. Misuse may be difficult to establish but it must be clearly defined in an amended law.

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