The Supreme Court on Friday modified its July 2017 order, which roped in retirees, wives of “working officers” and social workers to sift genuine complaints of dowry harassment from the frivolous ones.
Last year, the court ordered that ‘family welfare committees’ to be set up in districts. These committees, comprising choice citizens, were supposed to act as a vanguard against “disgruntled wives” using the anti-dowry harassment provision of Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as a “weapon” against their husbands and in-laws, young and old, rather than as a “shield”.
Even the police, as per the last year order, could register an FIR only after the committee concerned cleared the complaint as valid and not frivolous.
On Friday, getting rid of these committees, a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra held that such panels had no place under the established criminal procedural law. They were beyond the Code of Criminal Procedure Code.
With this, the Bench, also comprising Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud, has restored to the police their power to immediately register an FIR and act on a dowry harassment complaint filed by a married woman.
Chief Justice Misra observed that the Bench of Justices A.K. Goel (now retired) and U.U. Lalit, which passed the last year order, merely wanted to craft a fair and reasonable procedure for complaints under Section 498-A.
Nevertheless, Justice Goel’s Bench could not have interpreted Section 498-A beyond the scope of the established law, Chief Justice Misra, who authored the 35-page Friday judgment, observed.
Chief Justice Misra reasoned that one of the major factors that influenced the last year order was statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau, which showed that 1,97,762 husbands and relatives were arrested in 2012 alone for dowry harassment. Justice Goel had observed how an arrest “brings humiliation, curtails freedom and casts scars forever”.
But Chief Justice Misra rationalised that the blame does not lie with Section 498-A, which was introduced in 1983 by Parliament to protect hapless married women against dowry menace. The evil lay in the misuse of arrest powers by the police “who behave like emperors considering the notion that they can do what they please”.
Section 498-A IPC is cognisable and non-bailable offence. A guilty person faces up to three years in prison.
Chief Justice Misra agreed with the last year order to have a designated police officer to probe dowry complaints. It had ordered the Director General of Police of every State to provide such officers rigorous training.
The Chief Justice however differed with Justice Goel’s direction to empower district judges to close dowry harassment cases if the parties reached out-of-court settlement. Instead, the parties would now have to approach the High Court concerned for quashing of the complaint filed by the married woman.
The Friday judgment concurred with the last year order that recovery of dowry items by itself cannot be a ground for denial of bail to the accused. The judgment also saw eye-to-eye with the direction of Justice Goel that impounding of passport of an accused person or issuance of Red Notice should not be done on a routine basis.
The three-judge Bench also held that accused persons should apply for exemption from personal appearance in dowry harassment hearings.