The Supreme Court recently said it would re-examine the judgment of a Division Bench of the Court that issued guidelines to prevent misuse of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. An offence under this section, which deals with cruelty to a woman by her husband or his relatives, is non-bailable and non-compoundable.
This has generated concern that men and their relatives could be victimised by an estranged spouse. In July, the SC issued guidelines to prevent misuse of the section, including ordering the setting up of district committees to assess the complaints before proceeding with arrests. This was cause for concern as it diluted, based on anecdotal evidence, a provision aimed to protect vulnerable women. The police then reportedly stopped making arrests under the section.
In October, a three-judge Bench expressed disagreement with the directions. Last week the same Bench asked how guidelines could be issued when there was an IPC provision and said it would re-examine the verdict in January.
This has come as a relief to women, especially those who have survived domestic violence. Women’s activists have pointed out that the bogey of misuse is unfairly raised against this section alone as all laws can be misused. The cause for concern is that the courts and society have long spoken of the sanctity of marriage and the importance of preserving the family, despite the risks both the marriage and family may pose to women. Should their rights and well-being be made secondary to the preservation of a patriarchal social construct?
It is time to ask if the propensity of the courts to put one over the other, may not come from the lack of diversity in their makeup—only one out of 25 sitting judges in the apex court is a woman. President Ram Nath Kovind recently pointed out that there was unacceptably poor representation of SCs, STs, OBCs and women in the judiciary. If the vulnerable are not represented in the courts, is it any surprise that their protection is often at risk?