Recent Allahabad High Court Judgement Represents Everything That is Wrong with Adjudication of Cruelty Cases in India

Vidhi’s research from Mumbai shows how the misuse of narrative leads to denial of justice

The Allahabad High Court has recently joined the bandwagon against section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) – the law on cruelty . The court, in Mukesh Bansal v. State of U.P, while deciding on revision petitions in a case of cruelty and dowry harassment, made sweeping observations on the misuse of section 498A. It observed that matrimonial cases are being ‘exaggerated manifold with all the pungent and caustic allegations of dowry related atrocities’. The court also observed that such ‘gross and unmindful misuse’ of the law has a detrimental effect on the ‘age-old institution of marriage’. The court then proceeded to lay down elaborate guidelines for cases of cruelty noting ‘the growing tendency in the masses to nail the husband and all family members by general and sweeping allegations’. 

The allegations in the case before the court were, however, not sweeping and general. In the case, the wife had alleged that her husband and his family members were demanding dowry; her father in law and brother in law wanted sexual favours from her; she was physically and mentally harrased; she was forced to undergo an abortion; and that her husband had sexual relations with her against her will. 

The court deemed these allegations ‘abhorring, full of dirt, filthy and venomous’. Rebuking the wife for the graphical description of the allegations, the court observed that soft and decent expressions should be used to communicate the atrocities committed.  While the court discharged the parents-in-law of the allegations, it observed that the husband’s culpability cannot be ruled out altogether and required him to contest the trial.  

The order of the court, which heavily relies on vilification of the complainant wife, represents everything that is wrong with adjudication of cruelty cases in India –  

  1.  courts continue to approach cases of cruelty with suspicion;
  2.  make unwarranted and stray comments; and
  3.  prioritise preservation of marital ties over ascertaining culpability.

This can be seen in many cases decided by the courts, where courts observe that such complaints are filed in the heat of the moment; due to trifling fights and ego clashes. Further, decisions by the Supreme Court (‘SC’) have only amplified the perception around misuse of section 498A – 

  • In Preeti Gupta v. State of Jharkhand (2010), the SC observed that ‘it is also a matter of common knowledge that exaggerated versions of the incident are reflected in a large number of complaints. The tendency of over implication is also reflected in a very large number of cases’.
  • In Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar (2014) the SC observed that ‘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’. 
  • In Rajesh Sharma v. State of U.P (2017), the SC directed setting up of Family Welfare Committees at the district level to scrutinise complaints of cruelty so as to prevent misuse of the law.
  • In Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar v. U.O.I (2018), the SC modified directions issued in Rajesh Sharma and declared that the constitution of such committees was not in accord with the statutory framework – a direction that the Allahabad High Court seems to have conveniently ignored by ordering constitution of Family Welfare Committees in all districts.   

Findings from an analysis of cruelty cases in Mumbai

Our forthcoming research on cruelty cases adjudicated by the City Civil & Sessions Court, Mumbai shows how this perception trickles down to the trial courts and affects decision making. We analysed 98 judgements passed by the Mumbai Court from 2015-2020 and found that: 

  • In most cases, the prosecution is unable to prove dowry harassment and cruelty because women, out of shame and fear of reprisal, did not reveal the instances of cruelty or harassment or entered into a compromise outside the court.
  • Courts insist on proving specific instances of cruelty by identifying the exact date, time and place of cruelty. The strict standard of proof led to discarding testimonies of key witnesses as ‘vague’.
  • Dying declarations and testimonies of the victims’ families are rejected because of minor inconsistencies. For example, in one of the cases analysed, the court rejected a dying declaration citing the absence of a doctor’s signature on it. The law on dying declaration, as laid down in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, provides for no such mandate. 
  • In a large number of cases, material evidence was declared untrustworthy due to over-reliance on extraneous factors. For instance, the court, relying on the fact that the deceased victim and her husband celeberated birthdays and went on holidays,  acquitted an accused even though multiple instances of cruelty were brought on record and the victim had died by suicide. 

The law on cruelty was enacted to protect women from domestic abuse in the backdrop of increasing cases of dowry related harassment and deaths. The implementation of the law has, however, miserably failed the legislative intent. Cynical adjudication, owing to the misuse narrative, has rendered the law on cruelty impotent. Courts continue to fuel the perception that the law is used either as a weapon by disgruntled wives or is invoked in trivial matters. Low conviction rates, often projected as the evidence of misuse, are in fact a consequence of insensitive judicial processes that ignore and trivialise the extent of physical and mental abuse that women face in private spaces. 

Vidhi’s new research assesses India’s response to rising violence against women, by evaluating the role played by the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.  The full analysis can be accessed here:

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