ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Concern for the Dead, Condemnation for the Living

While ruling that women were increasingly misusing Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, the Supreme Court ought to have been more conscious of the prevalence of domestic violence, and the difficulties women face in approaching the police. When faced with evidence of a poor conviction rate, instead of inquiring whether the prosecution was poorly conducted, the Court assumes that the “disgruntled wives” filed false cases. Ironically, while the courts convict husbands and their families in cases of dowry deaths, the woman’s invocation of Section 498A when she fears for her life or demands her share of the matrimonial home, earns her the accusation of being a “disgruntled wife”.

In the mid-1980s, the legal category of “domestic violence”, which we use today to describe violence in the intimate sphere, did not exist. The expression first found its place in Indian law in 2005. This is not to say that domestic violence did not exist before 2005, but rather, that an injury was not an injury until it had a legal name and definition. This was also the case with sexual harassment at the workplace. It was not until the 1970s when Catherine Mackinnon conceptualised the first sexual harassment claim as an action under the Civil Rights Act, 1964 as being a form of discrimination against women based on sex, that it became an actionable wrong. Such is the defining power of the law.

In the mid-1980s, there were cases of women dying in the matrimonial home in what came to be described as “stove bursts” in the kitchen. The polyester king, Reliance, contributed the nylon saree which clung to the body resulting in instant death. These deaths were routinely recorded by the police as “accidental”. It was the foresight and historic campaigns of the mothers of these women who died which led them to demand the reopening of the “closed” police files and call for an investigation of these deaths as murder. Satyarani Chaddha was one of the foremost among those brave mothers who refused to accept that her daughter, Kanchanbala, had died an accidental death within months of her marriage. It is ironic that the judgment of the Supreme Court in Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar & Ors1 (henceforth Arnesh Kumar) was delivered on the very day that Satyarani Chaddha died, 2 July 2014. Her son-in-law had just been convicted of abetting the suicide of his wife but he absconded on the very day the judgment was delivered, never having seen the inside of a jail. This fact will have to be borne in mind when discussing the subtext of the judgment in Arnesh Kumar, which is quite plainly in response to the cry “women misuse the law” which is heard from the “save-the-family” lobby. Indeed, there are observations in the judgment which are a giveaway; for instance even before commencing a discussion on legal provisions, the Court states that “(t)he institution of marriage is greatly revered in this country”.

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