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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code refers to a woman's husband or a relative of her husband subjecting her to cruelty.
  • In a recent case before the Hon'ble Supreme Court, it was held that advising a wife to adjust to avoid retaliation from her husband cannot be construed as cruelty under Section 498A of the IPC.
  • Further, it was also observed by the Hon’ble Court that, taking custody of the jewelry for the sake of safekeeping does not fall under the purview of section 498A of the IPC.

INTRODUCTION

In India, incidences of women being abused by their husbands or in-laws are prevalent, and the number of such cases are increasing at an alarming rate. Thus, a nation’s penal code must not only offer legal provisions but also ensure that the victim is treated fairly. The provision of section 498A, "Of Cruelty by Husband or Relatives of Husband," was enacted with this objective in mind. Further, the purpose of introducing this amendment was to penalize husbands and their relatives who abuse or harass their wives to coerce her, or anybody associated with her to meet any unlawful demands or drive her to commit suicide.

The provision of Section 498A IPC, 1860 instilled some hope and optimism in the hearts of women and their families at the time of its introduction because it was seen as an 'armour' to combat the brutality of male members of society. Unfortunately, with time, it became clear that the provision of Section 498A IPC, 1860 left a host of loopholes that seemed to become a powerful 'weapon' if it fell into evil hands. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to examine the concept of cruelty to women with recent case laws and instances in which this section has been abused.

LEGAL PROVISION

Before comprehending the concept of cruelty, it is necessary to consider the jurisprudence that shaped the provision. Earlier, cruelty against women in marriage, as well as other acts related to it, made it difficult to prosecute the accused and proving their guilt was also difficult. The main reason for this was that the majority of women suffered in silence. The violence, sometimes took such severe formthatit became excruciating for women, leaving them with no choice but to commit suicide.

On seeing, the rising number of cases of violence against women, as well as bride-burning, it had become a source of concern, and it was felt that general offenses such as assault, grievous bodily harm, homicide, and other similar offenses would not be adequate to deal with such cases because such offenses must be stringent to control atrocities against women and to have a deterrent effect. Hence, the purpose of including this clause in the IPC as stated was to prohibit torture of a married lady by her husband or his relatives, as well as to penalize them for making unlawful demands such as dowry.

Thus, Section 498A deals with the provision of cruelty to a woman by a husband or his relatives. It stipulates that if the husband or a relative commits an act of cruelty against a woman, he will be sentenced to three years in prison which can be extended as well as be liable to pay a fine. Cruelty involves both physical and mental torment inflicted on a woman by her husband or relatives.

The term "cruelty" has been given a broader definition in the section's Explanation clause, to include:

(a) any wilful conduct that is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide, or to cause a grave injury or danger to her life, limb, or mental or physical health, or

(b) harassment of the woman with the intent of coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand.

Two important points need to be made a note of here; firstly, the term 'wilful conduct,' as defined in Explanation (a) of Section 498A, refers to intentional behavior, and the proof of wilful behavioris thus based on both direct and indirect evidence. Secondly, Section 498A does not include all of the regulations concerning Cruelty in Marriage. Therefore, according to Section 304-B, if a woman dies as a consequence of burns or bodily harm during seven years of her marriage, and she was the victim of cruelty perpetrated by her husband or his relatives for the demand of dowry before her death, her death is referred to as "dowry death." The punishment prescribed is imprisonment for not less than seven years, with the possibility of being increased to life imprisonment.

It is also worth noting here under section 304-B that a demand for money by the in-laws on account of a financial emergency or to cover some domestic expenses is not the same as a dowry demand. Thus, this cannot be misunderstood to mean that a demand for money or property in the event of financial hardship is a demand for dowry, and this must be understood in the context of the facts at hand.

Apart from that, the other question that arises is whether a person can be punished for cruelty and dowry at the same time and wouldn’t that amount to double jeopardy. This was answered in the case of Inder Raj Malik vs. Sunita Malik (1986), where the court had to decide whether a person may be found guilty under both Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act and Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. The Court concluded that a person can be convicted under both Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1956, and Section 498A of the IPC without facing double jeopardy. The Court held that Section 498A of the IPC and Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act are distinct from one another because Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act punishes the mere demand of dowry, but Section 498A punishes cruelty to a married lady.

JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS

Before referring to the various landmark judgments on the concept of cruelty, a brief analysis of Section 498A reveals that the term 'cruelty' encompasses the following act(s):

  1. any intentional behavior that could lead to a woman's suicide or put her life, limb, or life in jeopardy;
  2. a woman's mental or physical wellness;
  3. Harassment of a woman in the event of such harassment to compel her or any other person associated with her to comply with an illegal requirement for property or valued security.

