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March 30, 1997 THE WEEK

Dowry Laws Nail Innocents
Estranged wives bring false complaints to beggar helpless spouses

Last year 133 'dowry deaths' were reported in Delhi. On the time-honoured principle that women are for burning, the in-laws would pour kerosene over the bride and set her alight because she didn't bring a scooter or a television to the marriage. Now women are taking their revenge. Exploiting tough anti-dowry laws, estranged wives are charging their husbands with dowry harassment and getting away with extortion.

Corrupt police, sleazy lawyers, even social workers are demanding their cut to keep the husband out of jail with a punishing out-of-court settlement. If the husband won't play the Crime against Women Cell registers a case under sections 406 and 498A of the Indian Penal Code and the husband has to hustle to get anticipatory bail.

Police spokesmen agreed that estranged wives are being urged by their elders to charge the spouse with dowry harassment, never mind the facts. The family sees the change of a fast buck and the girl wants an acceptable reason for seeking a divorce, especially if she has a lover.

Social workers revealed the shocking fact that most of the false charges are brought by the middle-and high-income families of educated working or non-working wives whose husbands can afford to shell out. Most husbands settle out of court to protect their careers.

Bizarre spin-off from the racket was the formation by Delhi lawyer R.P. Chugh of what he calls the All India Crime against Men by Women Front, which he claimed had support all over the country, even among women.

The wife of a retired army officer was startled to be told she was under arrest when she opened the door to a policeman. Accompanying the cop was her nephew's father-in-law, who claimed she had arranged the marriage and demanded dowry.

After her son had slipped the cop Rs 1,000 the family rushed her to court to get anticipatory bail. "I've nothing to do with the couple," she testified. A physician whose wife left him a few days after the wedding has spend Rs 50,000 to date fighting off her demand for return of streedhan (parent's gift to the bride). He has been on tranquillisers since she started making his life hell nine months ago. He was called by the Crime against Women Cell, where his wife chewed him out to the amusement of the police. The woman police inspector confided that she didn't believe his wife's tale and offered to cut her Rs 1 lakh streedhan claim by half if he tipped the police Rs 10,000.

When he wouldn't there began three months of systematic harassment. He was summoned to the cell every other day and the police inspector took to calling at the doctor's clinic, driving away patients. Then a social worker got into the act, asking Rs 10,000 to engineer an out-of-court settlement.

"I refused to pay up because I am innocent," he told THE WEEK. When the campaign failed to break him the police registered a case under sections 406 and 498A, forcing him to seek bail. Under these laws, enacted about 10 years ago in response to the bride-burning scourge, the onus is on the defendant to prove his innocence.

Meanwhile the case drags on, with his wife's lawyer offering to fix an out-of-court settlement-for the standard Rs 10,000 bakshish. Investigating agencies said the genuine complaints by harassed brides far outnumbered false complaints by gold-diggers, but these had eroded the sympathy of the authorities by making them suspicious of all comers.

Abandoned husbands who move the court for restitution of conjugal rights can now expect to be countered with a dowry harassment charge. the anti-dowry laws, which answered a crying abuse in the money-minded marriage market, have thus distorted things the other way.

Said Deputy Commissioner of Police S.S. Grewal, in charge of the Crime against Women Cell: "There is a tendency to exploit the law by filing false cases. But we must understand that the majority of the women who come to this cell are troubled. The cause may not always be dowry but they are tutored to include this in their complaint..... We have to screen the cases carefully. If we are convinced that it s not a case of dowry harassment we do not register the case."

An example was the 78-year-old woman who alleged that her 84-year-old husband had tormented her for the last 60 years demanding that she get money from her parents' house. She couldn't stand it any more. All she wanted was to be given his ancestral mansion as streedhan and she would live separately. The complaint ended up in the waste basket but only after the old man had made a number of trips to the police station.

Another complaint that the cell managed to expose was filed by a woman who alleged that her brother -in-law and mother-in-law caused her mental agony by demanding dowry. She insisted that her streedhan be returned to her so that she could live away from them. After long interrogation of the two parties concerned it was revealed that the woman had gone to the police at the instance of her husband. He had thought of this ploy to settle a property dispute with his brother.

It took 90 days of inquiry to establish that it was a false complaint. During this period both the mother-in-law and brother-in-law had to present themselves at the cell several times. They had to bring witnesses as well as documents to prove their innocence. On every occasion the complainant shouted at them, wept and alleged she had been tortured. The cell helped in reaching a settlement. She was given a DDA flat and the accused bought their peace.

