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Matrimony in the Hindu context is much more than just a contractual obligation. It’s a pious affair that transcends lifetimes and upholds values that are as old as human civilization. Hindu Marriage is an amalgamation of mutual love, respect, trust, and care. The knot that ties a man and a wife is sacred and unbreakable. It’s a sacramental union of divine nature that cannot be broken off easily. The bride and groom promise to safeguard their eternal friendship before Agni, the God of Fire. This promise is good enough to fuel the couple through storms. But is this promise good enough to justify the permanency of this union?

Marriages, just like any other human relation, do come to an end, whether by the natural death of one spouse or by divorce. One of the most common reasons that came to light before the learned court was cruelty. According to The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, cruelty became a ground for the dissolution of marriage only after the 1976 Amendment. The new words, which have been incorporated, are "as to cause a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the petitioner that it will be harmful or injurious for the petitioner to live with the other party". Cruelty not only limits its scope to physical torture but affects the mental well-being of the spouse as well (Maya Devi v. Jagdish Prasad, AIR 2007 SC 1426). However, cruelty is bound with conduct that is “grave and weighty” in nature. It does not encompass trivial day-to-day quarrels between the husband and wife. Cruelty is vicious venom because it can be expressed in varying degrees. It can be subtle when expressed through gestures or by mere silence and brutality when one spouse is violent, and aggressive with their words.

To protect the wives, Section 498-A was introduced in 1983. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 was amended by the way of the Criminal Law (Second Amendment ) Act, 1983 on 26 December 1983 which inserted a new Section 498A under Chapter XX-A, Of Cruelty By Husband Or Relatives Of Husband. It focuses on guarding women from the cruelty inflicted on them by their husbands and their in-laws (B.S. Josh v. State of Haryana, AIR 2003 SC 1386). Under this section of IPC, the term “cruelty” is defined with a very wide scope which makes it an umbrella term that encompasses situations such as inflicting mental or physical harm to the body or the health of the woman. It also includes acts of harassment that can coerce her or her relations to meet unlawful demands for any property or valuable security. Even extortion of any form of property by subjecting a woman to cruelty is punishable under this offense.

Section 498A is criminal in nature and has acted, to date as one of the greatest rescues for violence against women. This includes sexual violence, physical violence, emotional (psychological) abuse, and controlling behavior. If a woman is subjected to any of the above-mentioned degrees of cruelty, then it is taken as a punishable offense. The husband shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of up to three years and is also liable to pay a fine.

The crime is cognizable in nature, non-compoundable and non-bailable. This has empowered women to come forward and share their woes with the world. This indeed created a whirlwind in the country and diminished the tarnished image of divorce and domestic violence. Women now don’t hesitate to take a stand for themselves. This has also affected the suicide rates and the dowry deaths in the nation. Statistics say that before the introduction of this section, around 40% of the women’s deaths were suicidal cases. But after the introduction of the said section, suicide rates decreased sharply. This section gives the woman a chance to seek their right to live instead of committing suicide. The section has given dignity to wives that they deserve. The punishments prescribed under this section serve as an example for others. Spouses and the in-laws now know the consequences of their actions. The law now makes sure that women are not just an accessory for the household. They are beings in the flesh that deserve love and need to be treated with respect.

Though the section was revolutionary it has also been brought to the learned court’s notice that the number of acquittals relative to convictions is much greater. The Supreme Court has now dubbed it ‘Legal Terrorism’ because the Section is misused to such a great extent that it now has lost all its credibility. Cross-investigations have shown that this section is heavily misused against the husband and the relatives at such a great level that it has now become an anti-male law, the reason being radical feminization. Daughters-in-law are turning petty fights into court cases. Section 498A is used by them to blackmail their spouses and in-laws only to get a huge amount of money for compensation later.

Marriage as stated above is a sacred union of two souls. Misuse of this particular section only to get even with your spouse is a degrading act. Thus, many a time it has been noted that not only is this Section partial in its approach but also very vengeful in its nature. Women are using this provision as a tool to get out of wedlock which in itself is gross misconduct of a section that is criminal in nature. This raises questions on behalf of all men in the Indian society, i.e., are they not humans? Why are only men subjected to sections of such nature? Even the Malimath Committee Report, 2003 expressed views of similar nature. Section 498A was introduced to shield women from harassment, cruelty, and other such offenses. The sacred institution of marriage is built on pillars of trust, but when spouses turn vicious, it is the society and the state that needs to safeguard the rights of the accused, because time has proved again and again that women are not always the victim and men are not always the preparators.

This article is written by Anoushka Singh Songara of Parul Institute of Law.

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