The Supreme Court some days ago while passing a landmark interim order in a dowry harassment case (Rajesh Sharma vs. State of UP) put an end to automatic arrests in cases under Section 498A of the IPC. A bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit barred the police from making direct arrest and held that the police would have to conduct a preliminary inquiry before making arrests in such cases.

While Section 498A is a tangible deterrent against cruelty to a woman in her matrimonial home, the courts, especially the Supreme Court, have expressed concern about its abuse after coming across several cases where women lodged false complaints to settle scores leading to arrests and harassment of husbands and their relatives.

Though the Court’s order will be welcomed by anti-Section 498A campaigners, women’s organisations may not accept discounting of the epidemic of dowry-related violence. Myths regarding gender roles perpetuate the silence surrounding these abusive relationships.

Threats to women’s safety emanating from their spousal relationships continue to profoundly affect their economic security, health, civic engagement, and overall well-being. Anti-dowry laws have been legislated to curb the menace of women suffering from atrocities and domestic violence – physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and mental – at the hands of their husband or in-laws.

There have been radical changes in the landscape of criminal jurisprudence in terms of providing more teeth to the existing women centric laws (DV Act, 498A, 406 IPC), but unfortunately at times, the cure has been worse than the disease.

The dowry laws have failed to make a dent on the rising level of crime against women especially dowryrelated assault. On the other hand, false accusations have loomed large in our culture, though research, academic studies, journalistic counts and cases registered in the courts fail to suggest a concrete and reliable figure.

It is equally difficult to suggest that every part of the narrative is wrong; hence the real intent and purport of the legal instruments have been defeated. The exponential increase in the number of false and frivolous cases of dowry harassment has led the Law Commission of India to recommend that the strict law dealing with dowry offences be made compoundable – a move that will allow an accused to escape a jail term by paying a fine.

The apex Court in many of its previous judgements has reiterated its resolve to revisit provisions of the dowry law with observations that exaggerated versions of the incidents are often reflected in a large number of complaints. As the per National Crime Records’ Bureau (NCRB) report titled ‘Crime in India’, the number of cases filed under Section 498A of IPC has been on rise and has shown an increase of about 10 per cent per annum (between 2007 to 2013).

Similarly, there has been quantum jump in cases pending for trial – from 2.67 lakh (2007) to 4.66 lakh (2013) which makes up an almost 75 per cent increase over seven years. But surprisingly, the conviction rate in cases under Sec 498A has dropped sharply from 21 per cent (2007) to 16 per cent (2013), while the average conviction rate in other IPC crimes remained more or less static at 40 per cent each year.

With a view to address the social evil of dowry-related violence, stringent provisions like Sec 498A of IPC and the Domestic Violence Act were introduced. But it is also imperative that the innocent should be protected from oppression and injustice at the hands of law enforcement agencies.

The apex court in Arnesh Kumar (2014), observed that a complaint under Sec 498-A allows immediate arrest and jailing of the accused, since the offence is cognizable and non-bailable, which is a violation of human rights if the complaint is false and motivated. It further observed that complaints under Sec 498-A were being filed with an oblique motive to wreck personal vendetta.

In this context, guiding words of legendry Justice Cardozo should prevail, “on the one side is the social need that crime shall be repressed, on the other, the social need that law shall not be flouted by the insolence of office”. Giving a series of guidelines, styled as mandatory, the apex Court outlines that every complaint under Section 498A, henceforth, shall be referred to Family Welfare Committees – to be constituted in every district by the Chairman, District Legal Services Authority.

Every complaint under Section 498A received by the police or the Magistrate would be referred to such committee and the said committee after having interaction with the parties personally or telephonically, will prepare the report narrating the factual matrix and its opinion of the case.

The report of said committee shall be submitted to the District legal Services Authority within a month from the date of receipt of complaint. No arrest shall be affected till report of such committee is received. However, the report of the Committee may be considered by the Investigating Officer or the Magistrate on its own merit.

The top court has also directed that only a designated Investigating Officer of the area with proper training shall investigate dowry harassment cases and that the said designations must be completed within a month. The lower courts have been directed that the accused should be exempted from appearing in person or be allowed to appear via video conferencing. In cases where accused is residing out of India, impounding of passports or red corner notice should not be routine.

The Court added that if a bail application is filed with at least one clear day's notice to the Public Prosecutor/complainant, it should be decided as far as possible on the same day. Feminists dismiss these guidelines by arguing that false accusations are rare.

They say that even assuming half of the cases were cooked up; the other half makes up a humongous number of women crying out for protection from violence. According to them, the judgement in the instant case has relied upon data of the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) which was not examined critically. It is erroneous to draw a conclusion of false case from low conviction because the acquittals could be on account of many factors like shoddy investigation, compromise, intimidation of witnesses or of the complainant herself.

The court could have taken expert opinion on this subject before coming to the conclusion of misuse of law. The judgment overlooks the fact that women are the victims of harassment for dowry and domestic violence on a daily basis. Another aspect, without any caveat, is often argued, which is that a constant complaint of victims about the insensitivity of the police and its gender bias often minimises the instances of assaults.

Most women victims find it extremely difficult to even lodge a complaint, thanks to rampant corruption in the police system. Further, the committees, to be formed as per direction of the judgement, are extra-judicial bodies of questionable competence which seek to take over the duty of the Police and seem to be akin to kangaroo courts, Khap Panchayats, or other forms of vigilante justice.

The guidelines of the Supreme Court might help in stemming the misuse of Section 498A at the hands of some vengeance-seeking women but the counter views offered by women’s organisations also carry weight.

There is an urgent need to strike a judicious balance between the competing interests and viewpoints since the evil of gender-related violence is toppling the societal balance.

(The author is a Supreme Court Advocate.)