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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Caught in a vise- Article about SIF in Harmony Magazine

Just as there are helpless women being tortured for dowry by their in-laws, there are silvers being harassed on false charges of seeking dowry and cruel behaviour. Rajashree Balaram presents the other side of the story

In March 2003, the Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs, chaired by Justice V S Malimath, suggested amendments to Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on the plea that it was being misused. Section 498 A is a criminal law under which a woman and her parental family can charge the woman’s husband and any or all of his family members, including elderly parents and minor-aged siblings of physical or mental cruelty. Anyone charged with Section 498 A is liable to be arrested by the police without any initial investigation.

To analyse whether Section 498 A was actually being misused as indicated in the Malimath Committee Report, the Centre for Social Research (CSR) in Delhi conducted a survey across Delhi, Karnataka, Rajasthan and West Bengal. What emerged out of one-on-one interviews and focus group discussions — involving victims, accused, families of both sides, police, lawyers, judges and NGOs — was a grim picture of oppression and manipulation. On the one hand, nearly 50 million Indian women were found cowering under statistics of domestic violence. On the other, 6.5 per cent of the cases studied were proven to be false. Just as there are helpless women being tortured for dowry by their in-laws, there are silvers who are being harassed on false charges of seeking dowry, mental harassment and cruel behaviour. Many innocent elderly citizens are being dragged into court unscrupulously by their daughters-in-law and their families under allegations of Section 498 A, Section 3 & 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act and Section 406 of the IPC — Breach of Trust, which refers to non-return of the gifts and jewellery given by the woman’s parents and relatives during the wedding.

Although preliminary investigation is required after the registration of the First Information Report (FIR), arrest warrants are issued without examining whether family members are actually abusive or have been falsely implicated. What might be merely a case of mutual incompatibility or clash of ego between the couple sometimes ends up being portrayed as collective abuse of a woman by her in-laws. Elderly parents are more vulnerable to being arrested and put in jail even before the trial begins. As most men in India continue to live with their parents even after marriage, parents are often accused of poisoning the minds of their sons against their daughters-in-law, and are therefore usually held influential in causing mental and physical harassment.

Section 498 A is cognisable (accused can be arrested without warrant), non-compoundable (complaint cannot be withdrawn by the petitioner) and non-bailable (accused must appear in court to request bail). The World Health Organisation has even reported that legal abuse of the elderly in India is among the highest in the world along with Lebanon. Alongside, it states that dowry laws in India are being used as a weapon for ruthless abuse of the elderly (Source: http://www.who.int/ageing/projects/elder_abuse/alc_ea_ind.pdf)

A Right to Information application directed to the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2005 revealed some shocking figures. In 2005, among the 58,319 dowry cases that were registered, 10,491 cases were not charge-sheeted because they were based on frivolous grounds. In the same year, 134,757 people underwent arrest for 58,319 complaints under Section 498 A and Dowry Prohibition Act. Among these, 4,744 people who were accused were above 60 years of age and arrested without any verification of the veracity of the complaint. (Source: Ministry of Home Affairs, RTI No. 24013/20/2006-SC/ST-W)

The lengthy trials for cases booked under Section 498 A can go beyond seven years and drive many families to yield to extortion, blackmail and compromise through hefty out-of-court settlements. As most silvers are not aware of the complexities of the legal machinery, they are also vulnerable to being misguided by corrupt elements in the judiciary and end up running from pillar to post. There have been instances where men and their old parents have committed suicide owing to the humiliation and public mudslinging that inevitably follows a single night spent in police custody.

Experts cite many reasons as possible triggers for misuse of gender-biased laws: speedy divorce and settlement of alimony; deep-seated insecurity prompting the woman to alienate her spouse from his family; an easy way to dissolve a marriage that was against the woman’s wishes. Often, cases are also motivated by financial greed or a desire to settle scores following a clash of ego between the couple. As the menace gains larger proportions, support groups are springing up all over the country to raise their voice against it. Most of them are led by people who have been victims earlier. Harmony meets four such groups.

MAN CELL, Delhi Even the caller tone of R P Chugh’s mobile phone is a loud proclamation of his 25-year long crusade. Try calling this Supreme Court advocate on his mobile phone and it trills the song Mujhe meri biwi se bachao (save me from my wife). A man who has suffered badly at the hands of his own wife, Chugh has spent more than two decades defending men from false claims of domestic violence and dowry harassment. The flamboyant advocate remembers his formative years when he grew up with Marxist ideologies and worked for women’s emancipation. Chugh admits to almost turning into a misogynist after he suffered from severe harassment from his wife in his first marriage. “Almost 87 per cent of the women in Tihar jail have been booked under Section 498 A, many of them old women, who have been accused of torture and cruelty without any trial,” says Chugh. He agrees that laws against dowry harassment and domestic violence are necessary in our society where millions of women do suffer submissively. But he also feels that fair amendments are urgently required otherwise “these laws will be rampantly used to victimise an innocent man for heavy compensation or simply harassment or blackmail.”

