Section 498A IPC was introduced by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1983. Before 1983, cases of cruelty were dealt with under the general provisions of assault, grievous hurt etc. The advancement of this section opened up the doors of justice for those million women who suffered cruelty under the hands of their husband and relatives. But, even after 35 years of its introduction, the law remains a paper tiger. Let us see this through the five judgements of the Supreme Court.
Rupali Devi v State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors (2019 SC 493)
The case arose through many petitions registered in the Supreme Court since 2012. The issue before the CJI led three-judge bench was whether a case of cruelty on account of dowry harassment punishable under Section 498A of the IPC could be registered, investigated and ‘punished’ in a jurisdiction different from the one from which the aggrieved spouse has been forced out on account of such harassment.
The court said that the provisions contained in Section 498A encompass both physical and mental well-being of the aggrieved wife. Even the silence of the wife may amount to a mental agony or distress that she has been concealing for an extended period. The acts of physical cruelty committed in the matrimonial home may have ceased, and such acts might not occur at the parental home, but there can be no doubt that the mental trauma and the psychological distress caused by the acts of the husband including verbal exchanges, if any, that had compelled the wife to leave the matrimonial home and take shelter with her parents. This mental agony would continue to persist at the parental home. Such consequences that manifest themselves in the form of emotional distress, by itself would amount to distinct offences. Accordingly, the court held that ‘the adverse effects on the mental health in the parental home though on account of the acts committed in the matrimonial home would, in our considered view, amount to commission of cruelty within the meaning of Section 498A at the parental home’.
Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar v Union of India (2018 SCC 1501)
The Bench comprising of former CJI Dipak Misra and A.M. Khanwilkar and Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud, JJ., while disposing of a writ petition related to Section 498A IPC, modified the directions concerning registration of FIR, arrest and bail under the said section as given in a recent judgement in Rajesh Sharma v State of UP.
The case was instituted to create an environment for married women who were continuously subjected to cruelty to enable them to make informed choices and to create a uniform and better system of monitoring incidents of violence against women. Another essential contention made by the Petitioners in the case was that the social fabric of the Section was getting hampered as the offence had practically been made bailable after the verdict in Rajesh Sharma.
Upon looking at the directions, in that case, the Court found that it directed constitution of the Family Welfare Committees by the District Legal Services Authorities and prescribed the duties of the Committees. In the opinion of the court, this function instituted by the case was beyond the scope of the IPC. The court declared the directions pertaining to FWCs and its constitution by the DLSA and the power conferred on the Committee as impermissible and accordingly overruled the Rajesh Sharma judgement.
Sunita Jha v State of Jharkhand and Anr
In this case, the wife of the husband was allegedly being threatened by his mistress. The wife filed a case contending that these threats amounted to cruelty as the mistress could amount to a ‘relative' as per the requirements of Section 498A IPC. The issue before the court was whether a girlfriend/concubine of husband would fall under the meaning of ‘relative’ as under Section 498A of IPC. The court accordingly held, after reviewing the law and its scope, that neither a girlfriend nor a concubine is a relative of the husband since they are not connected by blood or marriage to the husband. A girlfriend and a concubine do not become a member of the husband’s family merely because she was living with him in his house as his alleged wife.
The penal provision deserved strict constructed, and it was not possible that a girlfriend or a concubine would be a ‘relative’ whose status could only be conferred by blood connection or marriage or adoption. If no marriage has taken place, the question of being a ‘relative’ does not arise. Hence, the petition was dismissed, and the charges against the appellant were quashed.
Bibi Parwana Khatoon v State of Bihar [(2017) 6 SCC 792]
In this case, the wife was killed by her husband and her relatives by setting her up on fire. The sister-in-law and brother-in-law of the deceased wife challenged the conviction in the Supreme Court.
It was held that the appellants, in this case, did not even reside at the place of the mishap. Accordingly, there was no conclusive evidence to prove their charge beyond a reasonable doubt. The appeal was allowed, and the convicts were acquitted. The court also put out a caveat asking the judiciary to guard itself against false implications by aggrieved wives. This case is a significant one when one is reviewing the practical approach of Section 498A. Its misuse, as seen in cases like these, is one of the main reasons why its effect is so negligible. In spite of having a rigorous law in the Indian Penal Code, the cases of cruelty and violence against women are ever on the rise.
Section 498A was not present when the IPC first came out in 1860. It was inserted in 1983 through an Amendment. The reason for the same can be traced to increased cases of violence against women, which could not be covered through provisions of assault or grievous hurt, which were already present in the IPC. This was because the threshold required to establish such offences was very high, and it also did not take into cognisance the special position (in terms of a historically suppressed group) that women held in society.
After 35 years, it can be said the law remains relevant as there is no decrease in the violence, but the mechanism to handle such cases has improved. Awareness about the law is increasing as the days go by, the judiciary is becoming more sensitive to the plight of women and taking the required steps to make it better.
 2017 SCC 821