In cases where the woman dies within seven years of marriage or makes a complaint of mental or physical injury due to a demand for dowry it is assumed that the crime did take place. Unlike in other cases, the person who complains does not have to supply evidence to prove her allegations. The Indian Evidence Act has been amended to make it incumbent on the accused in such cases to prove their innocence.

"We have no investigating powers. When a complaint comes to us we try and complete the inquiry within 60-90 days" said Grewal. The cell first attempts a reconciliation between the husband and wife through counseling. If it fails than an amicable parting is tried for. This means verifying the demands for streedhan and getting it restored. If this too fails the wife is asked to file a divorce petition.

"In 85 per cent of the cases there is a settlement at one of these stages," said Grewal. Otherwise a case is registered.

"This is where most of the men and their family break down," said a police inspector. "The fear of arrest is so tremendous that they go in for a financial settlement with the women even if they are innocent of a dowry demand. There is ample money dealing at this stage."

According to him the girl's side pays just to have the police visit those named in the FIR while the accused pay to buy time. Money again plays a role when the report is to be forwarded to the legal cell. Sharma, a furniture store owner, had decided to fight it out with his wife. When he told his wife he suspected she had a lover she left for her parents' place. But after three months she complained she had been thrown out of the house by her sister-in-law and husband because she could not meet their demand for a TV and gold jewellery. "When the police came to arrest my unmarried sister I changed my mind," said Sharma. "Who will marry her if she spends even a single day in the lockup? Besides, these cases drag on for year. She is 22 years old and has to be married off now.

He claimed to have spent a total of Rs 80,000 on bail for them and on hand-outs to the police to make the right report on the basis of which the case was dropped. Many succumb to the mental and financial pressure. A doctor in a government dispensary was arrested five days after his wife committed suicide. While he languished in jail for two weeks his father collected evidence that his daughter-in-law suffered from endogenous depression, which was the reason she killed herself. Her parents had complained that she was harassed to get a Maruti. Meanwhile the doctor was placed under suspension. All this proved too much for his father to bear. He too decided to end his life. It was later proved that the woman was under treatment for depression and her parents had made a false complaint.

Investigating officers point out that they are apprehensive of reporting that a complaint is false. Often when they do are accused of being mixed up with the husband's side and even face vigilance inquiry.

The arrest of a Delhi Police woman sub-inspector of the cell for allegedly accepting a bribe in such a case has made them jumpy. A sub-inspector of a local police station refused to believe the complaint of a girls' father who stated that his daughter had been done away with by her in-laws and husband because she had not met the demand for dowry. The wedding had taken place only six months before and the girl had disappeared.

After he gave his report the inspector was accused of conniving with the boy's family and was transferred. To prove that he had no mala fide intentions he pursued the case on his own. He traced the girl to Hardwar where she was living with her former lover under a false name and marriage certificate. But the investigation took more than a year and meanwhile the boy along with his mother and sister were booked, arrested and released on bail.

Yasmin Hazarika, for long in charge of the Crime against Women CEll, said, "Most of the witnesses turn hostile because some agreement is arrived at between the two parties. It is usually money that settles it all." This was also the reason for the low rate of conviction, though there has been a rapid rise in the number of dowry harassment cases reported over the last 10 years.

"The laws should not be scrapped because they are being misused," said Hazarika. "We need safeguards. A massive, thorough inquiry is absolutely essential before a case is registered". This would sift the false complaints from the genuine ones.

Easier said that done, given the manpower available. The cell has 13 sub-inspectors trying to counsel, work out settlements and conduct inquiries into as many as 60 complaints a week. Once the case is registered the investigation is given to an inspector who has many cases of a all kinds on his hands. He is not in a position to give priority to dowry cases though the accused is booked under a nonbailable offence.

This could hit people like Dr. Arun, accused of deserting his wife because she could not bring a TV and fridge. Arun denied that he was ever married to her in the first place. He had had a brief relationship with the complainant, who he alleged was a call girl who was blackmailing him.

But to prove his version was not easy. The investigating officer did not have the time to carry out the sort of inquiry that was needed. Finally Arun produced a police report showing that the complainant had once been arrest in a raid on a hotel, that she had blackmailed other men and that she was demanding Rs 25,000 to keep her affair with him under wraps.

Though misuse or exploitation of protective legislation by women for greed or vendetta is considered a 'virgin field' by social workers, the police and lawyers there is a feeling that deterrent measures should be taken before things get out of hand. Besides ensuring a deep probe into complaints there should be ways of punishing those who exploit the laws for their own ends.

No civilised society can tolerate atrocities on women but it would be perpetuating an injustice not to recognise that innocents can become victims of unscrupulous elements.