Seventy-seven-year-old Satish Sundra is a happy man today: Thursday's Supreme Court directive which said that no "automatic arrests" could be made under Section 498(a) of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, has come a bit late for him. But he feels vindicated, satisfied that the court has taken heed of the sufferings of many like him.
Sundra's son Amit got married in October 2004 and the problems started soon after. She would demand hefty sums as pocket money and to go on long vacations. Six months later, she left for her father's home and in early 2005 filed a case under section 498(a) against Sundra and his son. The case continued for eight long years and Amit, traumatised, went into depression.
"Every time we approached her for an out-of-court settlement, she would agree but later demand more money. Finally, in 2012, we reached a settlement in court," he says. Amit, who has remarried.
Section 498(a) is a landmark legal provision inserted into the law books in 1983 after a concerted public campaign by women's organisations across the country under the Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch.
Over the years, says Rohit Girdhar, counsellor with Confidare, an organisation that supports men fighting legal battles over dowry harassment, "Section 498(a) has become a tool to settle scores or meet unreasonable demands. A women has a problems with her husband, she sees a lawyer who tells her that if she wants to get her way, she should file a case under this section. Often, even distant relatives who live abroad are named in the FIR." Naturally, Girdhar is happy at the SC directive, calling it a landmark.
P Suresh, president of men's support group, Family Harmony Society, is more circumspect. "It is a small step," he said. "In 2005, the SC had described 498(a) as legal terror. More than 27 judgments by various high courts and SC have acknowledged that 498(a) is biased. But nothing has happened, and children, mothers and sisters continue to be arrested. Conditions on the ground have not changed because the police are not aware of these provisions."
Suresh felt that the law should be gender neutral so that even men can file a complaint under 498(a). He added that there needed to be a provision for severe punishment in case of misuse of 498(a) is proven.
"Section 3 of the act says that the dowry giver is as culpable as the dowry take. But the judiciary never entertains such cases," Suresh says.
Women's organisations, naturally, are not happy with the SC directive. Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research, dismisses allegations of misuse. "There were 8,000 cases of dowry deaths reported in 2012 mostly from rural areas. This is the only legal provision with any teeth available to women who are victims of dowry violence," she said.
Sudha Sundararaman of All India Democratic Women's Association general secretary, calls the SC directive "unfortunate" . "As it is few people arrested under the section are convicted," she said.
According to Kumari, women were being made the scapegoat for faulty implementation of the law by the police. "Section 41 of the law clearly lays down nine conditionalities for the arrest — that the police needs ascertain that the arrest is necessary for proper investigation, to prevent tampering of evidence, etc. When the magistrate authorises detention, he must look into whether the police has followed these conditionalities. Why blame women for misuse of Sec 498(a)?"