In a much-awaited ruling on widening the scope of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005, the Supreme Court has directed deletion of words “adult male”, paving the way for prosecution of any person, irrespective of gender or age, for subjecting a husband’s relative to violence and harassment.
In the case Hiral P Harsora & Ors vs Kusum Narottamdas Harsora & Ors, the apex court has ordered striking down of the two words from Section 2(q) of the Act, which deals with respondents who can be sued and prosecuted for harassing a woman in her matrimonial home.
Under the provision till now, a complaint can be made only against an “adult male”, thus insulating women from being accused of offences. Now, a daughter-in-law and other female relatives stand on equal footing, expanding the list to women as well as underage family members. A woman can seek legal action against her daughter-in-law and even her minor grandchildren for domestic violence. The apex court said this provision frustrated the objective of the legislation since “perpetrators and abettors of domestic violence” can be women too. Besides, it violated the right to equality under the Constitution.
The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that if a wife makes false allegations of domestic violence against her husband, it would amount to cruelty and is a valid ground for divorce.
“The allegation that the husband was instigated to keep her (wife) at home as an unpaid servant is a disturbing allegation when viewed from the spectrum of gender sensitivity and any sensitive person would be hurt when his behaviour has remotely not reflected that attitude,” the apex court said while granting divorce to a Karnataka-based doctor.
Of late, courts have been noticing how the complainant woman has falsified and concocted allegations to harass her husband and parents-in-law and misuse legal provisions as a tool to extort unjustified money from her husband for unjustified personal gain. In another rare case of its kind, metropolitan magistrate Shivani Chauhan had last year dismissed a Delhi-based woman’s domestic violence complaint against her husband and in-laws as frivolous and malicious, and imposed an exemplary cost of R1 lakh on her.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, was enacted by Parliament to provide for more effective protection of the rights of women guaranteed under the Constitution who are victims of physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and economic abuse at home. Under the Act, an offender can be prevented from selling his house or businesses or both to ensure the victim is not left to fend for herself. The benefit, however, is not available to a woman if her daughter-in-law harasses her. The apex court’s decision fixes the anomaly, according to legal experts.
Senior advocate Meenakshi Arora, who argued for the mother-in-law in the apex court, said the order has wide ramifications. “Technically, now a daughter can take her mother to court,” she says.
While there were 8,866 incidents of domestic violence against women reported in 2013, experts say there has been a spurt in the number of men who are physically abused by their wives.
In 2004, the National Family Health Survey found that about 1.8% or an estimated 60 lakh women had perpetrated physical violence against husbands without any provocation. There have been complaints about the abuse of the law at the hands of daughters-in-law to seek a hefty divorce settlement. When physical violence and threats against men by wife’s relatives are taken into account, about 3 crore men are facing domestic violence.
Former James Bond stuntman Eddie Kidd’s case is an example. His wife was arrested on charges of domestic abuse. “As a man, to be beaten up by your wife is desperately humiliating and, in a way, shameful,” he had said.
According to Supreme Court lawyer Vivek Vishnoi, spousal abuse is a serious problem that is not just faced by women. “News of dowry-related harassment and crimes against women are reported extensively these days, but there are a growing number of men who are at the receiving end of harassment, and face physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their wives. Because of humiliation and shame, they keep mum. Even society isn’t sympathetic towards them. Male victims of domestic violence are ridiculed and considered unmanly. Such thinking is chauvinistic.”
Various organisations working on men’s rights, including the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), have been demanding there must be a misuse clause added to the Act and the law must be gender-neutral so that women can’t falsely accuse their husbands. They feel domestic violence against men is not recognised by the law and the general perception being that men cannot be victims helps women get away scot-free.
A report of HelpAge India says most elderly couples are tortured by abusive daughters-in-law. Take the case of Sangeeta Jain of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, who was seen beating her mother-in-law on camera. Her husband knew she misbehaved with his mother but could not prove it. So, he installed a CCTV camera to catch her red-handed. In this case, in spite of knowing there is a dispute among husband and wife, the wife was granted, “right to residence” under the Domestic Violence Act. This made the old woman vulnerable in the hands of her daughter-in-law.
“These incidents are not rare. In today’s world, one can get three-year imprisonment for cruelty against animals. Men are treated worse than animals. And there is no law to protect them,” says SIFF president Rajesh Vakharia.
SIFF has approached MPs to submit a private member’s Bill in Parliament to take steps towards enacting a law for protection of men from domestic violence. There is a need for a fair justice system to make laws against domestic violence gender-neutral.