Dowry as defined by Webster’s Dictionary means “the money, goods or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage.” Dowry system has been quite prevalent in India, where the culture of arranged marriages is still being maintained to date. However, over a period of years, this system saw the increase of abuse of women throughout India, including all religions. Dowry has become one of the greatest social evils of modern India where exorbitant sums of money are given by the bride’s parents to the groom and his family.
Roots of the Dowry System
India is a country where ‘Swayamvara’ was practiced as per the ancient Hindu marriage traditions, where it was the bride who decided whom to marry. Women have held a very important place in the society since time immemorial. No instances of dowry-related violence against women can be found in any of the literature of ancient times. The well-researched book The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime by Veena Talwar Oldenburg helps understand the follow up of events that led to the dowry menace in India. On the basis of the paper trail left by the British bureaucrats during the British Raj and the personal accounts of women in India, the following facts come to light:
- Though system of Dowry existed in India even before the British Rule, the format of this tradition was entirely different.
- Dowry was an institution that established the financially independent status of the woman and was managed by the woman herself.
- It was a form of recourse in case of any emergency.
- The part of the property of her father that the bride was entitled to was given as dowry in the form of land, gifts, etc.
- The dowry was given to the bride, not the groom.
- In case of land given as a gift, the bride was the sole benefactor of the wealth generated from it.
- The dowry menace was an aftermath of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793 by the British wherein private ownership of land was enabled. As per this law, women were prohibited from owning any property at all. Thus all the wealth a bride received from her parents at the time of the wedding was automatically transferred under the ownership of the husband. Thus the traditional dowry system got converted into a menace creating an institution of greed that oppressed women.
Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961
The dowry menace saw a system where the groom and his family looked upon the bride as a source of generation of property and wealth. The holy institution of marriage became a business deal and apart from crimes against women, it came with add-on evils like sex discrimination, female foeticide, and imbalance in male-female ratio in the society.
To deter people from abusing women on the basis of dowry demanded and given, the Government of India established the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 that stated the giving or taking of dowry shall be punishable with imprisonment and fine.
In 1983, the Indian Parliament passed the Indian Penal Code 498A and deemed the demand of dowry a criminal act, where in “Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. The offence is cognisable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.”
Misuse of the IPC 498A
In recent times, it has come to the fore that the act that was established with the aim of securing the life and status of women is being misused by the same. As per the current law, a wife or a daughter-in-law can get her husband or in-law arrested simply based a written false complaint of dowry harassment to a nearby police station. The husband and relatives are immediately arrested without sufficient investigation and put behind bars on non-bailable terms. Here they are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Another disheartening misuse is the omnibus allegation, where along with the husband all the other relatives are also accused of the crime in the FIR lodged.
Many cases have come to the fore where there is evidence of misuse of IPC 498A. In June 2003, in Pune, a husband filed a petition for divorce due to marital disputes. However, within a month, the husband and his mother along with three other relatives were arrested on a dowry harassment case on the basis a complaint filed by his wife. Though the case was dismissed, the divorce was not granted due to lack of evidence till the Bombay High Court accepted the husband’s contention of false allegations by wife resulting in mental cruelty and entitled him to a divorce.
There have been countless instances where, without any investigation, the police have arrested elderly parents and other close relatives because of the omnibus accusations; some of whom have even committed suicide in the jail after serving some time.
Amendment to IPC 498A
With the objective that law should not become a weapon in the hands of disgruntled women, plans are afoot to make necessary amendments to IPC 498A. Some of the proposals are as follows:
- Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code will be made a compoundable offence with the permission of the courts as suggested by the Law Commission and Justice Malimath Committee. This would help to initiate conciliation proceedings and out-of-court settlement.
- Previously non-bailable, the amendment will make the offence a bailable offence.
- The police officers will be instructed not to arrest a person under Sec 498 A of the IPC unless and until the parameters laid down flowing from Section 41, CrPC (when police may arrest without warrant) have been satisfied.
- The investigating officer has to take the permission of the SP or any other officer of the equal rank in metropolitan cities.
- The penalty of Rs 1,000 in case of a wrongly filed dowry harassment case will be increased to Rs 15,000.
Atrocities against women based on dowry demands should no doubt be put an end to with the proper enforcement of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. However, in view of the fact that this legal protection is being exploited by some women, amendments made as per the aforesaid proposal will surely show a light at the end of the tunnel to everyone concerned.