Sunday, July 6, 2014

Boon or bane? Kolkata can't agree on 498A

Boon or bane? Kolkata can't agree on 498A
As by TNN | Jul 5, 2014, 02.33AM IST

KOLKATA: The Supreme Court verdict on Section 498A that police have to investigate before arresting the accused has sparked a debate in Kolkata. While women's rights groups fear it might weaken battered wives' only remedy against abuse and torture, legal experts feel it will help prevent misuse of the law and make it more balanced.

Bengal is a lab case for Section 498A a whopping 29,800 cases were registered in the state 2013, but led to only 2.3% convictions. This has been the trend for the last few years.

These figures indicate that an alteration was necessary, lawyer Shekhar Bose says. "In 80% of the registered complaints, the charges are fabricated or exaggerated. There have been numerous instances where members of the husband's family, who live abroad or in other cities, have been arrested. Such a law cannot exist without an amendment," Bose said.

Lawyer Jayanta Chatterjee remarked that the vast majority of complainants were from urban areas, where many case were lodged by women "to teach their husbands and in-laws a lesson". "Thousands of women in rural interiors, who face genuine abuse, neither know about the law nor have access to police and lawyers," he pointed out, adding: "We need Section 498A for women who are abused and tortured. But we also need to make sure that it's not misused. False complaints are lodged too often, leading to family break-ups. Eventually, it's not just the husband who suffers in such cases, but also the wife. This provision for an enquiry will help stop that."

However, State Women's Commission chairperson Sunanda Mukherjee doesn't agree that misuse is reason enough to alter the law. The provision for enquiry shuts the door on women seeking justice, she argues. "Every law is liable to be misused. People are wrongly charged for murder under Section 302. So, do we stop punishing murderers?" she asked.

A law which is yet to be used by majority of victims can't be said to have been misused, she pointed out. "Section 498A is not yet accessible to thousands of women in marginalized sections who are abused, tortured and thrown out of their homes. Yes, it has been misused by some women in cities, but that can't justify this alteration which makes the law ineffective. We all know that left to them, police won't make any effort to arrest even a genuine offender. They could be bribed to scrap or fudge an enquiry. More importantly, how can you find evidence for psychological torture, which is very important in Section 498A?" she asks.

Former women's commission member Bharati Mutsuddi sees it as a major setback for women's rights. "Women are now at the mercy of police and administration, which were always insensitive to them. Section 498A was the only major weapon women had against marital abuse and it's now taken away. The law was the result of a long struggle for justice. All that effort and struggle now goes down the drain," she said.

Author Suchitra Bhattacharya felt it was better to make some investigation before arresting the accused. "I know many cases, particularly in urban areas, where the women take advantage of this law. They make false allegations and the in-laws have to suffer," she said.

Lawyer Sudipa Bhattacharya felt the alteration will make it a more balanced law, but the poor and marginalized could suffer. "It will be difficult for poor, illiterate women in our villages to get police to act," she said.

Bose argues that it is too early to conclude that the law has turned impotent and that police will be biased against women. "First, it remains a non-bailable section which means the law is strong enough. An offender, if found guilty, will face the same stringent penalties. It will be hasty to assume that police will allow offenders to go scot-free. Let us give the new law a fair run for it is a far more balanced and fair one," said Bose.

Mahua Bhattacharjee of Parash Pathar, an organization that fights for 498A "victims" across the country, said: "This is a great relief against misuse of the dowry law which has left as many victims as it has secured the fate of women against dowry atrocity." Many grey areas still exist, she remarked. "Since it is non-cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable, a 498A case cannot be withdrawn by the complainant. I know a couple, who are still fighting the 498A case years after their differences were resolved."

But why does Bengal top the list of 498A cases? "It is because of changing values of Bengali women. There is great deal of disharmony in families with saas-bahu relations. The daughter-in-law files a 498A complaint to teach her husband and mother-in-law a lesson, but eventually the complaint turns out to be too costly for both parties," said Bhattacharjee.

Sourav Ganguly, a lawyer with an expertise in handling 498A cases, said, It is a common practice by the prosecution specially in this part of the country that an accused is forwarded before a Magistrate along with a document commonly known as the ?Forwarding Report', while dealing with the question of detaining the accused for a period of more than 24 hours only deals with the forwarding report, the written complaint, the formal F.I.R prepared by the Police, the arrest memo, medical report of the accused and some times with the seizure list if supplied by the prosecution.

After this apex court judgment, the magistrate has to apply his judicial mind to determine whether the circumstance justify detention of the accused in police custody. Police custody being an infringement of liberty should not be ordered as a matter of course as the law has for his protection provided for the compulsory production of a person before a Magistrate either 24 hours of his arrest and this constitutional right has been given "to prevent arrest and detention with a view to extract confession" and "to afford an early recourse to a judicial officer independent of the police on all questions of bail or discharge [30 CWN 985]. Section 167 Cr.P.C. has given him full discretion to order detention in such custody as the Magistrate thinks fit but if detention in police custody is ordered, he must record his reasons U/s 167 (3) Cr.P.C.

It will also prevent marital splits on flimsy grounds, the latter argued.


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