SANGYABALYA, Bengaluru Arun Murthy, 47, a freelance writer, established this forum for harassed husbands and their parents in June 2003. He was driven by his own experience when he was summoned to court in a false dowry harassment case filed by his brother’s wife four years ago. An arrest warrant was issued against Murthy and his family. Later, he wrote an article in a local newspaper venting his anguish and decided to start a help line to reach out to other people caught in similar situations. Within three days, he received over 600 calls. His friends — two architects — lent him space in their office and telephone accessibility two hours twice a week. Within three months, Sangyabalya was registered as an NGO with its own dedicated 24-hour helpline. Today the group attends to over 25-30 calls every month. A significant number of callers are NRIs. “The notion that NRIs would be more vulnerable to parting with money under duress make them easy targets,” says Murthy. Sangyabalya has 250 members, including an advocate and a counsellor, who meet every fortnight to share grievances, and discuss legal loopholes and ways to overcome them.

“What rankles is that no punitive action is taken against a woman, even when her allegations are proved to be false,” says Murthy. He emphasises that even the Supreme Court has labelled the misuse of Section 498 A as “legal terrorism” and admitted that “many complaints are not bona fide and have been filed with an oblique motive. In such cases, acquittal of the accused does not wipe out the ignominy suffered during and prior to the trial.”

“Many families turn bitter under the twin assault — loss of employment and unfair allegations,” says Murthy. “The stigma attached to being in police custody can wipe out employment opportunities and can lead the man and his family to severe financial despair.” He has a three-pronged approach to the issue: suggesting correct legal measures to counter the charges; providing a platform where they can share their woes; and campaigning for the rights of the victims. “Sangyabalya offers them a chance to share, learn and heal,” says Murthy.

PROTECT INDIAN FAMILY, Mumbai These days, M R Gupta, 55, spends most of his time poring through heavy tomes on Indian law. The civil engineer is appearing for his LLB exams because he wants to be fully empowered when he fights his daughter-in-law who has filed false allegations of harassment against Gupta’s family under Section 498 A. He is the director of Protect Indian Family, an offshoot of Save Indian Family — an international network of NGOs and individuals for victims of misuse of gender-biased laws.

Gupta shares his crusade with P R Gokul, 34, the other director of Protect Indian Family forum and a past victim of false charges of dowry harassment. Gupta and Gokul meet coordinators and members every Saturday at Gupta’s cybercaf√© in Mulund, Mumbai. The forum took shape when Gokul expressed his views in an online chat group while he was fighting the allegations against him. Today Protect Indian Family has 200 members in Mumbai and branches in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Jaipur. Gokul still remembers the plight of his own parents who were jailed without investigation.

“There are many helpless old couples who approach us,” says Gokul. He has observed that silvers feel guilty and responsible about their sons’ plight as, often, they have arranged the match. According to him, the couple should have the freedom to explore their emotional and mental compatibility before marriage. As a case study, Gokul points out a case where a man and his widowed mother lost possession of their own house when they were falsely charged with mental harassment and domestic violence.

SAHANA, Hyderabad At a recent conference on the misuse of gender-biased laws, a young woman confessed that she had framed her husband’s family falsely under charges of dowry harassment. When asked for her motive she simply said that she had done it on the behest of her parents who wanted her husband to come and stay with them. “The woman wanted to know how she could extricate her in-laws from the shackles of law but she didn’t know that the damage was already done,” says Durga Prasad Kollu, a 30 year-old IT professional and the president of Sahana, a Hyderabad-based support group that had organised the conference. Sahana has over 100 members. Most of them meet every Sunday to discuss the correct legal action for victims and to offer a sounding board.

In 2005, when Kollu was posted in Switzerland, he was summoned to India on false charges of dowry harassment filed by his sister-in-law against his family. The case still drags on and Kollu says his brother, who was earlier an IT engineer, has become a recluse, drained of all his money. Sahana has help lines in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Jaipur, Kanpur, Kerala, Kolkata, Mumbai, Nasik, Pune, and in the US. It receives about four to five calls every week. Almost 55 per cent of the callers are parents of victims. Besides campaigning for better legislative measures, Kollu likes to try a refreshing approach to reduce their agony. Recently, he took members on a trip to Nagarjunasagar Fall.

Sahana: 09848280354, http://www.sahanaindia.org/; Sangyabalya: 09845715737; Protect Indian Family: 09224335577 http://www.protectindianfamily.org/; Man Cell: 011 27491446, http://www.mancell.i8.com/

Featured in Harmony Magazine, January 2008

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