Friday, August 07, 2009

Karat's Falsehood and The Hindu's Tacit Support

Brinda Karat’s adverse comments about the recent Supreme Court judgment and the coverage The Hindu gave her remarks and the outrage that has followed ever since is a good example of how easy it is to mislead an ignorant and gullible public and whip up hysteria without reason.

Content of letters published over the last two days about this matter (here and here) has been unbelievable and makes me want to tell all these people to do some basic research before shooting off their comments to the paper. What is more remarkable is the paper’s readiness to publish these completely baseless and misguided comments for two consecutive days in a row provoking any average and ignorant reader into thinking that some grossly unjust and outrageous act has just been perpetrated by the Supreme Court.

The relevant provision of the Indian Penal Code is here and the court judgment is here. One look at both will tell you why Karat’s remarks are unreasonable. Section 498A deals with harassment of a woman for dowry and the word cruelty is defined accordingly. I quote the definition below:

(a) Any willful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health whether mental or physical) of the woman; or

(b) Harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her meet such demand.]

Thus, any harassment of the woman has to meet two conditions to be termed cruel for the purpose of this provision: (1) it must be grave or endanger her life or drive her to commit suicide or (2) it must involve harassment related to a demand for dowry.

The case in question related to a bitter quarrel between a woman on the one side and her husband and in-laws on the other that had absolutely nothing to do with dowry! Secondly, the court found that she was kicked by her mother-in-law but no evidence was ever presented of any grave or life threatening injury and the harassment again did not relate to any demand for dowry. The argument that raising the possibility of divorce with the wife/daughter-in-law amounts to cruelty is laughable (If that is so, how is a warring couple going to get a divorce if even the mere mention of that possibility to the wife ends up getting the husband or in-laws in jail?). Is it any surprise then that when all the elements of the offense are clearly missing, the court declared that the case has nothing to do with section 498A and the woman’s complaints do not amount to cruelty?

What Brinda Karat and the National Federation of Indian Women (which has petitioned the Chief Justice of India for review) are asking is for the court to abuse its power under this provision and throw a husband/in-laws who have not demanded any dowry into jail. At the very least, the patently false allegation needs to be condemned. Instead, having published this news item without sufficient explanation of its context, the paper is sitting out the controversy editorially even as considerable space is being provided to ill-informed readers to vent their anger against the court. If this is a deliberate effort, the campaign could not be termed anything short of malicious.


B Shantanu said...

Unbelievable...thanks for posting this

Thyagarajan said...

Thanks for enlightening me, Pilid. Like any average reader I was also convinced into believing that the judiciary lacked moral yardsticks and seemed to be hiding behid mere technicalities. I can assume that the Readers of CBCNN could have been sufficiently outraged after reading about the verdict.

Pilid said...

Thanks Shantanu and Thyagarajan. I am glad it was helpful.

I, Me, Myself ! said...

These days, I have stopped trusting media's sound bites and "breaking news" and I was pretty sure that this headline also would have been twisted at their whim. Your post confirmed my intuition and actually very succintly summarized the entire goof-up (especially for someone like me who feels lazy to read the entire ruling :) ).

Finally, atleast one reader pointed out the glaring discrepancy in Saturday's edition.

"The headline “Kicking daughter-in-law will not amount to cruelty: Court” (Aug. 6) is a typical example of quoting out of context. What the Supreme Court has said is that cruelty should be in the context of dowry harassment in order to resort to Section 498A (involving a three-year jail sentence).

A.N. Lakshmanan,


I was also wondering if there is any provision in the IPC that would make this kind of violence punishable at all. If not, I think there is an immediate need to incorporate such a law.

- Sudhir

Pilid said...

Thanks Sudhir. I did see Lakshmanan's letter but amidst the avalanche of others castigating the court, I suspect it would not have attracted much attention.

NKRTK said...

After reading the judgement and the relevant IPC section, I think Pilid may have got this one wrong. Section 498A is about a "Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty". It also includes dowry harassment, but is not exclusively "dowry-related". The judgement quotes the the object of section 498-A, which is " to deal effectively not only with cases of dowry deaths but also cases of cruelty to married women by the husband, in-laws and relatives. The avowed object is to combat the menace of dowry death AND cruelty. (emphasis added)"

Even if the in-laws have not demanded dowry, they can still be punished under this section if they have committed cruelty. Now the question is whether being kicked by in-laws amounts to cruelty in the sense that it is likely to lead to suicide or cause grave injury. The court says NO while Karat and others say YES, IT IS. This is definitely a matter of argument or interpretation, but cannot be termed malicious. The question of insufficient evidence (for kicking) does not arise here, because the court clearly says that even if the allegations are true, it cannot be punished under this section.

PS: Before everyone pounces on me for writing this, let me just point out that I'm a regular reader of this blog and agree on many issues that are presented here. I also hate the fact that The Hindu has turned into a mouthpiece of the left abandoning its neutral principles.

Pilid said...


Thank you for raising an excellent point. Though parliament had the rising number of dowry deaths in mind when inserting 498A, you are correct that both the text of the act as well as its objects and reasons plainly hold broader application for cruelty even when not associated with dowry. I might have given the wrong impression that the dowry requirement is exclusive and correct myself accordingly.

However, as you noticed in the judgment, kicking was cited as one of several complaints including others such as calling her mother a liar, poisoning the mind of her husband and giving her constant sermons. It is clear from the reading that allegation of injury, grave or otherwise, was not the motive of these complaints. Rather, it was to prove harassment. The charges she filed were under 498A, 406 (criminal breach of trust) and 34 and not under 319-323 (hurt/grievous hurt),299 (culpable homicide), 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 351 (assault) or any similar provision. That is also why the court dismissed not only the kicking but her mother-in-law's alleged insult (calling daughter-in-law's mother a liar) in the same breath.

We can safely rule out the second part of the definition of cruelty involving dowry here. That leaves only the question of whether harassment alone amounts to cruelty or not. As you note, it might if it drove the individual to commit suicide but there was again neither any allegation nor any evidence to that effect. Thus, there is no case at all under 498A.

The issue here is not one of interpreting whether or not kicking constitutes grave injury. It is a question of fact for the court to determine in light of the facts and circumstances of the case. Karat chose to pick that one sentence removed from its context to make her charge. That is what makes it questionable.