Dowry Laws in India: Review of Legal Framework & Recent SC Verdict

Dowry is the money, goods or estate that a woman brings to a marriage. Dowry is illegal in India under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, under which both giving and accepting dowry is offence. The punishment for violating the law is 5 years imprisonment + Rs.15000/- fine or the value of the dowry given, whichever is more.

The Dowry Prohibition (DP) Act 1961

This legislation prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of a dowry, “as consideration for the marriage”. Here “dowry” is defined as a gift demanded or given as a precondition for a marriage. Gifts given without a precondition are not considered dowry, and are legal.  Asking or giving of dowry can be punished by an imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to Rs. 15000 or the amount of dowry (whichever is higher), or imprisonment up to 5 years.

Dowry and Indian Penal Code

Apart from the Dowry Prohibition (DP) Act 1961, the menace of dowry has been covered in three sections of Indian Penal Code viz. Section 406 {recovery of the Streedhan}, Section 304-B {Dowry deaths} and Section 498-A {cruelty on the basis of demand of dowry}. However, there are some major issues with these laws as discussed under.

The issue of differentiation between the Dowry and Streedhan

Section 406 of the Indian Penal code is usually applied in investigation of stridhan recovery from the husband and his family. Stridhan is what a woman can claim as her own property within a marital household. It may include her jewellery (gifted either by her family), gifts presented to her during the wedding or later, and the dowry articles given by her family. Offences under this section are Non-bailable and cognizable.

The issue with this section of IPC is that it hardly demarcates the boundary between the Dowry and Streedhan. Streedhan belongs to the woman while dowry is something which is given by either party to another.

Issues with IPC Section 498A

Section 498A is considered to be most draconian provision of the IPC with respect to dowry. It says that if the husband or a relative of the husband of a woman, subjects the woman to cruelty, he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.

Here, the offence of cruelty is considered to be non-compoundable and non-bailable. This means that once a case is lodged, there cannot be compromise. This is seen as a big loophole in the Indian law because being a non-compoundable offence; the dowry laws have been misused to harass the groom’s family.

In 2002, the Law Commission had recommended watering down the anti-dowry law to make it less stringent by allowing the woman involved in the case to withdraw the case with the permission of the court provided she is not under any pressure. The commission, headed by Justice PV Reddi, has also recommended to the government to make Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Similarly, Justice Malimath Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System, 2003 observed the following and gave the recommendation to amend the law immediately.

  • The less tolerant impulsive woman may lodge an FIR even on a trivial act. The result is that the husband and his family may be immediately arrested and there may be a suspension or loss of job.
  • The offence alleged being non-bailable, innocent persons languish in custody. There may be a claim for maintenance adding fuel to fire, if the husband cannot pay.
  • The woman may change her mind and get into the mood to forget and forgive. The husband may realize the mistakes committed and come forward to turn a new leaf for a loving and cordial relationship. The woman may like to seek reconciliation. But this may not be possible due to the legal obstacles. Even if she wishes to make amends by withdrawing the complaint, she can not do so as the offence is non compoundable. The doors for returning to family life stand closed. She is thus left at the mercy of her natal family.

It is often seen that some women have turned the tables and are using these laws as weapon to unleash personal vendetta on their husbands and innocent relatives. So far, the amendment of the law has been largely ignored.

The Supreme Court 2014 and 2017 Judgements on Dowry Law

We have studied above that the section 498-A is considered to be most draconian provision of the IPC with respect to dowry. It has come under Supreme Court scrutiny several times and two verdicts, one of 2014 and another recent in 2017, are worth discussion here and to analyze if these make this law more effective or dilute it.

2014 Judgment

In the Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar, a wife had alleged that her father in-law and mother-in law had demanded Rs 8 lakhs, a car, an air conditioner etc. in the form of dowry. When her family failed to pay this, she was threatened by her husband for second marriage and drove her out of the house. The Supreme Court however observed that there were several frivolous complaints lodged by women to falsely implicate their in-laws and thus laid down a checklist of nine criteria which must be complied with before arresting a person under Section 498A of IPC.

2017 Judgement

In the recent Rajesh Sharma and Ors. v State of UP case also, a woman had complained of dowry demand by her in-laws subsequent to which she was dropped at her matrimonial home when she was pregnant. She had to go through trauma and had a miscarriage followed by her in-laws taking away her stridhan. The Court in this case gave further stringent criteria for determination of case under Section 498A.

  • It mandates the setting up of a family welfare committee in every district for scrutinizing the dowry harassment cases.
  • The members of this committee shall be social workers or persons interested in the subject.
  • The members shall be paid an honorarium.
  • The police has to look into the recommendations of these committees before making any arrests.

While some groups consider these judgements as a positive move towards preventing false implications using the Section 498A route, it has raised serious concerns among the women activists groups. The judgements have been accused of promoting the patriarchal viewpoint of the society, ignoring the sentiments of the victims. There are claims that no legislations has drawn in so much controversies in India’s history since independence like the Section 498A. The purpose of the provision to provide relief to the women facing harassment in their matrimonial homes including dowry deaths or cruelty has been overlooked. The Court drawing conclusion from the 2012 data that since 47,951 women have been arrested, observed that the complaints were trivial or frivolous. But the true picture is that only issues found worthy of charge sheeting by the police are recorded. The slow judicial process has also forced many women to go for settlement than justice. Comparison has also been drawn with laws like that of penalizing dishonor of cheques. These groups have raised the question that while the misuse of these laws is not given that due attention, laws relating to the offences that empower women always cause huge debate and consequently loopholes in them are identified. The focus here is thus mainly the accused and not the women who may genuinely seek relief from the court. In this way, the court has overlooked the main objective of a penal provision to give full protection to the victim while reviewing it. The provision has not been able to control dowry deaths which have been at the rate of 20 per day from 2012 to 2014. Thus, the judgements in this manner have eroded the interests of the large groups of women and taken a step back in the achievement of gender equality.

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