There were two bits of good news for Indian men last week. First, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi asked the National Commission for Women (NCW) to create a ‘window’ in its online complaint system where men could bring up instances of false complaints against them.
The minister said, in recent months, she had been receiving a rising number of complaints from men about being falsely implicated in cases of domestic violence and dowry. She said she was conscious that the move could encourage men to “make every case of harassment look like a false case” so the NCW needed a “rigorous” mechanism to weed out frivolous complaints.
Second, a Supreme Court bench issued directives seeking to protect men and their relatives from being harassed by “disgruntled wives” sheltering under Section 498A of the IPC. In theory, the Section deals with all ‘matrimonial cruelty’ to wives by husbands and in-laws, which is seen as a cognizable, non-bailable offence. In reality, it’s used by women to file dowry cases, oftentimes because it’s difficult to explain other forms of cruelty to outsiders. Critics say while the law was enacted to check unconscionable demands by greedy husbands and their families, women are abusing it to make unwarranted allegations without producing verifiable evidence of physical or mental harm or injury.
Ruling in a UP case, Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit declared that, henceforth, every complaint under Section 498A will first be referred to a three-member Family Welfare Committee (made up of “para-legal volunteers, social workers, retirees, wives of officers or suitable and willing citizens”) and no arrest will be made until the committee files its report. Exceptions will be made only in cases where the ‘injured party’ is actually physically injured, or dead. The judges also said “omnibus allegations” against all relatives of the husband shouldn’t be taken at face value when “only the husband or, at best, his parents may be accused of demanding dowry or causing cruelty”.
While the judgment is being hailed as ‘a landmark’, a few questions linger. It’s indisputable that some women are misusing the law to further their own agenda. But what is the percentage of women doing that? How many non-urban, uneducated women are dreaming up fake cases against their husbands? How many poor women have the means to go about creating trumped up charges against their in-laws? Using the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2012 data, the judges pointed out that while chargesheets are filed in 93.6 per cent cases, only 14.4 per cent actually end in convictions.
But isn’t that because most such cases are settled out of court because the complainants have neither the money nor the will to continue fighting in court? By introducing a new layer in the legal chain, aren’t we prolonging an already torturous process? By tarring all women with the same brush, aren’t we saying that every woman is lying until proven genuine? Is that really what we want to put down as part of India’s judicial record?