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Dowry Prohibition Act — a boon or bane?

THE STRINGENT provisions incorporated in the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 (Central Act) have been largely diluted. Recent amendments and rules framed under the Act by State governments reinforce this perception. Whether the teeth provided in the Act had been plucked off as the injustice caused by it was too much, or whether cases filed under the Act and put to test acted as a catalyst for a rethinking about the provisions is a moot point.

When the Bill was introduced in Parliament it was said that its object was `to prohibit the evil practice of giving and taking of dowry.' When a Bill was introduced to amend the Act of 1961, it was said that the evil of dowry had been a matter of serious concern in view of its ever increasing and disturbing proportions. Accordingly the Act of 1984 made some amendments in the Act of 1961.

Some women's voluntary organisations felt that the amendments were still inadequate. Hence the Amendment Act of 1986 further amended the 1961 Act. After the above two amendments, the Act became more stringent. The 1986 Act introduced new sections 8-A and 8-B. Sec. 8-A says that the burden of proving that one has not committed offence u/s. 3 (giving or taking of dowry or any abetment towards it) and u/s. 4 (demanding dowry) is on the person charged.

However, the Supreme Court (AIR 1996 SC 2184) has held that conviction cannot be based on such presumptions without offence being proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The amendments and Sec. 498-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) were introduced presupposing that only genuinely aggrieved women would lodge complaints and that they would invariably tell the truth.

Victims of false cases

Some victims of false cases formed associations and expressed concern over the arrest of the accused husband, his family members and even remote relatives without proper investigation, and money mongering by wife and her relatives led to suicides by many men.

Recently a retired Assistant Director of Prosecution and his wife committed suicide fearing harassment as they were alleged to have committed offences under the Dowry Prohibition Act. A men's welfare organisation functioning in Karnataka made an appeal that punitive punishment should be imposed on those responsible for giving false complaints besides awarding costs and damages to the victims; that tax payer should not be made to pay for mala fide and frivolous complaints; that the process of courts should not be used for settling personal vendetta; that Sec. 498-A of the IPC and the amended Dowry Prohibition Act, which were meant to prevent the victimisation of women, were being increasingly misused by women to blackmail, victimise and harass innocent husbands and their relatives.

When the Dowry Prohibition Act was sought to be amended in 1986, Parliament with a view to checking the misuse of the Act, introduced Sec. 8-B which deals with appointment of dowry prohibition officers by State governments.

The Supreme Court in a number of judgments asked the State governments and Union Territories to immediately frame rules for appointment of dowry prohibition officers under the Act.

The Punjab Government (Act 26 of 1976) substituted Sec. 7 of the Act to the effect that no police officer below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police shall investigate any offence punishable under the Act or make arrest thereof. Himachal Pradesh has also substituted the provision as above.

Punjab inserted Sec. 8-A as hereunder:

"8-A Institution of Proceedings: No prosecution shall be instituted against any person in respect of any offence committed under this Act without the previous sanction of the District Magistrate or of such officer as the State government may by special or general order appoint in this behalf."

The government of Tamil Nadu also framed the Tamil Nadu Dowry Prohibition Officers and Advisory Board Rules 1998. Dowry prohibition officers were invested with the powers of police officers as per rule 4 of the above Rules.

Tamil Nadu gave more powers to dowry prohibition officers and to stop misuse of the Act, brought in new rules called Tamil Nadu Dowry Prohibition Rules 2004 in supersession of the Tamil Nadu Dowry Prohibition Officers and Advisory Board Rules 1998.

The Tamil Nadu Dowry Prohibition Rules define police officer as Deputy Superintendent of Police of the division concerned. In Rule 3 it is said that dowry prohibition officers shall exercise jurisdiction and powers u/s. 8-B of the Act. Dowry prohibition officers' approach as defined in the Rules is primarily preventive and remedial and for prosecution he can only recommend. Rule 7 further says that dowry prohibition officers shall submit a report before a competent magistrate and the report shall be deemed to be a report u/s. 173 of CrPC.

I do not think in any other statute in India, it has been mentioned that an enquiry should be conducted to collect such evidence from the parties as to the genuineness of the complaint. When the Rule 5 (X) insists that the dowry prohibition officers shall scrutinise the complaint and collect evidence from the parties as to the genuineness of the complaint, we can read between the lines a lot. Moreover, it insists that evidence should be collected from the parties, which means not only on the complainant side but also on the respondent side.

While disposing of a petition, the High Court of Madras (Justice A.K. Rajan) has said:

"It is true that demand of dowry, which originally prevailed among a small sect of people, has not pervaded the entire society due to the educational advancement. Further, due to the constant attempts by various organisations women started complaining about dowry harassment to the police. Of course, it is a healthy sign. But at the same time, it is not uncommon that while such complaints of dowry harassment are made, even innocent in-laws are arrayed as accused. When such false complaints are made, some people, unable to bear such false accusations, go to the extent of committing suicide. This has to be taken note of by the authorities concerned and there must be restraint regarding such complaints against in-laws."

S. SAMBANDHAM

Member, Tamil Nadu Human Rights Commission

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