Rewriting the “Rajesh Sharma v. State of UP” judgment from a feminist perspective [Part I]
This piece is written as a response to Ms. Hrishika Jain’s, ‘The Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma v. State Of U.P. – Justice to the Accused, or Chilling Effect?’ which was published in the SLR Forum.
- Atharv Gupta*
Hrishika Jain in her article, “The Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma v. State Of U.P. – Justice to the Accused, or Chilling Effect?” makes an important argument that the Supreme Court of India has, in an attempt to protect the rights of the accused, generalised the ‘victimisation’ of the accused even at the expense of the victims of violence. She further argues that there has often been a mismatch between the problem and the solution identified by the Court which has led it to conflate failures of law enforcement, arrest procedures with ‘misuse’ of a substantive provision of law.
Finding merit in Jain’s arguments, a modest attempt has been made to rewrite the decision in Rajesh Sharma v. State of Uttar Pradesh from a feminist perspective. A lot depends on how the story is told in a Judgment. In this regard, Brenda Hale, the first female President of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court wrote that, “Feminist judges will take different facts from the mass of detail to tell the story in a different way, to bring out the features which others discard, and to explain the features which others find difficult to understand.........Feminist judges will set the story in a different context, a context which they understand but others may not.”
Thus, focus is not only on the law, but also on the socio-historic issues of domestic violence. The purpose of looking at the socio-historic issues is to challenge the way the State has looked at the problem of domestic violence. This will enable us to challenge the patriarchal equilibrium that has prevented us from looking at women’s issues from a feminist lens. The questions asked include, why the feminist movement was unable to engage with the issue of violence in homes for a long time and how the personal experiences of women have helped them in combating violence and providing the way forward for others who face similar issues. Through this Judgment, an attempt has been made at creating a safe environment where women can share their experiences of violence without any fear. This will encourage courts to be more sensitive towards the issue of violence against women and will enable them to view violence within the homes from the woman’s perspective and look for solutions that make her life better. By asking the ‘Woman Question’ at every stage, courts will be in a better position to challenge male domination in society, by empowering the women subjected to such violence and disempowering the men who perpetrate the same.
Finally, the assumptions that have been made while rewriting this Judgment need to be clearly stated. First, it has been assumed that the matter is before a 5 Judge Bench comprising of Justice A.K. Goel, Justice U.U. Lalit, Justice Anonymous1, Justice Anonymous2 and Justice Anonymous3. Second, the methodology used to rewrite the judgment is limited by temporality. The assumption is that this Judgment has been written by Anonymous Judge1, on behalf of himself, Anonymous Judge2 and Anonymous Judge3, on 27.07.2017, the date of the original judgment. Hence, judicial developments, legislations and academic writings after July 27, 2017 have not been considered.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION
CRIMINAL APPEAL No. 1265 of 2017
(Before A.K. Goel, U.U Lalit, Anonymous1, Anonymous2 and Anonymous3 JJ.)
Rajesh Sharma & Ors …Appellants
State of U.P. & Ors …Respondents
The question which has arisen in this appeal is whether any directions are called for to prevent the misuse of Section 498A, as acknowledged in certain studies and decisions.
It is unfortunate but true that even though we, as Judges, preside over matters of such importance and sensitivity, our reasoning and perceptions are informed by our socialisation since childhood. For instance, in cases involving violence against women, stress is laid on making sure that the ‘sacred’ institutions of family and marriage are protected even at the cost of women being subjected to violence. This is because we have been brought up and trained in a manner where the patriarchal structuring of family life and marriage is the norm. Hence, before coming to the substantive part of the Judgment, I would like to make it clear that this judgment has been written from a feminist perspective. This is because we are conscious of the reason for the establishment of this Court – to protect the rights of all citizens, including women who have been subjected to violence and to right the wrongs that take place – and we are conscious of the duty this casts upon us.
