Review of 498A cases could help
The Supreme Court’s observation that the Centre should reassess the stringent provisions of section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) can be welcomed only ambivalently. While many of the cases filed under it involve misuse of the provisions, it is also necessary to recall why the special section was introduced in the first place: the innumerable cases of dowry harassment and deaths of young women across the social strata. When dowry-related oppression assumed epidemic proportions, many women sought — and got — draconian penal provisions. Unfortunately, there is as yet no study to show that 498A has helped curb this menace or reduced dowry deaths significantly. However, the courts are awash with cases where 498A has been misused by women for ulterior motives. Many women police officers who investigate and prepare dowry harassment cases have confessed to instances of misuse. But the issue is how much misuse has there been? Anecdotal evidence is not enough.
The court’s dilemma is understandable but not unique. It has to unravel the false cases so that innocent persons are not punished. But instances of abuse are not confined to section 498A. In fact, abuse is part and parcel of any special purpose law — whether it is anti-dowry or anti-terrorism or anti-untouchability. To deal with a big problem, the law is often tailored to make it easy for the law-enforcement agencies to nab the guilty, but, in the process, some innocents do suffer. It can be argued that section 498A skips some of the procedural safeguards in its anxiety to avert delays and loopholes in providing succour to victims of dowry harassment. The fact that some provisions are being misused means we need more robust mechanisms to verify the authenticity of complaints, and swift redressal when things go wrong.
There are two sides to the coin. If crimes against women are seen to be a bigger problem than victimisation of unwary men and their families, the law will tilt towards the former. This is the justification for laws like UAPA and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which are draconian in nature. The remedy lies in proving that these laws harm more than they protect.