THE All India Democratic Women’s Association, in a statement issued on September 15, has welcomed the SC judgement on Section 498A IPC to the extent that it does away with the constitution of family welfare committees ordered by the SC in the Rajesh Sharma case. These committees were meant to look into and examine all cases of domestic abuse and harassment for dowry under 498A IPC before an FIR could be registered. The SC has rightly held that the constitution of such committees and giving them powers is erroneous and impermissible and not in accordance with the law. AIDWA, which was an intervener in the case had pointed out that such committees would be extra judicial bodies of questionable competence and cannot be allowed to take over the functions of the criminal justice system. It had also pointed out that allowing such bodies to function would be akin to allowing decisions to be taken by a community or khap panchayats or other forms of vigilante ‘justice’. The court has also rightly held that only the High Court can dispose of such a case if a settlement has been reached between the parties.
However, the SC judgement quotes with approval the judgement in Arnesh Kumar’s case which had made sweeping remarks about women using Section 498A as a ‘weapon rather than as a shield’ and given elaborate directions in the case to protect the accused. The present judgement also focuses on how the rights of the accused should be protected in these cases by quoting various judgements against arbitrary arrest. In the Rajesh Sharma’s case the SC had proceeded on the basis that most women are liars and that is why though over a lakh cases are registered every year under Section 498A, most result in acquittals. AIDWA and other women’s organisations had pointed out, in a letter asking for review of the judgement, that women in this country are daily recipients of harassment for dowry and of domestic violence and the statistics too show this to some extent. It had also pointed out that more than 90 percent of such cases are charge sheeted showing the pervasive nature of violence. The intervention application had also highlighted that the low conviction rate is not because the cases are false but because the cases are not properly investigated by the police, evidence is not properly collected and statements of material witnesses are omitted. A lot of cases also get compromised due to delays in court and pressure on women to withdraw the case. Apart from this, AIDWA had also pointed out that the direction to the police to act only in cases of tangible injury and death is wrong, as section 498A is applicable to both gross physical and mental violence. In fact most women face the brunt of gender bias, corruption and inefficiency in the criminal justice system and the courts should recognise this. However, the SC did not address the wrong assumptions on which the Rajesh Sharma’s case had proceeded.