Hence, a sincere effort has been made to use the method of “Asking the Woman Question” at every stage. The method of “Feminist Practical Reasoning” has also been used by including previously excluded experiences and perspectives of women in the legal discourse along with an analysis of the shortcomings of the current law, all of which has been done in order to tell the story differently. Finally, using the method of “consciousness raising”, an effort has been made by us to create a new reality by creating a free space for women and making sure that their experiences and expectations are not trivialized by us.
I have had the advantage of reading the judgment prepared by my learned colleague on the Bench, Justice Goel. However, I am in respectful disagreement with the conclusions reached by him. I have serious reservations about the directions he wished to issue in his opinion.
However, before looking at what should have been done, it is important to analyse what the problem is and how it has been dealt with in the past.
It is widely believed that the period of colonial rule in India and the struggle for independence resulted in a “political awakening among women.” However, it was in the 1970’s that the Indian women’s movement gained traction. The increase in feminist activities in India in the 1970’s was attributed mainly to the United Nations declaring 1975 as ‘International Women’s Year’. Violence against women in the country had existed for long and that too in multiple forms. It was in the late 1970’s that this became the main issue of the contemporary movement. What aided in mobilizing women to fight against this violence were shocking judgments delivered by this very Court in cases like the Mathura Rape Case. However, society at large saw this violence only in practises such as sati, rape and “bride burnings”. Unfortunately, even the opposition to the verdict in the Mathura rape case was based solely on the argument that the Court had not followed the rule of law. There was little or no focus on the mindset of the Judges and the reasoning behind such Judgments. The period between 1970 and 1990 saw a lot of debate and discussion on the issue of dowry deaths after leading newspapers such as the Statesman carried tragic news stories of bride-burnings on their front pages. At this point, even though the woman’s movement was gaining traction and was being covered by the media extensively, the important issue of domestic violence remained unaddressed.
The detailed “Towards Equality” Report prepared by the Committee on the Status of Women in India discussed aspects such as socio-economic disparities faced by women but it failed to throw light on cruelty faced by women in their everyday lives. The Report laid a lot of emphasis on the law but failed to take into account the experiences of women who were subjected to violence in their homes. In fact, the chapter on women in the Report began with the following words, “One of the main characteristics of modern society is a heavy reliance on law to bring about social change.” What should not be forgotten is that the experiences of women, who were victims of violence and who tried to use the law to seek justice, were that of anger and hopelessness.
A common misconception is that the women’s movement was inspired by the UN Declaration of 1975 and by the Report prepared by the Government of India. This gives the wrong impression that violence against women in India only began after the 1970’s and that it was the State which identified this problem and worked towards the solutions. Therefore, it becomes pertinent to understand that the foundations of the women’s movement lay deep in the social crisis faced by the women of the country at that time. Majority of the women who participated in the movement were not even aware of developments like the Declaration as their main aim was to put an end to the violence and ridicule that had become an everyday affair for the Indian woman. It is also equally important to remember that way before such reports were released; there was a spate of feminist activities and movements across the country. In states like Gujarat and Bihar, women were taking out anti-price rise agitations. In places like Himachal Pradesh, anti-alcohol agitations were being organised since women believed that liquor was the reason behind many of them getting beaten up by their drunken husbands.
This eerie silence on the issue of domestic violence made it look like dowry death was the only form of violence that married women in India were subjected to. Unfortunately, there was little discussion on how the life of an Indian woman was and continues to be defined by the patriarchal structures of family and marriage. There was also no discussion on how it was not only the inability to pay dowry which results in violence but also the urge to control a woman’s sexuality and body which results in the same. People also failed to understand that it is not only married women who face violence but even unmarried women who face it in their natal homes. Violence against women and their murder due to the inability to give dowry came to be compared to how capitalism was developing in the country at that time. All this contributed to the fact that very little research and analysis was done on why and how Indian women occupied subordinate positions within the family. In my opinion, this was and remains a major reason for the violence inflicted on them.
