Changes To Anti-Dowry Laws Announced By The Indian Supreme Court

With growing tensions on the Sino-Indian border, a recent Supreme Court judgement has received limited international attention. On the 28th July, the Indian Supreme Court issued a set of directives altering the implementation of Section 498a, the anti-dowry law. The law currently allows wives to incarcerate their husbands and in-laws immediately by accusing them of harassing her for the fulfilment of a dowry before any investigation into the case takes place.

With only a 14.2% conviction rate in 2015, however, the law has attracted widespread criticism for its use as a form of revenge by brides and their families in the event of marriage breakdown. Cases accusing 2-year-old relatives of harassment have eroded the law’s credibility, and pressure groups, like the ‘Save Indian Families,’ cite the possible devastating effects of false accusations on the husband’s family. Section 498a even has its own website, with a tab entitled ‘human rights violation.’

This law came before the Supreme Court just three years ago and the judges then introduced a nine-point plan to be followed by police before making an arrest. In 2014, the judges commented that the act had become a ‘weapon for disgruntled wives,’ and C K Prasad, a judge who had previously taken over a 12-year-long case and came to his verdict in two minutes, was on the bench. The, perhaps unsurprising, inefficacy of their alteration has now led to a more drastic change: the court has ordered that cases will be judged by district-level ‘Family Welfare Committees’ and arrests before the charges are proven will no longer occur.

Although the issue of dowries does not present as a war, it claims a high death toll. The undesirability of girls, for reasons including the illegal practice of dowry, has skewed India’s gender balance more extremely than China’s, and 21 ‘dowry deaths,’ which refers to brides killed because of problems negotiating and fulfilling dowries, are reported across the country daily. More worryingly, the suicide rate amongst Indian housewives is extremely high and has exceeded 20,000 women every single year since 1997. Although the connection is not certain, Section 498a itself links dowry trouble with suicide, including a provision entitled ‘presumption as to incitement of suicide by a married woman’. The government statistics list 2,261 suicides caused by dowry-related issues in 2014. However, the illegality of dowry and the series of overlapping categories, which include ‘marriage related issues’ in the government statistics, casts doubt on their reliability.

The suicides of 5,650 farmers in 2014 prompted laws to be proposed banning pesticides and rope, and giving extra support to the rural communities; women have just witnessed a further erosion of their rights. The decentralization of decisions to district-led courts, filled with volunteers from the area who need only receive a week’s training, will lead to a geographical lottery. Removing the facility of immediate arrest will also limit this method of appeal to women who can live somewhere else during the investigation of the charges: women who are too poor or who come from too far away to leave their husbands during this period will now be unable to access justice.

The alternative to district level courts is, however, a central government where women’s rights are advocated by the current Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi. Addressing a conference of journalists in 2014, Gandhi bizarrely insisted that India’s ‘rape problem is exaggerated’ and that India is in the lowest four countries in the world for the incidence of the crime.

However, India’s narrow legal definition, which excludes marital rape, leaves the figures incomparable with many other countries, thereby making Gandhi’s statements meaningless. Gandhi has also previously said that 498a is ‘the only protection women have and it would be a shame to make every woman defenceless,’ but has not spoken officially and explicitly against the Supreme Court’s latest measure. In addition, in a survey of 370 gender specialists from around the world, India was crowned the worst place to be a woman. Thus, the Supreme Court judgement demonstrates how India is earning its title and eroding an extremely important, albeit flawed, piece of legislation.