SocietyLaw & Policy The 498A Debate: The Legal Void In Which ‘Fear Of Misuse’ Is Misused

The 498A Debate: The Legal Void In Which ‘Fear Of Misuse’ Is Misused

The Supreme Court offered a reading down of 498A, the preventive legal provision meant for women, for an pre-empted violation of men’s rights.

In what has been a grand victory for the ‘meninists’ of India, the Supreme Court ruled to curb the ‘misuse’ of 498A by women. The SC verdict reads the 498A law differently from what it is— an anti-cruelty law for women that takes into consideration, but is not restricted to, dowry-related harassment. Instead, it offers a reading down of the preventive legal provision meant for women, for a preempted violation of men’s rights. It chooses to shift the burden of victimhood onto men, who have apparently been subjected to ‘counter-cruelty’ by women who merely want to seek personal vendetta through the ‘misuse of the dowry act.’

”[…] by misuse of the provision, a new legal terrorism can be unleashed.” A terrorism without terrorists? The protection of the law to be used against itself now takes precedent over the primary purpose that the law had intended to serve. It now protects men from ‘vengeful’ women rather than offering women a redressal mechanism to avoid physical and emotional harm.

The verdict also leaps into the realm of a very narrowly defined ‘harm principle,’ where it regards only the presence of “physical imprints of abuse on the body (of the victim) to be used a marker to identify abuse.” This is as myopic as it is Hobbesian! Feminist jurisprudence has come a long way since and to discount its historical battles self-justifies the need for more feminist struggles!

Also Read: The Historical Journey Of Anti-Dowry Laws

This brings to the fore the limited understanding of the law, as it seeks to only reinforce stereotypes by latently branding women as ‘gold-diggers,’ ‘man-trap,’ ‘vengeful,’ ‘liars,’ etc. The walls of the court are porous – they take from social beliefs around them and, in turn, strengthen and reproduce those beliefs.

498A now protects men from ‘vengeful’ women rather than offering women a redressal mechanism to avoid harm.

I’m not going to deny the possibility of false cases being registered. However, to focus one’s energies into countering that trend when we have clearly failed at even bringing to the fore the narratives of women who till date do not report cases of violence meted out against them, seems suspect.

We don’t need statistics to substantiate how many false cases are forged, because if we were to take statistics as a reflection of reality, then we end up not accounting for the cases of violence that go unreported. So with a sample data still so small relative to the proportion of violence meted out against women, how are we to even postulate that false cases may be reported? So retroactively, in anticipation of a false case, we should disenfranchise all women, to prepare ourselves against a potential ‘misuse?’

The legal system works as a mechanism for the perpetuation of male dominance.

Women have not only historically been abused but also bullied into silence, and we wish to remain silent on this silencing simply for the sake of preservation of status-quo. The court’s anxiety around ‘false’ cases thus seems suspect. It not only discourages women from speaking the truth to power but also ends up exposing the complex nexus of patriarchal institutions, of Family-Law-State, that work in tandem to revitalise itself in a world that’s posing a threat to these structures of power.

It is important to acknowledge that the court of justice is a conservative institution, which assumes itself to be the guardian of the ‘good Hindu family’— and by extension, of Indianness— when it refuses to recognise marital rape for matrimonial harmony, or when it is seen giving a possible offender the benefit of doubt against that of possible victims of abuse.

It is fairly clear that the law not only mirrors the oppressive family structure but also safeguards it against itself. The ruling reads that “the verification of the complaints shall be carried out by a special police officer and a district-level Family Welfare Committee.” Only after the Committee has prepared a report (within a month’s time) and submitted it to the police, can any of 498A be considered.

By instituting a parallel ‘Family’ Welfare Committee the court restores its faith in the sacrosanct institution of the ‘family’ as a guarantor of ‘protection,’ thus foreclosing the possibility of violence and abuse that can be perpetuated within the household. It is therefore no surprise that the court declared that most of these cases (under 498A) are registered in the “heat of the moment” over ‘minor issues.’ It counterposes women’s ‘quick perceptions’ to men’s ‘just sentiments’ being hurt when they file a complaint. It already assumes that an out-of-court ‘settlement’ with the family is a good enough resolution.

The court again proves that the Universal negates the specific, the family is counterposed against the woman and in turn the Family (Legal Committee) undercuts the family (sociological category) – feeding into each other while simultaneously pretending to undercut one another, to reenact patriarchy.

Here, we can see how the legal system works as a mechanism for the perpetuation of male dominance, and the potential for law to act as an instrument for domination. There is no ‘pure’ law or politics, but rather the two forms work together and constantly shift between the two linguistic registers. Thus, its politics of violence is openly propagated when it is implied that a woman must internalise and normalise abuse to sustain familial relations at her own expense. Is that what feminist movements have worked towards? A world of pretend gender equality, where equality amounts to closing our eyes to structural imbalances of power?

How has the law been (mis)used differentially against different people, along caste, class, racial, gender lines?

A common question then looms over ‘legality’ and it’s very ‘language,’ which determines its limitations to offer a non-paternalistic protection to women. As one cannot be deluded into thinking that law can be the sole vehicle to bring in ‘gender equality’ in a society where the court’s understanding of equality is borrowed by the same society that sees equality as ‘neutrality.’ But that doesn’t mean that the law is totally superfluous. It is still essential in offering the very minimum, a legal recourse to abuse. Instead, what it is doing is limiting the scope for registering of protest in the face of violence.

Therefore, we need to put the 498A debate into perspective, and shift our focus from how women are misusing the law and also ask how the law has been (mis)used differentially against different people, along caste, class, racial, gender lines? And isn’t this verdict proof of the same? It works against already marginalised voices.

I propose we take this opportunity to see for ourselves the manifestation of institutionalised sexism. Despite it being normative, sometimes its legalized excesses leak to reveal structural reality of patriarchy which uses institutions of custom, practice and law to perpetuate its rotten self. So the next time, a women commits suicide in a case of dowry (always already assumed to be false), we should know that no one killed her but the nameless, faceless, and seemingly ‘impartial’ tool of oppression— the legal system.

Also Read: What The New Supreme Court Ruling On 498A Means For Domestic Violence Victims In India

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