To begin with, in the case of B.S Joshi v. State of Haryana (2003), the Supreme Court determined that the purpose of enacting this law was to prohibit a lady from being tortured by her husband or his relatives. Section 498-A was added to punish the husband as well as his family who harass the wife to satisfy illegal dowry demands. However, when cross-investigations were conducted to examine the legality of this legislation, the number of acquittals was higher than the number of convictions. As a result, the Supreme Court, which enacted 498A intending to protect women from cruelty, now views it as legal terrorism. Because its actual credibility is harmed by the exploitation of Section 498A.

Section 498A was added to punish cruelty perpetrated against a woman by a husband or his relatives; however, it appears that the provision has been widely abused. The case of Sushil Kumar Sharma vs. Union of India (2005), addressed this point, stating that the purpose of adopting section 498A was to reduce the rising number of dowry deaths, which was a major worry. In certain circumstances, the abuse of the spouse and his relatives can lead to the woman's suicide or murder. As a result, it was recommended to alter the IPC, CrPC, and Evidence Act to properly deal not just with dowry deaths, but also with cases of cruelty to married women by husbands, in-laws, and others.

In the case of Manju Ram Kalita v. State of Assam (2009), it was decided that "cruelty" for Section 498-A IPC must be determined in the context of Section 498-A IPC because it may differ from other legislative provisions. It should be evaluated by looking at the man's behavior, measuring the intensity or significance of his actions, and determining whether or not it is likely to push the woman to commit suicide, among other things. It must be proven that the lady has been subjected to cruelty continuously, or at the very least in the time leading up to the filing of the complaint. The Court went on to say, petty quarrels cannot be classified as "cruelty" under Section 498-A of the IPC.

Further, in the case of Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar (2014),The court stated that because Section 498A IPC is a cognizable and non-bailable offense, unhappy wives frequently utilize it as a weapon rather than a shield. Therefore, the Court established certain standards that a police officer must follow when making an arrest under Section 498A of IPC or Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, and that such an arrest must be founded on a reasonable belief in the allegation's veracity. Furthermore, even Magistrates must be cautious about authorizing detention on the spur of the moment.

The Bombay High Court declared in State of Maharashtra vs Vijay Dhondiram Shinde & Ors (2018) that asking a woman to cook or do household tasks correctly does not constitute cruelty under section 498A. Similarly in another case titled Ranjith P.C. v. Asha Nair. P (2020), the court stated that "no family is completely free of conflicts among its members." It is typical for elders to reprimand and sometimes abuse children, and a mother-in-law forcing her daughter-in-law to do domestic chores is not unusual."

Apart from the above cases, the case of Deepak Sharma v. State of Haryana and Others (2022) is a recent one that is worth mentioning under the concept of the cruelty of Section 498-A of IPC. According to the facts of the case, the plaintiff had filed a dowry harassment complaint against her husband and her in-laws after they moved to India. Later, an interim order prohibiting them from leaving India was issued by the court. The brother-in-law filed a complaint with the Punjab and Haryana High Court, claiming that there was no accusation of value against him, but the case was dismissed. He appealed to the Supreme Court, expressing his dissatisfaction with the ruling. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling, finding that neither the husband nor his parents had committed any acts of cruelty or other wrongdoing. The Court noted that the only charge leveled against the brother-in-law is a vague accusation that he and his mother kept her jewellery. It further noted that the appellant was not accused of forcibly removing and misappropriating the jewels, or of refusing to return them upon the complainant's request. As a result, just taking custody of the jewellery for safekeeping does not fall under section 498A of the IPC.

RECOVERY IN CASE OF FALSE ACCUSATIONS

In the scenario when the wife has made false accusations against the husband, and he has proven himself to be innocent in the eyes of the law. He can contest the case of being abused under section 498A of IPC. The Indian government and judiciary continue to include provisions to safeguard women, and men are not exempt from the law. Injustice continues to be prioritized over justice. As a result, men whose reputations have been tarnished by false claims can seek legal redress and protection against Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code under the following provisions:

  1. The husband can launch a defamation lawsuit under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
  2. The husband can submit a claim for damages suffered by him and his family as a result of false charges of cruelty and abuse under Section 9 of the CPC.
  3. Section 182 of the IPC is one of the most extensively used safeguards against fraudulent 498A charges. If the authority believes the claims were erroneous, the offender is punished to 6 months in prison or a fine, or both, under Section 182 of the IPC. The individual will be charged with providing false information to the judiciary.

CONCLUSION

To put it in a nutshell, women in India's patriarchal society have undoubtedly been subjected to terrible treatment by their husbands and in-laws and these types of behaviors are illegal and have rightly been addressed under section 498A, but we still see a lot of cases where women commit suicide as a result of their husband's and his family's brutal treatment, whether it's for the demand of dowry or something else. Moreover, the phrase 'cruelty,' as used in section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, has not been clearly defined and has been established in several situations that the term 'cruelty,' cannot be reduced to a formula particularly. It depends on the case's facts and circumstances. Therefore, it is also difficult for our legislators to include all types of acts under the term cruelty and to fit this into a restrained manner because an act can be cruel for one person but not for another.


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