Yes, the verdict is out — women are liars. The brutalities inflicted upon them are not real; they are a mere figment of imagination. Women are irrational beings. Without weighing the implications of their actions, in the heat of the moment, they rush to file false complaints of cruelty and dowry demands against their husbands and other family members. Later, when reality dawns on them, they regret and wish to retract and save their marriages. But by then it is too late, the marriage is broken irretrievably by her irrational action of approaching the police and filing a case. This is what our learned judges of the Supreme Court tell us. (Rajesh Sharma vs. State of UP, July 27). Adding insult to injury, they proclaim that the guidelines issued by them to the police not to arrest the accused until a family welfare committee investigates the case and sends in a report will be beneficial to the wife, as the woman will be saved from acting in a hasty manner and ruining her marriage. The narrative that the judges have projected is totally out of sync with the lived realities of women. The experiences of several women’s organisations working in cities, towns and rural areas indicate that women approach the police as a last resort. This is because they, more than anyone else, are acutely aware that there are few choices outside marriage for them. The natal family does not accept them and the government has failed to provide emergency shelters. Despite these odds, women venture to file a case out of sheer desperation.
At this stage, according to our judges, women should be “counselled” and sent back to the same violent marriage without any protection. There should be no restraint upon the husband and his family to prevent further violence for, after all, the violence was a mere figment of her imagination. So it appears that the only choice she is left with is to return and commit suicide. Only when there is a dead body our judges may believe that it is a “genuine case” worthy of a complaint under Section 498A. If only dead women could speak and give evidence in court that the violence inflicted upon them prior to their death was real, causing severe injuries, skull fractures, abortions, damage to the cornea, broken noses, ruptured ear drums, damage to internal organs. They would also have told our judges that most had not even approached the police prior to their death and the few who dared to approach the police were sent back without an FIR because it was just “normal” violence which any husband inflicts upon his wife as part of the “normal wear and tear” of marriage. It is the bounden duty of women to endure and adjust. So despite all the fancy laws in our statute books, these women were reduced to mere figures in official crime statistics.
Since life has been snuffed out of their lives, when they were barely in their 20s and 30s, the only voices which judges of our Supreme Court hear are of the relatives of husbands who had demanded dowry, inflicted violence upon the women and caused extreme humiliation to them. Are we to believe that in a city of over 20 billion people, the 300-500 cases constitute misuse of the legal provisions of cruelty to wives? In the anecdotal narrations that surround the myth of false cases, there is a bedridden mother-in-law, a teenaged sister-in-law and a bright brother-in-law in an engineering college whose future is marred by the false implication. But if all these cases were false, how come the chargesheet is filed in over 90 per cent cases? Even in the Rajesh Sharma case, there is no denial of the fact that Sharma and his family demanded Rs 3,00,000 and a car after the marriage. When this demand was not met, he left his wife at her maternal home when she was pregnant and thereafter she suffered an abortion. Within this master narrative, the gruesome murder of Shobha, a construction worker in rural Parbani district of Maharashtra does not create any ruffles in the media. When Shobha had approached the police earlier, with a complaint of acute physical violence, the police sent her back without even registering a non-cognisable complaint. If they had acted promptly Shobha might have been alive today. One night when she was asleep, the alcoholic husband smashed her head with a boulder. When neighbours rushed in after hearing screams of the three young daughters, they found Shobha lying dead in a pool of blood.
Then there is my neighbour in a quiet middle-class area in suburban Mumbai. A church-going elderly gentleman in his mid-60s strangled his 57-year-old wife to death over a minor quarrel a fortnight ago. Rachel, the housewife, had never approached the police even to file an NC complaint against her husband in 35 years of her married life. The acute domestic violence in India has been highlighted through various national and international studies. The most significant among them is the National Family Health Survey-III (NFHS-III) conducted in 2005-06. This important study revealed that 31 per cent of married women were physically abused and 10 per cent were subjected to “severe domestic violence” and 12 per cent of those who reported severe violence suffered at least one of the following injuries: bruises, wounds, sprains, dislocation, broken bones, broken teeth, or severe burns and 14 per cent experienced emotional abuse. The NFHS study brought out the ground reality that more than 54 per cent of men and 51 per cent of women responded that it was okay for a man to beat his wife if she disrespected her in-laws, neglected her home or children, or even over something as trivial as less or more salt in the food.
Our judges seem to be oblivious of the fact that “cruelty” under Section 498A does not need to be related to dowry, nor does it have to involve physical cruelty or death. And yet even 35 years after this provision was added to the Indian Penal Code our police, judges, lawyers and the media continue to name it as a “dowry” law. There is a class bias that operates here and the acute violence suffered by poor women in urban slums and far-flung rural areas goes unnoticed by our judges. The few cases that get registered are those of women who approach the police with a written complaint, accompanied by their lawyers or those who are able to “pull strings”.
It is tragic that Rajesh Sharma has made a reference to the Domestic Violence Act only to the extent that the law provides for counselling. This comment alone exposes the inherent bias of our judges. The PWDVA provides for protection against domestic violence, compensation against the injuries suffered, injunction against dispossession, custody of children and maintenance for the survivor and her children. Yes, every case under Section 498A needs to be linked to DVA and magistrates need to be alert to provide women civil remedies at the earliest stage. It is true that a large number of cases are languishing in our courts. It is because once the husband and relatives are released on bail, they abscond. Since it is non-compoundable the cases cannot be easily closed and becomes dormant. The role of the complainant is limited only to giving evidence in court. Until the case reaches this stage, she is kept in the dark. Meanwhile, she might have moved on in life. This act on her part to rebuild her life cannot be termed as “false case” and “misuse of law”. If only our judges took a keen interest in protecting women, Rajesh Sharma would have reached a different conclusion.