In a democracy like India, the freedom to protest is a right constitutionally available to its people, upholding the hallmark of justice and equality based on which the development and progress of a nation are adjudged at the international level. A right, backed by considerable deliberation keeping in mind the changing nature of the world at large and the need for laws and rights in conformity with current trends.
Burdened with a novel coronavirus, with widespread protests against various issues and the farmer protests currently faced by the government, it can be safely deduced that Indian laws and enforcement systems are yet to be at par with present needs. Lacking a fast and efficient justice delivery system, sensitization among officials, manpower, initiative to speed up the process of justice delivery and conviction, provisions making officials in the system accountable for delays or wrong committed, and imposing punishment among other things, India has inevitably extended the road towards a faster and more efficient system to clear out the vast backlog of cases pending before the courts which may lead to a solution for the increasing problem of police brutality and gross human rights violations of prisoners in Indian jails.
Acknowledging how far India has come in many spheres since its independence in 1947, and the recent accomplishment of the Indian Supreme Court in terms of adaptability and disaster management efficiency, appraised by the Prime Minister of India stating that the court conducted the highest number of hearings in the world during the pandemic, there is always room for improvements the legislation, enforcement mechanisms, procedure, etc.
The lacunas in the system become apparent when certain social problems like Dowry or child marriage, continue to persist and cause problems so deeply rooted in the mindsets of generations of people making it difficult to bring it under the legal radar. A total of 45,485 cases of crime against women were registered during 2019, out of which 30.9 percent of the cases were filed under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code dealing with Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty, with 13,297 cases reported under Dowry Prohibition Act, 1861 and 7115 incidences of dowry deaths.
What is Dowry?
Dowry is an age-old problem in India, dating back to the Vedic period where the concepts of stridhana, varadakshina, and kanyadhana emerged in various ancient religious texts of India. Over the years, with external influence, these concepts have evolved into the present practice of dowry which has led to an increased rate of crime against women in India. Marriage is a sacred institution in society and law, both the parties to a marriage have a duty towards each other that they must uphold and perform. The matrimonial home is supposed to be a safe haven for women after marriage, to cohabit in harmony is a right of both the parties to the marriage.
This is often not the case, in India, dowry has become a big issue that threatens the sanctity of marriage and law. In this practice, the husband or his family demands property or money in the guise of gifts from the women’s family. Earlier, the reasoning behind the practice was to help provide stability to the newly married couple to make their married life easier. However, it has turned into a form of extortion that cannot be ignored.
Women are forced to bring expensive gifts and large wealth failing which they are subjected to various kinds of physical and mental torture which, in the worst cases, leads to loss of life. It generally takes the form of harassment and domestic violence inside the house by the husband or his family on the wife. Dowry has been the cause of many issues that have burdened lawmakers for years, like the killing of a girl child or lack of literacy among girls. These problems originate from the same patriarchal mindset that has made it so difficult to think of a solution that eliminates it from the roots. One of the main hindrances has been the difficulty of accumulating evidence for a conviction.
In India, these are classified as family matters, and due to the importance attached to family autonomy in India, it becomes difficult for outside forces to meddle with family matters. Lack of access to relief makes it difficult for the women to call out for help and they are forced to live in an abusive environment. Lack of evidence leads to less conviction and may also result in violation of the rights of the husband due to misuse of the laws. Every day, 21 dowry deaths are reported in India but the conviction rate is merely 35%. Due to the huge backlog of cases, and the whole process of justice has become slow and ineffective.
Proper implementation, more manpower, stricter punishment or penalty for dowry-related crimes, and easier access to law enforcement is the need of the hour. The evolving nature of the problem requires a frequent amendment to the law and priority should be given to women’s issues. Proper investigation and speedy disposal of cases would encourage more women to take recourse provided by law to protect their rights and help bring the problem under control. Any law will only work if crimes are reported. Women often hesitate to report cases because of fear and lack of trust in the system.
There should be penalties for improper handling of cases and delayed disposals, officials should be made responsible for damage caused as a consequence of their actions. Stricter limits should be imposed on the time taken to dispose of such cases and priority must be given to women’s issues. The formation of separate women’s courts and organizations dealing with women’s issues specifically will help expand the job market and provide more employment opportunities to women, dismantling the patriarchal structure by increasing the financial independence of women.
Dowry is a social evil, that continues to prevail in society despite the strict legal restrictions. A problem as old and complex as the dowry practice in India cannot be fought with primitive legislation. The main legislation put in place by the Indian government for the purpose of prevention of the practice of dowry is the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 that prescribes a penalty for the offense of giving, taking, or demanding dowry and imposes a duty on any person who receives such dowry to return it to the women, giving the women an exclusive right over the property.
As defined under the act, dowry means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly at, before, or anytime after the marriage, in connection with the marriage. It may be given by one party to a marriage to the other or by the parents of either party or any other person to the other and does not include in its scope dower or mahr under Muslim law. The law mandates for the maintenance of a list of all the presents received and provides for a minimum of 5 years of imprisonment and up to 15,000 fine for asking or giving dowry, exempting presents given to either party without any demand made on that behalf provided that they are entered in the list in accordance with the rules made under the act.
The ancient concept of Stridhan has been reinforced through section 6 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, which provides that the dowry shall be the property of the wife or her heirs and shall be used for their benefit. It requires that any person, in possession of the dowry in connection to the marriage, must transfer it to the women within the specified time limit. Any failure in doing so will attract a fine of Rs 5000, or imprisonment for 3 months. The act has also incorporated the powers and functions of dowry prohibition officers appointed for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the act.
Apart from this, many crimes committed against women which may range from cruelty to abetment to suicide which are covered by the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Evidence Act, 1872. In extreme cases, where the women are subjected to bodily harm which may result in death if it occurs within seven years of the marriage and abuse is proved, it may be called dowry death and the husband of his relatives are deemed to have caused such harm under section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
This act is punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 7 years by may extend to life. It also provides for the punishment of cruelty on the wife by the husband or relatives of the husband under section 498 – A. When the question is whether a person has committed the dowry death of a woman and it is proved that the women had been subjected to cruelty or harassment before death in connection with a dowry, the court shall presume that such person has caused the dowry death.
Dowry has been one of the greatest challenges faced by the nation that requires immediate attention. The laws established in this regard are edging towards obsolesce and lack of amendments has directed a lot of criticism towards the government for the inability to keep laws up to date. Problems emanating from the mindset of the people cannot be uprooted unless steps are taken for reformation beginning with education. Children need to be sensitized and educated about various problems prevalent in society.
It is only when an understanding of good and bad is instilled in the minds of the youth, can this problem be curbed. The youth are the future of a nation and hold the responsibility to solve the problems their ancestors failed to. Further, the power of the dowry prohibition officers should also include routine investigations in the house of the victim which will help in detecting cases that are often left unseen, and provide an opportunity to women to file complaints in cases where they are prevented from doing so. The laws should be made more precise and amended frequently to keep up with the present scenario.
Editor’s Note The article talks about the problems that originate from the persisting issue of dowry in India. The flaws in the system like the inefficiency in the disposal of cases, lower conviction rate, lack of evidence, etc. have been pointed out. The author delineates the legal provisions relating to dowry under the Indian Criminal laws and suggests some solutions like the need to bring amendments to the existing laws and ways to facilitate reporting of more cases on dowry. Also, there has to be strict action against those officers who fail to do a timely investigation without any reason and more awareness on dowry issues has to be inculcated in the youth.