It was in this backdrop that Section 498-A was introduced in the Indian Penal Code in 1983. As it was introduced because of the protests against dowry related incidents in the country, it was wrongly seen as an “Anti Dowry” Law. However, on a plain reading of the section, it is clear that it covers other forms of marital violence such as mental and physical cruelty inflicted on the victim. Prominent women’s rights lawyer, Senior Advocate Indira Jaising has described Section 498-A as a bold provision that introduced punishments in marital relationships. The effort made by legislators to include mental cruelty is also laudable. However, this does not mean that this provision is an empowering one for women, aimed at making their lives better. The very fact that this provision is located in the chapter dealing with “Offences relating to Marriage” and not “Offences Affecting the Human Body” shows the reluctance of the state to truly intervene in the private sphere and stop all kinds of violence that women are subjected to, irrespective of that happening in their marital homes or natal homes, to married women or unmarried women. Unfortunately, this also shows that the law makers only passively responded to the demands of the women’s movement. If they truly cared about ending violence against women, they would not have shied away from including sexual violence as a form of cruelty that is inflicted on women.
Response of the State
In 2017, some 45 years after the contemporary women’s movement began; it is true that the concerns of women have become more visible. Cases of rapes in cities like Delhi are extensively covered by the media; cruelty, both mental and physical, has become a recognised crime. However, it is no secret that domestic violence is increasing exponentially in both rural and urban areas in the country. An important question that comes to mind is: what is being done to protect women from this violence, more importantly, to improve the condition of their lives?
At this point, by referring to and analysing the minority opinion rendered by my colleague, Justice Goel in this case, one can understand how the State does very little to empower women against patriarchy, which is one of the major causes of domestic violence and cruelty against them. There have been several allegations of the misuse of Section 498-A of the IPC by ‘disgruntled’ wives and family members. It would be naïve for this Court to rule that there is absolutely no truth in any of these allegations of misuse. Unfortunately, it becomes problematic when this discourse on misuse ends up drowning the arguments put forth by several women who have been subjected to violence in their homes. Their argument is simple and pertinent: that Section 498-A has been underused and is an inadequate provision of law since it does not include sexual violence and also does not protect unmarried woman.
Through this Judgment, an effort has been made by us to challenge patriarchy, especially when it comes to the institution of family. This will eventually help in battered women getting justice. In National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, this Court held that, “Rule of law demands protection of individual human rights. Such rights are to be guaranteed to each and every human being.” In Madhu Kishwar v. State of Bihar, a three Judge Bench of this Court held that, “Women have always been discriminated and have suffered and are suffering discrimination in silence.......... yet they have been subjected to all inequities, indignities, inequality and discrimination.”
Under these circumstances, it becomes the duty of this Court to ensure that the right to live with dignity, of women subjected to such violence, is protected. Unfortunately, as can be seen from the minority opinion in this case, the concern of the Judges in India has always been that the sacred institution of the family should not be destabilized. My learned brother Judge on the Bench fails to realize that if this institution and the violence inflicted by it remain unquestioned, the woman who is the victim in such situations has to choose between subordination and abandonment, something akin to choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Justice Goel places reliance on decisions like Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, which gave directions to safeguard ‘uncalled’ for arrests made under Section 498-A in order to ensure that the interests of the family as a whole can be safeguarded. The Judgment in this case was delivered by a Division Bench of this Court comprising of Justice Chandramauli Kr. Prasad and Justice P.C. Ghose. Before deciding whether the directions issued in that case hold good or not, we would like to place reliance on the landmark judgment of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, where this Court made a note of its obligations under Article 32 of the Constitution and held that,
“The obligation of this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution for the enforcement of these fundamental rights in the absence of legislation must be viewed along with the role of judiciary envisaged in the Beijing Statement of Principles of the Independence of the Judiciary in the LAWASIA region. These principles were accepted by the Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific at Beijing in 1995 as those representing the minimum standards necessary to be observed in order to maintain the independence and effective functioning of the judiciary. The objectives of the judiciary mentioned in the Beijing Statement are:
Objectives of the Judiciary:
The objectives and functions of the Judiciary include the following: to ensure that all persons are able to live securely under the rule of law; to promote, within the proper limits of the judicial function, the observance and the attainment of human rights; and to administer the law impartially among persons and between persons and the State.” (Emphasis supplied is ours)
Taking cue from these objectives, we hold that the directions issued in Arnesh Kumar are ultra vires the Constitution of India because they unfairly discriminate against the victims of domestic violence. No such directions have been issued by this Court to safeguard ‘uncalled’ for arrests under other provisions of the Penal Code.
