India: Section 498A Of IPC: A Weapon Or A Shield? – Supreme Court Of India

The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India in its recent judgment of Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar and Another v Union of India Ministry of Law and Justice and Others1 revisited the important issue relating to Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter referred to as "the IPC"). Section 498-A was brought into the IPC in the year 1983 to curb the menace of cruelty to married women, which often led to dowry deaths.

In order to protect helpless women who were regularly getting abused and beaten and tortured by their respective husbands and husband's family members, multiple changes were made to IPC. Accordingly, under Section 498A cruelty to a woman by her husband or any relative of her husband was made punishable for with an imprisonment for a term of three years and also with fine. This was further supported by Section 304B where a woman had committed suicide within 7 years of her marriage or died in circumstances raising a reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offence, provisions were being made for inquest by Executive Magistrates. Further, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 was also amended to provide that in cases where the woman had committed suicide within 7 years of marriage and it is shown that her husband or any other relative of her husband had subjected her to cruelty, then the Court may presume that such suicide was abetted by her husband or such relative of the husband.

However, since the Section was subject matter of controversy, the Hon'ble Supreme Court observed that it was often being "used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives."2 Because of this, various judgments over time have also read down the Section.

In Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar and Another, the judgment of Rajesh Sharma and others v. State of U.P. and another3 passed by the Hon'ble Supreme Court came in question. In the Rajesh Sharma judgment, the Hon'ble Supreme Court, in order to prevent misuse of S. 498-A, gave a number of directions such as –

  1. One or more Family Welfare Committees were to be constituted by the District Legal Services Authorities in every district. Every complaint under Section 498A received by the police or the Magistrate would then be referred to and looked into by such Committee which would within one month give its report to such committee. Till the report was received, no arrest would be normally effected.
  2. The complaints under Section 498A and other connected offences may be investigated only by a designated Investigating Officer of the area.
  3. Further, in cases where a settlement is reached, the District and Sessions Judge or any other senior Judicial Officer nominated by him could dispose of the proceedings and close the criminal case if dispute primarily related to matrimonial discord.
  4. If a bail application was filed with at least one clear day's notice to the Public Prosecutor/ complainant, the same may be decided as far as possible on the same day. Recovery of disputed dowry items may not by itself be a ground for denial of bail if maintenance or other rights of wife/minor children can otherwise be protected.
  5. In respect of persons ordinarily residing out of India impounding of passports or issuance of Red Corner Notice should not be a routine.
  6. It will be open to the District Judge or a designated senior judicial officer nominated by the District Judge to club all connected cases between the parties arising out of matrimonial disputes so that a holistic view is taken by the Court to whom all such cases are entrusted; and
  7. Personal appearance of all family members and particularly outstation members may not be required and the trial court ought to grant exemption from personal appearance or permit appearance by video conferencing without adversely affecting progress of the trial.

In Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar and Another,the Hon'ble Supreme Court examined whether the Court in Rajesh Sharma could, by the method of interpretation, have issued above such directions. With due deliberations, the Hon'ble Supreme Court was pleased to modify the directions issued in Rajesh Sharma case.

With respect to the constitution of Family Welfare Committee, the Hon'ble Supreme Court has ruled that constitution of the Family Welfare Committees by the District Legal Services Authorities and the prescription of duties of the Committees and further action thereof are beyond the IPC and the same does not really flow from any provision of the IPC and have nothing to do with the IPC. Accordingly, the same was impermissible.

However, the Court issued direction to the officers investigating under S 498-A to be careful and be guided by the principles propounded in the landmark Supreme Court judgments of Joginder Kumar v. State of U.P and others4, D.K. Basu v. State of W.B5, Lalita Kumari v. Government of Uttar Pradesh and others6 and Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar and another7.

Further, with respect to the direction regarding disposal of the case by District and Sessions Judge or any other senior Judicial Officer nominated by him in cases where settlement was reached, the Court observed that the same was not a correct expression of law and in a criminal case which was not compoundable, only the concerned High Court has the power to quash proceedings under S. 498-A. Thus the same could not be done by District or the Sessions judge and it was open to the parties to approach the High Court.

The Honble Supreme Court did not interfere with respect to the directions pertaining to Red Corner Notice, clubbing of cases and postulating that recovery of disputed dowry items may not by itself be a ground for denial of bail.

With respect to the directions regarding clubbing of "appearance of all family members and outstation members by video conferencing", the Court directed that an application could be filed either under Section 205 or Section 317 of Criminal Procedure Code depending upon the stage at which the exemption is sought.

The Hon'ble Supreme Court therefore, found that some of the directions given in the Rajesh Sharma case had potentially entered into the legislative field. Keeping this in mind, the Hon'ble Supreme Court undertook a re-examination of the directions and only retained the ones that find their bedrock within the Indian Penal Code - and in doing so - propounded a more balanced approach towards the application of section 498A.

Footnotes

1. Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 156 of 2017: Judgment Delivered on 14.09.2018

2. Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar and another (2014) 8 SCC 273

3. AIR 2017 SC 3869

4. (1994) 4 SCC 260

5. (1997) 1 SCC 416

6. (2014) 2 SCC 1

7. (2014) 8 SCC 273

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