New Delhi: The Allahabad High Court Monday said that misuse of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises cruelty inflicted on a woman by her husband and his kin, was “adversely affecting our social fibre, especially in northern India”.
The bench of Justice Rahul Chaturvedi went on to issue guidelines to prevent “misuse” of the IPC section in view of a “growing tendency in the masses to nail the husband and all family members by general and sweeping allegations”.
One of the guidelines issued by the judge stated that in the event an FIR is registered under Section 498A, no arrest or coercive action can be taken against the husband and his family members during a “cooling period” of two months.
During these two months, the matter needs to be referred to the Family Welfare Committee (FWC) of the relevant district, ordered the court.
The HC was hearing petitions filed by a man and his parents, challenging the validity of a 3 March order passed by the additional sessions judge of Hapur, who had rejected their discharge applications in a criminal case filed by the man’s wife.
In her 2018 FIR, the woman had alleged dowry harassment, as well as sexual and physical violence at the hands of her husband. She had also alleged that her father- and brother-in-law had demanded “sexual favours” from her.
The high court Monday allowed the discharge applications of the woman’s in-laws, while noting that she and her husband had been living separately since April 2017 — a year and four months into their marriage.
“In our traditional Indian family, where they are residing in a joint family with unmarried son, it is highly improbable and difficult to digest the allegations of demanding sexual favours…by father-in-law or brother-in-law (sic),” the judge said.
The court, however, allowed the trial to continue against the woman’s husband.
Justice Chaturvedi also took severe objection to the language used in the woman’s 2018 FIR, saying that an FIR is “not soft porn literature where graphical description should be made”.
Recounting the allegations made by the woman in the judgment, he said that “the graphic and vivid descriptions of the incident without any shame or hitch of any sort”, speaks volumes about her “mental condition” and the “amount of venom” in her mind.
The court also ordered that each district needs to have one Family Welfare Committee (FWC). This is to be be headed by the district and sessions judge or principal judge of the family court of that district.
These committees could include a “senior-most, fifth-year student” of a government law college or state university or national law university, who has a “good academic track record” and is a “public spirited young man”, the bench observed.
They could also include “educated wives” of senior judicial or administrative officers of the district, among others, it further said.
‘Traditional fragrance of age-old institution will evaporate’
While talking about the “misuse” of Section 498A, the bench observed that many couples were now getting into live-in relationships, free from the “legal implications, commitment and responsibilities” of the institution of marriage.
Such relationships are “an offshoot of traditional Indian marriage just to save the couple from the hazards and legal complications and bickering between them (sic)”, the bench said.
“It is question of a common observation that every matrimonial case is being exaggerated manifold with all the pungent and castic allegations [of] dowry-related atrocities involving the husband and all family members (sic),” the court observed.
It further said that the “traditional fragrance of our age-old institution of marriage would completely evaporated over period of time if such gross and unmindful misuse of Section 498A IPC would keep on pasted rampantly (sic)”.
FIR ‘not soft porn literature’
The couple at the centre of the dispute had got married in December 2015.
In its order, the bench observed that “there was a deep-rooted misunderstanding, and thorough incompatibility and discord between husband and wife, in fact, both of them were fierce foe of each other (sic).”
In her FIR, the woman had alleged that her husband and his family had demanded an additional dowry of Rs 50 lakh from her family.
According to the order, she had also alleged that her father-in-law had sought “sexual favours” from her and her brother-in-law “also tried to ravish her physically”.
She had also claimed that her husband subjected her to many forms of sexual and physical violence, including “unnatural” sexual intercourse, and that his family forced her to have an abortion.
Justice Chaturvedi opined that the woman “without mincing any words, rather exaggerating the incident to manifolds, had vomited the snide before the court (sic)”.
The court took severe objection to the language used in the FIR, observing that “the graphical description portrayed by her in her FIR is deplorable, to be condemned in strongest terms”.
The bench said it wanted to “simply overlook these graphic and distressful allegations made by a lady who after receiving legal advice, pasted those dirt and filth upon her husband and other family members (sic)”.
It further said that “the language of the FIR should be decent one and no amount of atrocities faced by the informant would justify her to use such type of castic expressions (sic)”, adding that “even soft and decent expression would well communicate the alleged atrocities faced by her”.
‘Public spirited man’, ‘educated wives of senior officers’ in panel
The court also laid down the procedure to be followed in the two-month “cooling period” in case an FIR is registered under Section 498A, and the role of the FWCs in this.
The bench specified that “contesting parties” would need to appear before the committee, along with a maximum of “four elderly persons”, to have “a serious deliberation between them with the aid of members of the committee”.
The committee would then prepare a “vivid report”. Meanwhile, the police are also expected to conduct a “peripheral investigation into the matter”.
“When settlement is reached between the parties, it would be open for the district and sessions judge and other senior judicial officers nominated by him in the district to dispose of the proceedings including closing of the criminal case,” the order said.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court had also issued similar guidelines to prevent the misuse of Section 498A, directing the formation of FWCs to look into complaints filed under the provisions.
The apex court, too, had said that no arrest or coercive steps would be taken till the report of the FWC was received, preventing immediate arrest of husbands and their family members. It had also issued a similar direction allowing the district and sessions judge to close the criminal case if a settlement is arrived at between the parties.
However, in September 2018, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court partially modified this ruling, observing that the “directions pertaining to Family Welfare Committee…and the power conferred on the committee is impermissible”.
The court had then asserted that the “prescription of duties of the committees…are beyond” criminal law, that they do not “flow from any provision” of the law, and therefore, the court could not have issued those directions. It had then overruled directions related to the FWCs as well as the settlement.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)