The Judgments that have been cited in the minority opinion also draw a distinction between violence and marital violence and make it abundantly clear that a FIR under Section 498-A should be registered only when all attempts at reconciliation fail. This artificial distinction between the private and the public sphere is made with the main aim being that of preservation of the “sacred” institution of marriage. This needs to be avoided at all costs as there already exist a number of safeguards against arrests made under Section 498-A.
Additionally, it is imperative that the Courts and the Police Authorities do not judge whether a woman is misusing the law or not, something that happens very often, on the basis of ‘reconciliation’ and withdrawal of the case by her. In most cases, the woman decides to go back to her violent marital home after the reconciliation and counselling which actually give no ‘real’ option to her to fight back. This court would like to direct the attention of all interested parties to a study conducted in Mumbai titled, “Lived Experiences of Women Facing Domestic Violence in India.” What becomes amply clear after going through this study and the various experiences of battered women is that women face violence for long periods of time due to the lack of social and financial support. They receive no support from their natal families which eventually results in them going back to their abusers. A lot of interviews were conducted during the study. Most of these interviews were conducted after an attempt at reconciliation had been made. The details of some of these interviews tells us about the problem with attempts at reconciliation and why the Police and the Courts should not encourage this,
“I still used to think, “Let it go; I can’t live with my parents after marriage.” In the end, [my] in-laws’ home is my home now. So, I used to cry but try to stay [in my marriage], but it was too much trouble for me. So, I would inform my parents of this, and my brother would take me back. I used to think that he would calm down and forget his anger in four days and would behave properly again. After going back, there was the same trouble after two days: always beating [me], not giving [enough] food to eat, and continuously doubting my character. (Emphasis supplied is ours; name of victim not to be disclosed)”
“My parents . . . said that a husband is a husband. “You’re young now,” [they said]. “What will you do alone? What else can you do in the future? Can you provide a house for your son, or paternal love? . . . at least he [your husband] will get a house and a secure future.” So, I accepted him. (Emphasis supplied is ours; name of victim not to be disclosed)”
Even the data of the National Crime Records Bureau used by Justice Goel has not been viewed from a woman’s perspective. The data has been used by him to prove that most cases filed under Section 498-A are false and are cases of misuse. While my brother Judge drew this conclusion from the NCRB data, I would like to respectfully disagree since, the very same data, reveals a very different conclusion when you read it along with the realities of data collection and the investigation mechanism. It is clear that the high rate of charge sheets under Section 498-A means that the police do find a prima facie case of violence against women. Unfortunately, it is shoddy investigation, inaccurate post-mortem reports and forced reconciliation attempts that result in acquittals of those perpetrating violence. A study conducted by Vimochana, an activist group founded in Bangalore for the victims of domestic violence, proves the same. The study found out that the police do not conduct a proper investigation even after the Court pulls them up for the shoddy work done by them. Justice Goel also fails to recognise the fact that cases under Section 498-A that are declared false complaints are a meagre 10 percent of the total cases. Most of those that are declared false are settled by a compromise between the two parties. Studies have shown that majority of cases under this section are filed by the family members of the deceased woman. The rate of conviction, which leads to the courts commenting about the misuse of this law, is extremely low as the testimony of the family members is not accepted on the ground that they are interested parties and focus is laid on convictions only if the injury is visible.
