Author: Kritika Prakash, a student at Government Law College, Mumbai

Violence against women in marriage by their husbands and in-laws has been common in India. It initiates, usually, from dowry demands leading to violence, threats, and other torturous measures to feed their greed. Initially, dowry used to be called ‘stridhan’ and they were the gifts that were given by the Bride’s family to the bride for her usage. There are many theories and historical books that claim different stories as to the shift of ‘stridhan’ as a gesture to a heinous crime. Most believe that by the time of the medieval age in India, the groom’s family had started to use ‘gifts’ as a stringent way to get more and more money from the side of the bride. But, if we go legally, British restrictions on women’s proprietary rights paved the way for it. There are several acts that protect women, especially married women from such acts of violence and torture. One of which is Section 498A. 

Section 498A of the Indian penal code states that anybody who is a husband or the relative of the husband of a woman and subjects the woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. Now, the ‘cruelty’ in this scenario is wide which includes any sort of conduct that will cause the woman to harm herself or commit suicide or cause danger to her life, mental or physical health of the woman. It also comprises any sort of harassment that is inflicted upon the woman or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand. Considering the seriousness and intensity of the crimes that come under this section, it is made cognizable i.e the police can arrest without a warrant, non-bailable i.e the bail can be refused and the accused can be sent to court or police custody without a bail hearing, non-compoundable i.e the case cannot be withdrawn.

Recently on 30th May 2024, Kerala High Court made a statement on section 498A of the Indian Penal Court regarding the misuse that takes place in such cases. Justice A. Badharudeen in the case of Shyamala Bhasker v. State of Kerala made this statement and emphasized the necessity of meticulous proceedings to make sure that a family is not being defamed because of some hidden agenda from the side of the complainant as could be gaged from this case. Shyamala Bhaskar was one of the accused, allegations against whom were quashed by the high court based on  ‘vagueness’ and ‘insufficient evidence’. It was observed that in a lot of similar cases, the only reason for such accusations on families is to defame and involve them in criminal charges.

Well, it is not an unknown fact that in marital disputes, women do file cases against their in-laws in order to cause disturbances, seek vengeance, etc. There are many women who have sought justice in legitimate cases under this section, but there are also women who use such protective legal measures as a tool against their in-laws to blackmail them into agreeing to the women’s demands. Since the offenses under section 498A are cognizable, it further poses problems for those families who have been falsely accused.  In 2023, the Madras High Court made a similar observation in the case of Rajan v. State of M.P., wherein, the respondent (wife) claimed that after her husband had moved to Australia because her parents could not meet the dowry demands, the in-laws evicted the respondent from the house. The court, though, noticed that the FIR was done after a year of this misbehavior with the respondent and was filed in Indore where neither the respondent nor the petitioner (husband) resided. Another fact that presented itself in the court was that the respondent i.e. the wife was settled in Australia with the husband and had given the power of attorney to her father. The court stated, “This is now a case of reverse cruelty upon them.” Considering all the facts of the case, it was held that the FIR was filed to cause undue harassment on the parents of the petitioner. 

Analogous misuse has been observed in many cases. In the case of Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, the husband was accused of asking for dowry and evicting the wife for non-fulfillment of the same. The accused was arrested and was also denied anticipatory bail in Sessions Court as well as in the High Court. When the Supreme Court came into the picture, it was noticed that the accused was arrested under Section 498A of IPC and Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 on mere allegations. This case served as a landmark judgment for misuse of section 498A and the Supreme Court, too, emphasized not arresting individuals without doing a satisfactory investigation. Some guidelines for such arrests were issued. 

In another case, Sushil Kumar Sharma v. Union of India & Ors, a writ petition was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution which states that It is a fundamental right that individuals have the right to approach the Supreme Court seeking enforcement of other fundamental rights recognized by the Constitution. The petitioner also argued that section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code 1860 is exploited and misused in numerous ways. He pleaded in the court that these provisions are unconstitutional and infringe on the rights of the accused individuals who get arrested on mere FIR. Not only that, but the petitioner asked to create provisions for strict actions against the misuse of the same. The Supreme Court stated that these provisions were brought because cases of brutality against women were increasing day-by-day leading to even deaths and suicides but agreed that investigating authorities should be meticulous with such cases and work with some evidence before acting on the allegations. 

There is no denying that the cases of cruelty against women are not to be taken lightly. Without strictness and swift actions, the victim will be subject to a lot of danger. If these offenses are made non-cognizable, non-bailable then the victim may even get murdered or her family may be tortured with endless possibilities of cruelty against them. If the offenses are made compoundable, then the accused families will never let the victims speak up for themselves leading to more brutality. Naturally, the fake victims will also use the compoundable offense as a way to blackmail falsely accused families.

In the case of Manav Adhikar v. Union of India, again a petition was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution. The petitioners argued that it is to be acknowledged that a lot of married women suffer from cruelty at the hands of their in-laws and any amount of misuse does not undermine their problems. It was further contended that the main objective behind the stringentness of these provisions was to protect women from such abuse that may arise if we give leeway to the accused individuals. Said provisions and offenses are becoming bailable day-by-day, henceforth, ruining the purpose for which it was made. The court took the decision in favor of the petitioner but this leaves us with a question. How can we prevent misuse of section 498A without compromising on the protection of the women who were victims of such brutality?

 Presenting guidelines that ease the strictness on the accused individuals will put the victims in potential danger. If the police waited enough to seek warrants, then the victims will be put at risk which defeats the purpose of such protection. But, if steps are taken on just allegations and innocent people are falsely accused, then the legal structure itself will be inefficient in rendering justice. Calling this ‘legal terrorism’, as has been labeled by the Kolkata High Court, would not be wrong in any sense.

There are certain protections available against Section 498A in case of misuse of the same. There are provisions to file an anticipatory bail if the accused person feels, they have been arrested on false allegations. A person can also appeal in the High Court to quash the FIR if it is based on lies and tricks. The accused family also holds the right to file a case of defamation against the wife. These protections that are granted to the accused individuals can only protect them from not being held guilty in a court of law. However, it does not prevent the harassment that the family may go through after being falsely accused and arrested. There is no denying the fact that even the protection available may not work as it is supposed to and there may be abuse involved in that too.

Naturally, as stated in the judgment of Sushil Kumar Sharma vs. Union Of India and Ors., the mere possibility of abuse of law does not invalidate the legislation. But, it is also the duty of the legislation to protect against such abuse. The only way these scenarios can be helped is by constituting laws that are strict and making sure that proper procedure is followed before arresting an individual in order to protect the legal system from misuse.


Who can file a complaint under Section 498A?

Any married woman who is going through harassment for dowry or is being subjected to violence and cruelty by her husband or the relatives of the husband. 

Can a case be filed for demanding only dowry even though no abuse or harassment has been done?

Yes a case can be filed under Dowry Prohibition Act of 1986 which criminalizes giving and taking dowry

Is the accused in the cases of Section 498A arrested instantly?

No. Due investigation is required before making any arrests. 

What is the police procedure for arresting in cases of Section 498a?

The accused is ordered to join the investigation and a notice is sent under CrPC 41(A). If the accused is not cooperating, custodial interrogation is initiated and permission is taken from the concerned DCP for the arrest of that person.


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