Social evils and the law!
22 Aug, 2010
The Supreme Court’s diktat (?) to the government to take a re-look at the anti-dowry law - Section 498A of Indian Penal Code—on the grounds that it is increasingly being misused by women to lodge false complaints against husbands and their relatives brings to the fore the central dilemma in laws seeking to remedy social evils. How does one achieve the fine balance between meeting desired goals without going overboard so that legitimate rights are not trampled upon? In the context of laws against dowry, and more importantly dowry deaths, how can the state ensure that women who are ill-treated on account of un-fulfilled dowry demands receive the protection they deserve without going to the other extreme and risking its misuse so that innocent parties are denied due protection under the law.
Expressing concern over ‘a large number of complaints that are not bona fide’, the Court observed it is a ‘Herculean task’ to find out the truth in a majority of the complaints and urged the legislature to make suitable changes in the law after taking into account public opinion. Even if one were to take the Court’s statement about exaggerated complaints with a pinch of salt - remember the same apex court (but a different bench) had not long ago held that a husband and his relatives cannot be prosecuted for ‘cruelty’ towards the wife merely because the mother-in-law or other family members had kicked her – the fact is the laws, as they stand today, leave considerable scope for abuse.
The central question, therefore, is how does one reconcile the cardinal principle of our system of common law jurisprudence - ‘better that ten guilty escape than that one innocent suffer’ – without sacrificing the progress that has been made (thanks to such laws) in fighting a social evil like dowry?
To be sure, dowry deaths have not disappeared. On the contrary! According to data complied by the National Crime Records Bureau, 2,276 women committed suicide following dowry disputes in 2006. Even if this number is juxtaposed against increased reporting of such incidents, that’s an average of six dowry-deaths a day! A notorious statistic for a country that claims to be an emerging economic giant!
So while it would be naïve to dismiss the contribution made by Section 498 (A) (cruelty to a woman by her husband/his relatives) and Section 304 B (dowry death) of the Indian Penal Code, given the rampant misuse of the law it is time to do some serious thinking on the changes required to retain the essence of these laws while reducing the scope for their misuse.
Today, for instance, all that is required to attract section 304-B is that the woman’s death must have occurred within seven years of her marriage, in other-than-normal circumstances. Suicide due to harassment by in-laws for non fulfilment of dowry demands amounts to death under non-natural circumstances. It is not necessary to produce direct evidence.