DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA
It is too early to say whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn was framed by a woman employee of a hotel. It cost him his job as IMF chief and cast a shadow on his ambition to become French president. After prosecutors developed doubts over veracity of the victim’s charges, Kahn got unconditional bail. Will the relief save his image, reputation and political prospects? It is difficult to say but, generally, allegations of sexual assault or exploitation against the rich, powerful and famous are taken to be true.
But the most equipped investigation, able prosecution and hawk-eyed judicial scrutiny sometimes fail to unravel the facts. Actor Shiney Ahuja, who probably would be finding similarities of his case with that of Strauss-Kahn, will agree. The Supreme Court faced an identical dilemma just last year, relating to dowry harassment cases under Section 498A of Indian Penal Code. “It is common knowledge that unfortunately, matrimonial litigation is rapidly increasing in our country… this clearly demonstrates discontent and unrest in the family life of a large number of people of society,” it said.
On the one hand, the law was the social legislation giving women protection against harassment at the hands of the husband and his relatives, who demand more and more dowry. The court was concerned with the rapid rise in such cases. But on the other hand, it was aware that “a large number of such complaints are not bona fide and are filed with oblique motive”.
It admitted, “To find out the truth is a herculean task in a majority of these complaints. The tendency of implicating husband and all his immediate relations is also not uncommon. At times, even after the conclusion of criminal trial, it is difficult to ascertain the real truth.”
The SC wanted a way out of the vicious cycle of litigation that mostly ruins innocent husbands and in-laws, who are falsely roped in, but seldom affects the real perpetrators who exploit loopholes in the system to escape the law.
The court was worried by the overkill of Section 498A. It did not want a socially beneficial legal framework to be turned into a mechanism of legal terrorism. It requested the Law Commission to examine the issue and suggest changes that could help create an ambience where the perpetrators could be adequately punished and at the same time, leave some room for negotiations to arrive at an amicable settlement. The commission invited suggestions from all quarters, including NRIs. And the overwhelming response was in favour of thorough investigations into the complaint of the wife under Section 498A before police arrested the husband and in-laws.
The commission is in the process of finalizing its decision which appears to be in favour of providing for a settlement clause between the victim and in-laws, which could be a welcome breather. However, it is against making the offence under Section 498A bailable.
Before any change is made in the law that was enacted to protect women from dowry harassment, it needs to be debated whether a woman’s complaint under Section 498A be thoroughly probed before effecting arrest of the husband and her in-laws.
Right now, once a Section 498A complaint is lodged, the police arrests the person named by the wife. The SC had said, “The allegations of harassment of husband’s close relations who had been living in different cities and never visited or rarely visited the place where the complainant resided would have an entirely different complexion. The allegations of the complaint are required to be scrutinized with great care and circumspection.”
The commission, before sending its recommendation to the government, must examine this aspect — what should be the protection to husbands and in-laws who have been framed in a complaint under Section 498A. But it must also not lose sight of the gruesome treatment meted out to women who fail to satisfy the greed of husbands and their in-laws.
- Consultation Paper-cum-Questionnaire regarding Section 498-A of Indian Penal Code (indialawyers.wordpress.com)