Section 498A was introduced in the Indian Penal Code in the year 1983 to protect married women from the cruelty of husbands and their relatives. This was mainly done after a spate of protests by women’s organizations talking about the inability of Indian law to deal with cases where women were being tortured or killed for dowry.
Section 498A states:
Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty–Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.
This is the only Indian law under which the perpetrator is assumed guilty unless proved innocent.
But in the last 23 years since 498A was introduced in the IPC the law has been used more often to harass husbands and their families than it has actually given justice to wronged women.
Martyrs of Marriage
The ground-breaking documentary Martyrs of Marriage, that has been made over four years by journalist and documentary film-maker Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, explores the other facet of this section.
- Between 1998 and 2015 more than 2.7 million people have been arrested under 498A alone, higher than any other crime under IPC except theft, hurt and riots.
- 650,000 women who were arrested were sisters, mothers and relatives of the man many of whom had never stayed with the couple sharing a domestic relationship.
- Most of these people were arrested on mere allegations without investigations.
- 7,700 minors were also arrested in 498A cases.
- Convictions rate under 498A dropped down to 13.7% in 2014, making it one amongst few sections under IPC that have a poor conviction record.
- Several families have been destroyed because of incarceration due to a false case or running around courts for years and years.
- Most people choose to quietly give in to legal extortion under these cases to escape decades of trial and harassment for no fault of theirs.
The documentary starts with the spine-chilling story of Syed Ahmad Maqdhoom, who left a video minutes before he committed suicide, talking about his plight after his wife took away his child and made a case of 498A against him. He said he could not deal with the harassment and misery anymore and hence was ending his life.
Maqdhoom’s sister talks about how he met his wife on the internet and was in shock when post-marriage she told him she had been married a couple of times before. He got over it though and when he had a son he was the most involved and happy father. Till his wife and her family started extorting money from him and when he refused to give, they slapped a case of 498A against him.
The film is a revelation on how legal terrorism is thriving in India and destroying lives.If dowry is a common allegation brought forward by the wife another trend that has caught on is false cases of rape against the father-in-law. The documentary has phone conversations showing how lawyers guide their clients to frame the husbands and their families and get the maximum money out of them and how even a two-month old child or an 89-year-old woman is not spared from arrest by the cops because they have been named in the FIR.
Talking about her experiences when she approached the victims to talk on camera and tell their story Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj said: “People had hesitations predominantly with my intentions behind making this film and my credibility as a filmmaker to handle this subject. That part was more difficult to handle because some people had very bitter experiences of talking to media before. Their stories were misrepresented or their experiences belittled. Once they realized I was very serious about this, they opened up and spoke candidly on the camera. Some people hesitated to come on the camera because they feared that an appearance in the film may invite more litigations on them by their partners. I did miss out on some crucial evidences and sharings because of this reason.”
Why this documentary
Talk to any Indian and ask them if they know anyone who has been a victim of Section 498A and the answer would be in the affirmative. For instance I have known at least two people very closely who have had to fight long-drawn battles in the court because they were arrested under Section 498A. One person I know was even given an extra beating during incarceration because his wife had bribed the police officers and he stayed in jail for a month and fought a court battle for 8 years travelling from Delhi to Kolkata often for court hearings. Finally he was penny less when his innocence was proved but he had the guts to pick up the pieces and start life all over again.
“I accompanied my cousin to meet a retired Judge. There had been no dowry demand and the girl was lying. As a husband you can do nothing to save you and your family if she wants to file a dowry case he told us. What she says is always right. We told him we had evidence against her. He laughed saying a woman isn’t punished for adultery in this country. However she can file endless false cases against you, get you arrested and make you run around courts for years unless you agree to pay,” said Deepika.In Deepika’s case also the desire to work on a documentary and delve into the issues came when she saw a cousin suffering after his wife filed an FIR under Section 498A when actually the truth was she was having an affair.
According to Section 498A arrests can be made without any investigation and based on the FIR lodged in the police station. In 2014 the Supreme Court came up with the guideline that police officers could not go ahead and arrest the accused automatically and some parameters had to be followed.
“Despite that 1,87,000 arrests were made in 2015,” Deepika said.
The idea behind the documentary was to make people think about an issue that they never thought about or were not aware that it existed. “It is initiating a much needed debate on gender neutral laws in the country. Now that Judges, Magistrates, Police officers are seeing the film, I am sure they will be more sensitive and justice-oriented in their approach rather than gender oriented. I am trying to do the best I can to change mindsets where we believe it is only a woman who can be wronged.”
In a country where men’s issues are rarely talked about Martyrs of Marriage has stirred the hornet’s nest and brought an issue to the fore in the most hard-hitting exposition of one and a half hours screen time.
“People who are absolutely unrelated to the issue have come to me after the screenings and cried hugging me, saying they never knew that something like this is happening and it is just so painful. The film has received a standing ovation at each and every screening across cities. In Mumbai, we had about 700 people giving a standing ovation to the film. Hashtag #MartyrsofMarriage trended on twitter on the night the film was screened in Mumbai. Experienced filmmakers, writers, directors hailed the film and its powerful presentation. People have called the film an eye opener, a revolution, one that is voice of millions across the country, one that raises very strong questions. People from cities where the film has already been screened are tagging their friends on social media in other cities where screenings are being planned, urging them to watch the film. The film has got very positive response from judiciary also. Retired and serving judges have been a part of the screenings and appreciated the film immensely. We have screened the film at Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy and Maharashtra State Judicial Academy too. People who are a part of the film have also appreciated the documentary. It has been a very satisfying experience,” said Deepika.
The Kolkata premiere of the documentary had an involved audience throughout. And the question-answer session at the end of the screening was indeed interesting and enlightening.
This article was published in Asia Times on January 17, 2017.