Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code

498A. 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 pun­ished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. 

Section 498A was inserted in the IPC in 1983 by the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983. This sections aims at preventing torture to a married woman by her husband or her relatives and to punish them for harassing her with the purpose of coercing dowry. Before 1983, harassment of a wife by her husband or her in laws was covered by the general provisions of the IPC dealing with assault, hurt, grievous hurt or homicide. However, the increasing violence against women especially young, newly married women and growing incidents of bride burning became a matter of concern to everyone. It was felt that the general provisions of the IPC were not adequate to deal with the atrocities against women.

Cruelty against women within the institution of marriage posed certain difficulties in matters of prosecuting the accused and proving the guilt. This was because, more often than not, women bear their sufferings in silence. Obtaining independent witnesses is also a difficult task because the violence against the wife is generally inflicted within the four walls of the house, away from public gaze. Further, demands for dowry and harassment of women if they fail to meet the demand, may not always be in the form of direct assault on the body of the woman. The violence is generally in subtler and more discreet forms (e.g., mental cruelty), but equally tortuous , many a times driving the woman to take her own life.

In order to tackle this problem, it was felt by the Parliament that comprehensive legislative changes were required at three levels:

  1. To define the substantive offence of cruelty to women by husbands and relatives of husbands
  2. To introduce procedures which make investigation in cases of certain deaths of women mandatory
  3. To bring changes in the Evidence Act which will make prosecution and conviction of accused in cases of violence against women easier.

Accordingly, section 498A and section 304B (dowry death) were added to the IPC. Section 174, CrPC, was amended making inquests by executive magistrates mandatory in cases of suicides or suspicious deaths of women within seven years of their marriage.

Section 113B was added to the Evidence Act, wherein it was provided that if it was shown that soon before the death of a woman she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by a person in connection with demand for dowry, then it shall be presumed that such person who harassed the woman had caused the death of the woman.

Cruelty by husband or relatives of husband

The section is only restricted to acts or omission done by the husband himself or by his relatives. The word relatives, however, has not been defined in the section. A reading of relevant case laws reveals that generally, the parents, sisters and brothers i.e. the immediate family of the husband is prosecuted under this section.

In Reema Aggarwal v Anupam[1], it was argued that ‘husband’ of the ‘second wife’, who marries her during the subsistence of his earlier legal marriage, is not the ‘husband’ within the meaning of section 498A and the ‘second wife’ , therefore cannot invoke section 498A for the cruelty caused to her by him or his relatives. The Supreme Court, relying on the legislative intent of section 498A, rejected this contention.

What is cruelty?

Explanation to the section 498A lays down the purview of the word cruelty under this section. According to it, the following amount to cruelty for the purposes of section 498A:

  1. Any willful conduct which is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause any grave injury or danger to life, limb, or mental or physical health of the woman
  2. Harassment of the woman with a view to coerce her or her relatives to meet unlawful demand for any property or valuable security.

The word harassment in ordinary sense means to torment a person subjecting him or her through constant interference or intimidation. If such torment is done with the view to coerce the wife or her relatives to meet any demand of property or valuable security, it amounts to harassment as contemplated by section 498A. Coercion means persuading or compelling a person to does something by using force or threats.

Who can complain of cruelty?

Section 198A of the CrPC mandates a court not to take cognizance of an offence punishable under section 498A of the IPC expect upon a police report of facts that constitute the offence or upon complaint made by the aggrieved wife or by her father, mother, brother, sister, her father’s or mother’s brother or sister or with the leave of the court, by any other person related to her by blood, marriage or adoption.

Constitutional validity/misuse of section 498A

In Sushil Kumar Sharma v Union of India[2], the constitutional validity of section 498A was questioned on the following grounds:

  1. That it has been grossly abused by married women to harass their husbands, in-laws and relatives by instituting frivolous and unfounded criminal proceedings,
  2. That it has become an easy tool in the hands of the Police and other agencies to hound the persons with the threat of arrest,
  3. That the investigating agencies and the courts start with the presumptions that the accused persons are guilty,
  4. That it has been exploited by women and their relatives

However, the Supreme Court, rejecting these contentions, upheld the constitutional validity of section 498A. It held that the mere possibility of abuse of a statutory provision doesn’t per se make a provision of law ultra vires the Constitution. In such cases, action and not the section may be vulnerable. The court also opined that it must be presumed, unless contrary is proved, that administration and application of a provision of law is done not with an evil eye and unequal hand.

[1] AIR 2004 SC 1418

[2] AIR 2005 SC 3100

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