Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dealing With Dowry Menace

The Supreme Court has recently once again proved itself the saviour of helpless women who are harassed and tortured by greedy men. It has come to the rescue of a hapless woman by ruling that the Anti-Dowry Act and anti-cruelty laws will apply to any man who lives, cohabits and exercises the authority of a husband over any woman, irrespective of whether they are legally married or not.

The Bench consisting of Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice A.K. Ganguly has ruled that in cases in which dowry harassment has been alleged or a dowry death has occurred, a man cannot get away by claiming that he is not legally married to the woman.

The judgment came in response to a review petition filed by a man from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh. Facing charges of harassing his wife under Section 498A Indian Penal Code (IPC), he claimed that since he was earlier married and had never married the complainant in question, the question of dowry harassment would not arise and that he could not be punished under the law. He lost the case in the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Interestingly, the Supreme Court refused to go by the strict interpretation of the term “husband” as that would destroy the purpose of the statutory provisions and encourage harassment of a woman over a demand for money.

Death for Guilty Suggested
The apex has rightly suggested death for the guilty in bride burning cases having said that such cases must be dealt with an iron fist. It is of relevance that the National Commission for Women (NWC) had recommended to the Government almost two years ago that there should be harsher penalties for dowry offences.

It is a matter of great concern that cases of bride burning, which are mostly dowry deaths, have risen in the recent past. It is shameful that a large number of women in India suffer mental abuse and physical torture that sometimes lead to their death, all because of the greed of their husbands and in-laws. Though dowry is prohibited by law, it continues to thrive.

Increase in Dowry Cases
In fact, the cases of dowry abuse have increased over the years with its worst form being bride burning. The crime cuts across almost every community in India. The victims are subjected to extreme torture before they are killed by their spouses. Dowry deaths are often claimed by the culprits to be suicides or accidents. This is the reason why the official number of dowry death cases is low.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau report, in 2004 the number of dowry deaths reported was 7,026. It was 6,787 in 2005 and 7,618 in 2006. The cases registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act were 3,592 in 2004, 3,204 in 2005 and 4,504 in 2006. A total of 2,276 female suicides due to dowry disputes were listed in 2006, which is an average of six a day. The real picture might be far grimmer than this.

Dowry Prohibition Act
Undoubtedly the evil that is bride burning cannot be tolerated by any civilised society. It is clear that unless strong measures are taken, the crime can never be eradicated. The existing laws against dowry such as the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, have not proved effective in curbing the menace. Though the law specifically defines the crime of dowry death and there are sections in the IPC that punish cruelty towards brides, bride burning continues unabated. Even the legislation regarding domestic violence has proved toothless.

It can be said that that any sensible person cannot disagree with this judgment as there is a dire need to check increasing cases of harassment of women engaged in live-in relationships. There is need to interpret laws enacted to curb evils like the dowry menace with a certain element of realism.

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