Divorcing lies

Against the tide A river sand sculpture of a bride and groom created by artist Subala Maharana from Berhampur, Orissa

Against the tide A river sand sculpture of a bride and groom created by artist Subala Maharana from Berhampur, Orissa   | Photo Credit: Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

The anti-dowry and anti-domestic violence laws need to be well implemented, not diluted, says ONKAR CHOPRA

It is a tragedy that legislation meant to help women suffering harassment, humiliation and even death in their marital homes — due to domestic violence and dowry demands — is sought to be curtailed by efforts in certain quarters. Such efforts are seen in varied quarters of society — be it seminars in civil society, sporadic utterances of politicians or even television entertainment.

As there is a sharp increase in the number of women victims of matrimonial cruelty and intimidation as per the ground reality across the country, an Indian woman even today needs protection through section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, and any suggestion to review the anti-dowry law is misplaced and ill-founded. There is absolutely no requirement to re-examine these laws on the basis of the exaggerated plea that the law is being misused. Instead of finding fault with the law, we should hold police and some of the lawyers responsible for its misuse, if any. The law cannot be misused without the cooperation of policemen handling the cases, coupled with misleading legal guidance of some irresponsible lawyers with no regard for professional ethics. The need of the hour is police reforms and toning up of the legal profession, as well as injecting a spirit of public service in both these sectors.

Unfortunately our saas-bahu serials on TV have spawned the character of the ‘vamp-bahu’, who is shown misusing the anti-dowry law against her in-laws. Anyway, such cases are supposed to be fictional and do not represent the ground reality. Such examples should not mislead us into concluding that the anti-dowry and anti-domestic violence laws are being rampantly misused. There may be some rare exceptions, but it is for our law-enforcing agencies and judicial system to identify the misuse and ensure exemplary punishment to the guilty.

Women victims of domestic violence and rising dowry demands say they do not receive proper expert counselling, either from Crimes Against Women (CAW) cells or from the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) or the National Commission for Women (NCW). At CAW cells, date after date is given to a woman victim till three months pass and the case is sent to the concerned police station for registration of the FIR. If a woman is lucky and the FIR is registered against her husband/in-laws, even then, often no further action is taken by the police station as influential in-laws would have ensured the case is delayed even further.

The courts at the lower level take their own sweet time handling cases filed under the Domestic Violence and Anti Dowry Act, despite the provision in the Domestic Violence Act, that a case is to be decided within 60 days. The cases filed for maintenance under Section 24 linger for over a year and women continue suffering, having been dumped, often penniless, with the responsibility of young school-going children. The irresponsible husband in such cases feels safe and secure, because he has hired professional lawyers who guarantee their male clients a divorce against a handsome fee. Such ‘divorce specialists’ often exert pressure on the wife to enter into a mutual agreement and an out-of-court settlement which will save the husband money and exonerate him of responsibility.

Once the parents of one such young woman told me, “We were told that the husband wants to get rid of our daughter. What will we charge?” When the parents protested, asking what would be the fate of their daughter, the husband’s lawyer had the audacity to say, “Don’t worry — I shall keep her!”

There is no end to such tales of woe. No doubt the solution lies in empowering our girls in other ways as well, but the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, and the Protection of Women form Domestic Violence Act, 2005, have made these widely prevalent crimes against women visible in the public domain. Any attempt to dilute them is uncalled for and unwarranted.

(The author, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, is on the guest faculty of the Indian Institute of Law. He has written extensively on crimes against women and has recently founded the Association for Victims of Domestic Violence. The Association offers legal aid and advice to victims of marital violence and dowry harassment. For further information contact 011-25511687)

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