India’s Anti-Dowry Law: Tools to Harass Husbands

India’s Dowry Prohibition Act was crafted to empower women and prevent their victimization from avaricious husbands and in-laws while punishing those who tortured and killed brides for dowry. But in an ironic twist, men are increasingly getting the wrong end of the stick under the law.

Enacted in 1961, the law’s primary aim is to prevent husbands and their families from harassing brides for dowry, a practice defined under Indian law as “any gift or cash given either directly or indirectly by one party in a marriage to the other.”

However, while the law has had a major impact in easing what amounts to blackmail and violence for vast numbers of unfortunate families and their daughters, a growing number of cases have come to light involving husbands and their families who have been jailed on the basis of mere accusations of torture for dowry. All the cases underscore abuse by women to settle petty marital scores.

As defined by law, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code leads to the immediate arrest of the accused on the presumption of the husband’s guilt. “Many women are using the anti-dowry law to settle all types of marital disputes whether related to dowry or not,” said Delhi-based lawyer Priti Jhangiani, who specializes in marital disputes.

“A large number of cases filed under the dowry laws are fake. It’s a cruel and wicked design to blackmail husbands and in-laws,’’ said Jhangiani, who says he personally has handled 16 such cases over the last two years.

Take the case of Prashant Sahni (name changed), 35, a software engineer. He and his elderly parents spent three weeks in jail after his wife accused him and her in-laws of torture over dowry demands. The police arrested the accused without investigation and without a chance to defend themselves, as dictated by the law.

Later investigations revealed that the case was fabricated. Sahni’s wife had chosen the anti-dowry law to settle a property dispute with her husband. Although Sahni was exonerated by a court, by then he was a broken man – he had lost his job and his social standing and familial reputation. There was no penalty imposed on his wife.

“Worse, the law is treated as a non-bailable and cognizable offence,” explains Jhangiani. This means a court can initiate proceedings upon its own knowledge or on the basis of a police report, even if the aggrieved person has lodged no such complaint.

The list of wronged husbands, according to the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), a grievance cell for husbands with more than 10,000 members, is long. “In the past few years, there has been a perceptible increase in the number of men being bullied and blackmailed, tormented and terrorized due to faux dowry cases,” said the foundation’s Treasurer Wasif Ali.

Though India’s’ bias against the female child, cases of rape, domestic violence, dowry harassment and other acts of barbarity perpetrated on women are well-documented, the problem of men being victimized gets scant media attention.

Last week, Delhi-based Metropolitan Magistrate Shivani Chauhan ruled in the case of a feuding couple that "Under no circumstances can the dowry act be permitted to become a tool for harassment of innocent persons."

The woman referred to in the case was accusing her husband of miscarriage due to torture and stress over dowry demands. However, the court’s investigations revealed that it was the woman’s second marriage (which she withheld from the accused), and there was no evidence of dissolution of the first. The wife’s charge of husbandly cruelty, which according to her had resulted in a miscarriage, was also false. The medical report showed that she had voluntarily got her pregnancy terminated. The police then gave the husband a clean chit.

The court’s observation has been welcomed by lawyers handling domestic and family disputes and other organizations of men which are fighting for a gender neutral society in the country.

The Indian Supreme Court also warned of legal terrorism due to misuse of the dowry section and said, "The role of the investigating agencies and courts is that of a watchdog and not of a bloodhound. It should be their effort to see that an innocent person is not made to suffer on account of unfounded, baseless and malicious allegations."

The most aggrieved lot of the wrongful use of this law, activists say, is non-resident Indian men. “Once a complaint is registered, this segment is not able to leave the country. The fear of arrest and the notion among women that NRIs are easy to browbeat to part with money makes them easy targets of such false complaints,” says activist Madhu Kishwar.

Many women misuse these provisions for reasons such as speedy divorce and settlement of alimony, financial greed, to dissolve a marriage speedily or desire to take revenge and a clash of egos, added Kishwar, whose organization Manushi has often handled such cases.

The 6,000-member strong Janamithram Janakeeya Neethi Vedi — a registered society devoted to the cause of men harassed by women based in the southern state of Kerala has been fighting for a specific law to protect men against the dowry law. “Our aim is gender equality in its true sense. Equality of the sexes before the law is vital in a democratic country,” said Janamithram’s president and founder M.A. Ibrahim.

The law has even been compared to the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act recognized by several human rights organizations as draconian. The Save Indian Family Foundation discloses that the social cost of such cases is high. National Crime Records Bureau archives indicate that 63,343 married Indian men committed suicide in 2012 (up from 37,168 in 1997) “unable to withstand verbal, emotional, economic and physical abuse” due to false implication in dowry cases.

Though de-criminalizing the acceptance of dowry is not an option in Indian society where over 95 percent of dowry cases are indeed genuine and murder of women is involved, a sustainable situation is in order.

However, women lobbyists are against diluting the law. Brinda Karat, President of the All India Democratic Women's Association said it has taken decades for women to pluck up the courage to use these laws, so diluting them won’t solve the problem. “There may be a few cases of abuse. But dowry-related violence is so horrific that these laws are life-savers for women and it would be disastrous to dilute them. Dowry-hungry men will think they can get away with murder, literally,” she said.

Anti-dowry agitators suggest that a good way out of the quandary is to decriminalize marriage disputes and put an end to involvement of the police in counseling or monetary settlement of marital disputes. ”Such cases should be referred to Family Courts, not the Police. This will solve the bulk of the problem as the social cost of this skewed law is too high,” Jhangiani said.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist