This article has been written by Harshita Varshney from Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University. The author has tried to analyze whether a household work done by a wife comes under cruelty or not.
The men of human societies have never left a chance to overpower women in every possible way. The official statistics among women like sex-ratio, health-ratio, death-ratio and the literacy rate among women have always declined which shows that how miserable the condition of the women is. In India, there is a patriarchal society where women face cruelty in different ways. In such types of societies, men always try to overpower women and for this, they use the tool of violence. In our country, women face violence at every place whether it’s her home or workplace or even public place. A woman doesn’t even feel safe at her home due to the continuous cruel treatment by her husband and in-laws. Despite having so many laws under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and other specific laws like the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 etc., we are still lagging to provide security to women of our country.
What is Cruelty
The literal meaning of word ‘cruelty is causing pain and suffering to person and generally, the people of India have understood the word ‘cruelty’ as violence against women. But this word holds a wider meaning. Although, this term has not been defined specifically in any Indian legislations inference can be drawn from laws and according to it, cruelty may include sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse. In a patriarchal society, cruelty is one of the major forms of violence. Also, the meaning of the term cruelty can be changed from person to person as the perfect meaning has not been made anywhere. It is also difficult for our legislature to include all kinds of acts under the term cruelty and to put this in a straitjacket formula because an act can be cruel for one and not for another as it differs from person to person. That’s why the court has been conferred with some wide discretionary powers for the interpretation of word cruelty. However, these powers conferred on the court are not the arbitrary one because the court has to adapt the meaning after considering the social and economic background of the parties.
Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has mentioned some acts which will amount to cruelty against a woman. Explanation (a) of this section the term ‘cruelty’ includes any willful act which is likely to make a woman to commit suicide or to cause serious injury to her or danger to her life, limb or health Here, health includes both physical and mental health.
The term ‘harassment’ has also been defined under explanation (b) of this section which says that ‘harassment’ of a woman means to coerce her or her family, for demanding any valuable property or security amounts to cruelty.
Physical and mental cruelty
The term ‘cruelty’ used under Section 498A includes both ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ cruelty. The Indian judiciary has already settled that cruelty not only includes the physical abuse but also the mental abuse which may be caused by words, gestures, actions or mere silence, these may affect an individual’s peace of mind and can cause a woman mental suffering. The effects of cruelty against the victim depend on several factors like how sensitive he or she is, his or her education, social and economic background. Therefore, it is a question of fact that what amounts to cruelty and whatnot, which has to be decided by the court by considering all the factors.
These acts will amount to mental cruelty to a woman :
- Continuous teasing and taunting by husband and his family;
- Keeping a girlfriend or concubine and maintaining children of girlfriend by the husband;
- Pressurising a woman for obtaining consent for her husband’s second marriage;
- Husband’s comment or vague attack on his wife’s character and doubting on her;
- Husband’s careless attitude towards his wife and children regarding the maintenance and many others as it is not possible to limit these acts as it may vary from person to person.
Physical cruelty will include all kinds of physical abuse which will cause body pain or injury to an individual. This may differ in cases as it depends on the degree of physical abuse.
Section 498A of IPC
The number of cases of violence against women is rising at an alarming rate. There is a trend in a patriarchal society to torture a wife by her husband or by the relatives of her husband. Though these kinds of atrocities against women were covered under the general offences of the Indian Penal Code like hurt, grievous hurt and assault but a need for specific and strict laws were needed to control the violence against women because to collect evidence in such cases became difficult due to the pressure on the woman from her family.
The provision related to the offence of cruelty to a wife by a husband or his relatives is dealt under Section 498A, of Chapter XXA, which was added by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1983. This section penalizes the cruelty by the husband or his relatives on a woman. Due to the patriarchal setup, most of the women in India are victims of domestic violence and cruelty by husband and his family. This section provides security to women against such violent acts by their husbands or relatives.
The punishment laid down for such offence is imprisonment for a period not more than three years and shall also be liable to pay fine.
Explanation (a) of this section the term ‘cruelty’ includes any willful act which is likely to make a woman to commit suicide or to cause serious injury to her or danger to her life, limb or health. Here, health includes both physical and mental health.
Explanation (b) of this section says that ‘harassment’ of a woman means to coerce her or her family, for demanding any valuable property or security amounts to cruelty.
To make an individual liable under this section, it must be shown that the cruelty by husband or his relatives was the proximate cause in committing suicide by the wife.
This section has conferred wide discretionary powers on the court regarding the interpretation of words used in the section like cruelty and also in deciding the punishment for such offence. However, these powers conferred on the court are not the arbitrary one as the court has to decide it after considering the various factors.
In the case of Inder Raj Malik v. Mrs Sumita Malik (1986), it was argued that this section is beyond the scope of Article 14 & Article 20 (2) of the Indian Constitution. It was contended that to cover such types of cases, there is the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. So, the presence of two laws on the same subject creates the situation of double jeopardy. But the Delhi High Court rejected this argument and held that Section 498A is different from Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act as in the former one, ‘cruelty’ is one of its essential whereas, in the latter one, no such element of ‘cruelty’ is needed, mere demand of dowry is sufficient for it.
Again the validity of the section was challenged in the case of Satish Kumar Batra v. State of Haryana (2009) on the ground that there is a mere possibility of misuse of this section of the penal code. The Court negated the argument and held it not a proper ground to hold section 498A as unconstitutional.
Section 498-A and 304-B
Prima facie section 498A and Section 304B may look the same but they are different. In the case of Kaliyaperumal v. State of Tamil Nadu (2003), the court cleared the confusion between the two and made the term ‘cruelty’ more clear. The court held that both sections have a common ingredient that is cruelty but both sections have dealt with the distinct offences. Therefore, if an individual has been charged under section 304B for the offence of dowry death then he can also be convicted for another offence under section 498A of the penal code. If a husband or his relatives have inferred cruelty against his wife, it amounts to an offence under section 498A and to make a person liable under section 304B, the death must have occurred within seven years of marriage with demanding the dowry.
Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act
Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 is related to the presumption as to the dowry death. This section was added by the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act of 1986. This section presumes the guilt of an accused if it is shown that the death of the woman was caused due to the demand of dowry by the accused and for such demand he has harassed the woman or met her with cruel treatment. The explanation of this section provides that the meaning of the term ‘dowry death’ will be the same as defined under Section 304B of the IPC. Dowry death means the death of a woman which is caused by burns or bodily injury, within the seven years of marriage and such death or bodily injury is done with cruelty or harassment by her husband or any other relative of her husband which is connected with the demand for dowry and soon before her death. Once such presumption is made, the burden of proof gets shifted to the accused to prove his innocence.
The scope of the phrase ‘soon before her death’ was discussed in the case of Thakhan Jha v. State of Bihar (2004). The Court observed that ‘soon before’ does not mean immediately before. It means that the gap in between the event of the death of a woman and demand of dowry by the accused should be such as to establish a proximate cause between them and to determine this, the court has to decide based on the facts and circumstances of the case. The court has also observed that such time can not be fixed; it has to be determined by the court.
Acts which don’t fall under the domain of cruelty against wife
The judiciary has rejected many complaints filed under Section 498A of the IPC because these complaints didn’t satisfy the essentials of section.
Husband living with his girlfriend
In the case of U. Seevetha v. State by Inspector of Police (2009), it was held that if a husband is living with his girlfriend then it will not amount to cruelty to his wife under section 498A. The court said that since the word ‘relatives’ has not been defined under the section, then it should be understood in a common manner, which would be father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, nephew, niece, grandson or granddaughter of an individual or the spouse of any person. Basically, this provision has tried to incorporate a blood-related person. Therefore, there is no way that a friend or a concubine of the husband would be included in ‘relatives’ under section 498A. Though a husband living with his girlfriend may be an act of cruelty to a wife but this would not attract section 498A and therefore a girlfriend or concubine cannot be charged under this section.
Husband’s second wife during the existence of his first marriage
In the case of Reema Aggarwal v. Anupam (2004), the question was raised that whether the ‘second wife’ of the ‘husband’, who marries her during the existence of his first marriage, can invoke section 498A as she was subjected to the cruelty by husband and his relatives. The facts of the case are, Reema Aggarwal, the appellant got married to a person during the existence of his first marriage. Reema was harassed by her husband and his relatives for not bringing the appropriate dowry on her wedding and she was coerced to end her life due to which she had some poisonous substance. These facts were stated by the appellant to the Investigating officer and based on these facts, the appellant’s husband and his family were charged under section 307 and 498A. The trial court acquitted the respondents on the basis that the law contained under section 498A presupposes a legally-valid marriage between the wife i.e. the victim and the husband i.e. the accused. Since the ‘second wife’ is not considered as a legal wife then she can not make liable his alleged husband under this section. This argument was also accepted by the High Court.
But later an appeal was moved to the Supreme Court where this argument was rejected by the court. The respondents argued that since the marriage with the second wife is not legally valid then the provisions under the Dowry and Prohibition Act, 1961 cannot be invoked and therefore the charge regarding the demand of the dowry should not be recognized.
The Supreme Court negated this argument and pointed out the intentions behind the legislation under section 498A, 304B of the Penal Code and 113B of the Indian Evidence Act. The Court stated that the aim behind the introduction of these legislations was to end the social evil of demanding dowry and to prevent the woman from the violence inflicted on the women after entering into a matrimonial relationship.
In the case of Subash Babu v. State of Andhra Pradesh (2011), the High Court ruled out that since the law does not recognise a ‘second wife’ as a legal wife of an individual due to which she cannot invoke section 498A of the IPC. The Supreme court quashed the order of the High Court by relying on the judgement of Reema Aggarwal’s case and held that such an order undermines the intent of section 498A.
Similarly, the Bombay High Court, in the case of Vasant Bhagwat Patil v. State of Maharashtra (2102), observed that section 498A is related to a ‘woman’ and not to a ‘wife’, which means it gives right to a ‘married woman’ and not to a ‘legally wedded wife’ to initiate proceedings against cruelty by her husband and his relatives.
Husband returning late to home
In the case of The State of Maharashtra v/s Anil Kurkotti & Others (2019), the Bombay High Court held that continuous quarrels between the husband and wife because the husband is returning late from his work and after returning if he is not eating properly will not amount as cruelty under section 498A. The deceased, Swati, wife of the accused Anil, committed suicide after seven years of her marriage and at that time, her in-laws were not living with her. Swati’s father made a complaint under section 498A. The husband pleaded as his defence that his wife was not able to conceive from 7 or 8 years due to which she was unhappy and she committed suicide. The trial court acquitted the husband and his family as there was not enough evidence to convict the accused and his family. Later, an appeal was made to the High Court, to which the court accepted the defence of the husband. The court held that the trial court’s judgment was proper and also observed that eating out and quarrelling can not be considered as cruelty.
Recent judgements regarding wife doing a household work comes under cruelty or not
Recently, various High Courts have passed the judgements related to the topic and an inference can be drawn from these judgements that the Courts have considered wife doing household work as a usual thing. According to the court, when a husband or his relatives ask his wife to do household work would not amount to ill-treatment.
Mohd. Hoshan v. State of A.P. (2002)
The facts of the case are: one Razwa Parveen, the deceased was married to the appellant on 26th April 1987 and after 11 months of her marriage, she got burn injuries while living at the house of her husband. On 12th March 1988, she was shifted to the hospital and at around 9:30 pm, she died due to the burn injuries. The prosecution alleged that the deceased has committed suicide because of the cruel treatment for the demand of dowry, by her husband and his family. The trial court acquitted the appellants on the basis that no direct evidence was there to support the argument of the prosecution. The learned trial judge was not convinced with the argument that scolding and taunting of the deceased by the appellants for not preparing proper food or that she was not good looking amounts to cruelty to push her to commit suicide.
Further, an appeal to the High Court was made in which the High Court reversed the order of the trial court which acquitted the appellants. The High Court sentenced the appellants and held that evidence has shown that continuous taunting and teasing led the deceased to such a situation where she felt disgusted and opted to commit suicide by burning herself. The High Court also observed that continuous teasing and taunting amounts to mental cruelty which was practised on the deceased by the appellants and his family and this was a grave and serious provocation for an ordinary Indian woman to take such a big step and commit suicide. The court also viewed what amounts to cruelty and what not depending on various factors like facts of the case, how sensitive are the victims and social, economic background of the parties, the relationship between the husband and wife, their state of health and mind and due to these reasons it may vary from individual to individual.
Later, on further appeal by the appellants for bail, the Supreme Court held that the reversal of the trial courts order by the high court was correct and the appellants were to be held liable for the offences under Section 306 and 498A.
The State of Maharashtra v. Vijay Dhondiram Shinde (2018)
In this case, the Bombay High Court ruled that if a wife is asked to cook properly or to do household work properly would not amount to cruelty under section 498A. The facts of the case are: In 1998, the accused Shinde, got married to the deceased and they have a daughter together. The prosecution alleged that the accused has met his wife with cruel treatment for not doing household work properly and also he has an affair with his brother-in-law (brother’s wife). As evidence, the deceased’s grandfather and cousin stated that before the deceased committed suicide, she and the accused had a big fight. The matter was settled by her grandfather and left after which the deceased consumed poison and committed suicide.
The Additional Sessions Judge acquitted the accused and his parents as there was no direct evidence to show the same. Later a criminal appeal was filed in the high court which was quashed by the court because the prosecution failed in bringing any evidence to show that there was an illicit relationship between the accused and his sister-in-law i.e. his brother’s wife and the court also observed that asking a wife to cook properly or to do household work properly is not a cruel treatment. Also, there is not any evidence to show that the treatment met by her husband and his family was of such a nature which would fall under Section 498A or Section 306 of the IPC.
Ranjith P.C. v. Asha Nair. P (2020)
In this case, the petitioner, Ranjith issued a notice to his wife, Asha, for seeking divorce on the ground of cruelty. The petitioner argued that since the commencement of their marriage, their relationship didn’t go in a good way as they had several quarrels between them. Also, his wife has ill-treated him. She used to call him ‘dog’ and ‘shameless creature’. She had also beaten him in front of his relatives to insult him and she also started giving a threat that she would commit suicide after creating cogent materials to trap himself and his mother. She also refused to live with him at his house.
Despite the efforts made by the husband to make their marriage good, she didn’t return home. To this notice, Asha, the respondent, denied all the allegations of cruelty made by the appellant. She also stated that her mother-in-law has influenced and ill-advised his husband due to which the petitioner started ill-treating her. Further, she called the petitioner a drunkard, who started coming home late in the house in an intoxicated state and he also used to assault her and the child. She noted that she didn’t leave the matrimonial home voluntarily but was constrained to leave due to the threat of her mother-in-law. The petitioner had sent her and child to the parental home and did not contact her and maintain them.
The family court ruled that the court doesn’t find sufficient circumstances to dissolve the marriage between the husband and the wife as the wife can also make efforts along with her husband in his matrimonial home and to build up a good happy life and that if the wife is not responding to that suggestion, then the petitioner can choose one of the methods of restitution of conjugal rights.
Later an appeal was made to the High Court in which the court allowed the husband’s plea for divorce on the ground of cruelty. The High Court observed that the statements of the respondents formed the basis for her ill-will to her mother-in-law and she also wanted to get rid of the petitioner’s mother from her family. Further, the court observed that “no family is totally devoid of clashes among members constituting it. It is common for elders to scold and sometimes abuse youngsters and making her daughter-in-law do household work by a mother-in-law is not something unusual”. The Court also stated that the family court has acted as the counsellor and not an adjudicator and called the family court’s observations unjustified.
Vishal Singh v. Priya & Pihu & Anr (2020)
A quite opposite view was presented by the Delhi Court in its recent case related to the question that whether a wife doing household work comes under cruelty or not. The previous judgements have shown that the court has been reluctant to declare such an act as a cruel act. The facts of the case are: On 29th November 2012, the appellant, Vishal Singh and the respondent got married according to the Hindu ceremonies. The appellant contended that from the beginning of the marriage, the attitude of the respondent towards her marriage was different and she also declined to consummate her wedding. Later, she disclosed that she has an affair with another person and she wants to marry him. The appellant also contended that he tried his best to save his marriage but he failed and due to these reasons he filed for the decree of divorce on the grounds of cruelty.
The respondent opposed the decree of divorce and stated that her husband is trying to make his wrongs good. She further stated that her husband and in-laws were dissatisfied with the amount of dowry and that’s why they used to torture her and once they tried to kill her by covering her face with a pillow. The family court dismissed the plea of the husband by stating that he failed in proving his case under Section 13(1)(i) and (i(a)) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. Later he filed an appeal against the order passed by the family court in the High Court, which was rejected by the court on the grounds that “such conduct of the wife of being interested in remaining in her room or not showing initiative in doing household work can not be described as a cruel behaviour”.
There is no doubt that in India’s patriarchal society, women have continuously faced cruel treatment by her husband and in-laws. These kinds of acts are designated as an offence under section 498A but despite this, we receive many cases where the women commit suicide because of the cruel treatment met to her by husband and his family, whether its for the demand of dowry or anything else. The term ‘cruelty’ mentioned under section 498A of the IPC has not been defined properly and it is settled in many cases that the term ‘cruelty’ cannot be put in a confined formula. It depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. It is also difficult for our legislature to include all kinds of acts under the term cruelty and to put this in a straitjacket formula because an act can be cruel for one and not for another as it differs from person to person. After viewing the recent judgements of the High Court, an inference can be drawn that courts have observed that if a wife is asked to do household work properly, it doesn’t fall under cruelty. The Kerala High Court even remarked that “Making a daughter in law to do the household/domestic work is also not something unusual”.
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