We would also like to make it clear that the alleged misuse of Section 498-A of the IPC is not a good enough reason for directions to be issued to safeguard the interests of the accused. This, in our opinion, mainly happens because this provision seeks to challenge and view the family as a patriarchal structure. It is no secret that there are unequal power structures within marriages and families, both marital and natal. The efforts made by the State to preserve the family can be seen even in the minority opinion rendered by Justice Goel when he issues directions for the creation of Family Welfare Committees to prevent instances of “uncalled for arrests that may rue the chances of settlement.” The presence of the Section in the statute itself acknowledges the unequal power structures, that the Indian State wishes to protect and conserve.
Instead of encouraging women who are subjected to domestic violence and cruelty to come out and file criminal cases, Justice Goel’s judgment, like many others in the past, not only fails to appreciate the fact that women file cases only when they are well past their breakpoint, but also views those who gather the courage and come out to battle it out in the courts as women who are out there to destroy the institution of marriage. If the judgment of Justice Goel ends up being the law, it would imply that women should remain silent sufferers and that the men of the family should not be unnecessarily targeted. If this happens, it will be in line with what prominent feminist scholar Catharine Mackinnon stated in her work that the State uses the tool of intervention to continue male supremacy in society.
Why the misuse argument cannot and should not be used can be proved best by using the very Law Commission report that Justice Goel has relied on to prove misuse. Justice P.V. Reddy, the author of the 243rd Law Commission Report made an important observation that, “there is no reliable data based on empirical study as regards the extent of the alleged misuse of Section 498-A.” Another important observation of the Report that finds no mention in Justice Goel’s opinion is when the Commission, in Para 7.3 holds that,
“While the Commission is appreciative of the need to discourage unjustified and frivolous complaints and the scourge of over-implication, it is not inclined to take a view that dilutes the efficacy of s.498A to the extent of defeating its purpose especially having regard to the fact that atrocities against women are on the increase.” (Emphasis supplied is ours)
Trivializing the Women subjected to Cruelty and Domestic Violence
Finally, before proceeding to the second part of the judgment, I am briefly going to address the issue of how law enforcement agencies and Courts trivialize those who have suffered violence. The Anweshi Women’s Counseling Centre of Kozhikode founded in 1993, found out that even in cases where the woman is on the verge of committing suicide, the police finds nothing wrong in adding more pressure on the woman to “patch up” with the very perpetrators who inflicted that violence on her.
Similarly, courts have, time and again, passed rulings and used methods that aggravate the condition of the victim. A study that was conducted to analyse the decisions of lower courts on domestic violence, found out that both the admission of evidence and recording of the testimony of the victim is done through the male lens. Majority of judges make use of the passive voice, while recounting how the woman was subjected to cruelty, to send across the message that there was no actual attempt to hit the woman’s body. Also, a disturbing trend that can be seen in many judgments is the voyeuristic approach of laying emphasis on whether the victim was dressed or not. This is similar to the discourse that can be seen in hearings in rape cases. There are also various studies which show that most Session’s Court Judges hand out zero convictions in cases under Section 498-A. They quash the FIR and the case by putting the blame on the victim’s family for being upset at the premature death of the woman. Lastly, another significant similarity seen across cases is that the violence perpetrated against the woman is justified on the ground that she did not make any efforts to integrate completely with her marital family. This view that the woman should break ties with her natal family after marriage is also supported by the panchayats and counsellors appointed to attempt a reconciliation between the woman and her husband who subjected her to violence. Out and out, one can see the inherent bias against the woman. In these circumstances, it is clear that the system and enforcement machinery like the Police is entirely against the interests of women and the legislative intent of Section 498-A. If not worrying, it should at the very least discount all concerns of misuse of the Section. Instead, there should be concern for how the battered woman can get justice under such testing conditions.
*Atharv Gupta is a 3rd year student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He would like to thank Professor Dr. V.S. Elizabeth and Professor Dr. Sarasu E. Thomas for their valuable comments on this case during his History-2 and Family Law-1 Courses. He would also like to thank Ms. Sregurupriya Ayyappan and Ms. Riddhi RS for their insightful editorial comments.
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