Dowry: what the data says and what it doesn’t

Photo: V. Sudershan  

Last week, a Bench of the Supreme Court >instructed the country’s police to not make automatic arrests in dowry harassment cases without first ascertaining viability. “The fact that Section 498-A is a cognizable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives. The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision,” the court observed.

The order, and its phrasing, has led to a fair amount of outrage; both from men rights’ activists for whom the misuse of 498-A has long been a rallying point and from some women’s rights activists who have argued that popular male perception – and the Court – overstates the problem. But what does the data say?

The Court referred to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data to show that 498-A cases are growing very fast. Others, like >Sahil Bhalla at the news website Scroll, have attempted to show that dowry deaths continue in India, and the problem is being overblown.

The truth is that existing data cannot fully answer whether 498-A is being misused. This post is an attempt to lay out what the data does and does not tell us.

First of all, while ‘dowry harassment’ is a loose term used to describe any manner of harassment of a women in her marital home, there are three separate relevant legal sections. The first is the >Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 that prohibits the giving or taking of dowry. The second is Section >498-A of the Indian Penal code, which prohibits cruelty by husband or his relatives towards a woman of the sort that might harm her or drive her to suicide, or relates to a demand for money or property. The third is >Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code, which relates to dowry deaths, or the death of a woman in the first seven years of her marriage in connection with a demand for dowry by her husband or his relatives.

What do the numbers for the three say? I looked at numbers from 2013, 2003 and 1993, and it’s a complex story.

Yes, there is a big increase in the number of dowry-related cases in the last decade, most of all in the case of Dowry Prohibition Act cases (300% increase), and then in 498-A cases (135% increase), but only a 30% increase in the number of dowry death cases. All of these three rates are substantially higher than the rate of increase of all cognisable cases on average, which was 21%. Dowry-related cases accounted for nearly half of the increase in crimes against women between 2003 and 2013.

This is also the case for the number of arrests; arrests under the Dowry Prohibition Act have increased by 250% in the last decade and those under 498-A have more than doubled, while arrests under all cognisable crimes increased by just 16% in the same period. People arrested under the three dowry-related sections formed over half of all arrests for crimes against women in 2013.

None of this says anything about whether the actual number of cases is increasing, the extent of reporting in increasing, or the number of false cases is increasing. Bhalla in his Scroll piece looks at the number of cases deemed false by the police at the pre-chargesheet status to say that the number of false dowry-related cases is low. This is wrong for two reasons. For one, courts have repeatedly called the police force part of the problem; they are not deeming enough cases false, is precisely what courts have observed, so Bhalla’s statistic tells us little. (Which is why I go on to look at court statistics.)

But even if we do look at cases found to be false by the police, 498-A cases are more than three times as likely to be found false by the police than all cognisable crimes on average. Dowry-related cases are also far more likely to see acquittals, and this extends even to dowry deaths; two out of three persons tried for dowry deaths were acquitted in 2013.

Which is where we come up against the limits of data. Crimes against women are more likely to be found false by the police and more likely to see acquittals than other cognisable crimes. When the same statistics emerged in the context of rape last year, the consensus was that the police and judiciary were stacked against women’s interests. So it’s difficult to look at these same numbers now and judge that they mean that women are filing false cases.

From speaking to lawyers and judges, my sense is that there is indeed an element of misuse of 498-A. The numbers on their own, however, are not going to tell us what to think.

(Note: the source for all data in this post is the NCRB’s reports for various years.)

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 5:45:54 PM |

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