Spousal Storm

By Vikram Kilpady

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005 bringing relief to women receiving harsh treatment from their spouses. Recently, Justice Jasmeet Singh of the Delhi High Court said such protection under the Domestic Violence Act cannot be extended to husbands and male relatives as the Act sees the person aggrieved to be a woman. In this case, a woman had approached the High Court challenging proceedings against her by her husband in a complaint of domestic violence in a Karkardooma court in Delhi.

The petitioner’s counsel, Ashima Mandla, contended that the law’s first definition of an aggrieved person in Section 2 (a) of the Act states: aggrieved person means any woman who is, or has been, in a domestic relationship with the respondent and who alleges to have been subjected to any act of domestic violence by the respondent. 

Similarly, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code reads: Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine. 

So while both statutes have given women the right to invoke their provisions, a man cannot invoke the provisions of the Domestic Violence Act against a woman, Mandla argued. Further, the petition said though the Supreme Court had expanded the definition of respondent or perpetrator for it to be neutral in gender in a verdict, it had chosen not to expand the Section 2 (a) definition. The High Court agreed on the maintainability of the complaint in the local court and stayed its proceedings.

The law against domestic violence has been a stern measure to examine what is shrugged off as ghar ghar ki baat and pushed under the carpet. Just for the abuse to repeat every day. The National Crime Records Bureau statistics for 2021 released in August 2022 noted a 15% increase in crimes against women. Of them, 31.8% come under the category of cruelty by a husband or relative.

The statistics come with a caveat that a large part of domestic violence crimes go unreported or are under-reported. Reports have said that women fear retaliation, victim shaming and loss of family honour if they take recourse to the law. Other studies on the under-reporting of crimes against women, including one by the National Family Health Survey, note that women tend to blame themselves for failing to perform wifely duties. This in turn normalises domestic violence. Lack of financial independence and ignorance of legal remedies prevent women from using the law against domestic violence.

Beyond cold figures, cases are all too frequent of the screams of pain emitted from behind closed doors of people-just-like-us families or of profanities showered on the wife by an irate husband who obviously doesn’t care what the neighbourhood thinks of him. Much like democracy’s fascination for a strong leader, Indian society also cocks a snook at gender relations and would like husbands to be strong types who smother any sign of wifely frivolity. Teach her a lesson, everybody likes lessons in a country that is not fully literate, but is happy with its obsession for coding, SUVs and smart phones.

The law is the only recourse for women trampled upon by their husbands and relatives. A cursory Google search on “domestic violence” alone fetches numbers of helplines and other help groups that assist the battered wife with some sense of solidarity. It is another matter that men’s rights groups see this as a conspiracy; some even call it an international one at that.

The words “men’s rights groups” themselves sound pompous and over-reaching as if men’s rights need protection as against the ones for common citizens. Men’s rights groups began popping up after the law tightened its grip on dowry atrocities with which the media was replete till the early 2010s. This is not to say there are no dowry atrocities anymore. Mostly dormant, men’s rights groups spring to life whenever they find cause to pounce. It could be by anyone and everyone. 

In October 2022, Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud gave a speech to law graduates to incorporate feminist thinking. The comment was made a month before he took charge as CJI, but for his pains, he trended the next day and night on Twitter with the hashtag #NotMyCJI, under the charge of promoting “toxic feminism”.

Complaints of domestic violence often end in divorce or separation, with the husband unwilling to shell out maintenance for his wife and their offspring, should there be any. Separation here involves the wife’s painful eviction from the marital home. Is a man invoking the Domestic Violence Act the first step to evading the financial consequences of a divorce? Or is it to compel the wife with violence into not pushing for an annulment? Venturing a second guess is what astrologers do, the very same people who may have got the couple together in the first place.

Following the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the IPC by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision, the government has been able to say in open court that it was okay with same-sex relationships, but it cannot recognise such alliances as marriage, the very institution that sanctions heterosexual unions. The debate on expanding the definition of an aggrieved person under the Domestic Violence Act may continue as the Supreme Court is hearing several cases seeking recognition of same-sex marriages. Now what legal recourse will be available to one of the partners in a match between two gay men, if indeed there is an instance of violent strife within the relationship? That is, until the Supreme Court decides this way or that.

Domestic violence is not only a phenomenon in India. It blights nearly every country. For those familiar with the US TV series Cops, domestic disturbances are among the most cited grounds for calling the police. Nearly one in every three women and one in every four men have reported intimate partner violence, according to data with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An arrest is imminent in almost half the states of the US for intimate partner violence, with an arrest on officer discretion called for in the other half. It is to be said that the US doesn’t have a specific law against domestic violence, but those accused are tried under criminal law. US law is avowedly gender neutral, and a man can drag his wife through the courts. Remember the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard marriage coming apart, splitting the TV and the social media worlds into two nearly equal censorious parts?

Domestic violence laws are for women’s protection in India. If men take recourse to them, it would need more than a euphemism to fix it.

—The writer is Editor, IndiaLegalLive.com and APNLive.com