How Indian women misuse the law for divorce
At times, the society sees only one side of the narrative and is quick to judge the husband.
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When Sahil Gupta* celebrated his 16th wedding anniversary on October 28, little did he realise it would be the last time he would see his wife and two kids. He bought his wife a bouquet of flowers. The next day his wife told him she was going downstairs with the kids to play badminton, but instead left with them to her parents' place. The next thing he knew, she had filed a dowry case against him and did not allow him to speak to his children again.
Sahil has no idea what went wrong.
Darryl married for a second time in his late 30s and brought his wife Garima home. They lived with his mother and soon Garima wanted the house to herself, and the deed transferred in her name. Darryl said his mother had nowhere to go. His mother suggested that the couple look for a rented place since none of them seemed to be happy with each other. Immediately, Garima moved to her mother's place and claimed she was thrown out of the house and filed a dowry case against the son and mother. Darryl is so shocked that he's gone into depression.
Indian society sees only one side of the narrative and is quick to judge the male partner. A woman in India needs only to file a dowry or domestic violence case, an FIR or a rape case against the husband's family and it is the onus of the men and the family to prove it wrong. They are declared guilty in the face of society, the law and their friends even before they have a moment to catch a breath and prove their side of the story.
In Sahil's case, he could see she was moving some of her clothes out, but thought she was giving them away. Except she strategically planned to keep a few things at her married home to tell the police that she was thrown out. She also told them that the parents tore her clothes. Sahil's parents are in shock as they had treated her as their own daughter, always taking her side over Sahil's and helping her with the children and the house. As elderly people, it is difficult for them to recover from this shock and trauma.
There was the case of Amrita who left her husband Gaurav three months after her son was born, to be with her lover. She filed a rape case against her husband and a harassment case against his sister and didn't allow him to meet their children till he gave her Rs 20 lakh and a divorce. Refusing to give in, Gaurav stood his ground and said he would take her back despite the horrible things she had said about him. After five years, her lover left her and she came back to Gaurav who had to build his life with her all over again with his son calling him "Uncle".
Why women take this route
1. Fractions in the joint family: The woman doesn't want to live with her in-laws. She wants to leave and the son cannot let go of his parents. She feels trapped and wants attention.
2. Infidelity: Either party - husband or wife could be having an affair. If he is having an affair, she is hurt and angry and the only way she can get back at him is by filing a case. If she is having an affair, it's easy to file a case against her husband so she gets some money in her name rather than a divorce; he could prove she has been cheating on him and she may end up with nothing.
3. Arranged marriage: Most often, Indian women have been forcefully married off and don't get along with their husbands. There are several cases where the woman wants to go back to her lover but the only way to get out of this marriage without her parents and family forcing her to stay on is to file a case against the family and use article 498A to be free.
4. Woman feels slighted: Most housewives may have an identity crisis at a given point in their life and if a man has said something to slight her, she will get offended. Over time, their ideologies change and the romance may die. Misunderstandings arise and everything becomes a huge issue. To ask for a divorce might not be acceptable if the man has not technically done anything and the only way she can save face is to slap the 498A charge.
What is Section 498A?
1. In 1983, Section 498-A of the IPC was introduced - the avowed object to combat the menace of harassment to a woman at the hands of her husband and his relatives.
2. Section 498-A is a cognisable and non-bailable criminal offence.
With this on him, the Indian Penal Code makes it impossible for the man to fight his case. At the Bombay High Court, there have been cases where both the parties were asked to share parenting responsibilities and given equal access to the child. This works if both the parents stay in one city.
What happens if the mother has taken the child and gone back to her parents and filed a case in her own city? Then it's up to the man to keep showing up for court cases in her city to prove he is eager to be with his children or fight for his rights. This is both expensive and exhausting.
There was one middleclass family that had been so besmirched with a case that they chose to settle and give the woman Rs 25 lakh and go through with the divorce just so that the man could see his children as soon as possible. They took a loan since they didn't have the money and gave it all to her. Later they saw that she was holidaying in a foreign location while the entire family had fallen into depression and were contemplating suicide since the society thought that the man had been violent and was impotent, as she had claimed.
"A total of 63,343 married men committed suicide in 2012, with a fair amount of them having faced domestic problems," says Amit Gupta of Hridaya, a men's rights organisation.
"It is the middle class that bear the brunt of this draconian law," says men's rights activist Deepika Bhardwaj. "A hard working middle class family needs to cough up huge sums of money to save face in their society while the rich want the matter to die quickly and settle for the sum asked. This could be in crores."
Money has power, undoubtedly. It is often money that leads the woman to file DV (Domestic Violence) cases against the husband and the family. Sahil Gupta's wife expected him to earn much more and get the house in her name. As he could not provide that for her, she walked out on him.
Many times, a husband says the wife must work to have equality in the relationship and both parties shall look after the children and their home. But the wife refuses. Later when he has built the nest egg to be more comfortable with his wife and family, she deserts him saying he never paid enough attention to her and it's time she get the entire nest egg for herself for the years she's given to the marriage.
All these cases that are flung on the man are traumatic and there are many men and families who are so scarred that they won't marry again or have children. My friend Rahul struggled for two years to get out of a dowry and marital rape case and, finally, when he proved he could not give his ex-wife two and a half crores, she settled for Rs 50 lakh and left him alone. At 40, he had to start over to build his bank balance and find love. A man who loved children so much that he thought he would have a few is still single after ten years and wounded for life.
In Bangalore, there was a woman who was caught having an affair and brought back by the police and given a warning. But her husband chose to file for divorce. She immediately went to the same police station to file an FIR against him for harassment and now there is a case against him and his family.
What can be done
1. The law should consider how to rehabilitate the woman in her choice of work and help her stand on her feet instead of relying on alimony in a divorce.
2. The law must take into account the man's point of view and hold him innocent until proven guilty.
3. Many more support groups should come out to help men who have been left battered.
4. Women who have filed cases must have solo counselling to gauge if it's a genuine case or if it has been influenced by a third party.
5. Children should be able to meet both parents whenever they choose with a neutral guide around to supervise.
Marriages deteriorate over the years. Women feel slighted in some ways. And most relationships tend to turn into power struggles where the man will always say or do something stupid and the woman is left feeling bad. But it's always better to go for marriage counselling or take the help of family and friends to sort out issues rather than resort to criminal cases that crack the family and traumatise the children. Or go for a divorce that is amicable, thinking about the children and helping each other live on their own.
According to activist Deepika, feminism has become a buzzword for the society. All the inputs from friends, media and society tell a woman to be more aware of her rights. A slight remark could sometimes result in a full blown war. Over time, small instances can instigate the woman to fight for her "rights". A lover, a friend, a sister could initiate a thought process that the woman is better off alone, should not put up with such "atrocities" and get all the money she wants if she fights it out!
It is natural to be influenced when you see cases of women who get lakhs of rupees in court cases and custody for the children. A wife who feels like she has been insulted in the marriage takes the same steps her friend has, not understanding that each family, relationship and man is different.
She will use her children against the man and not realise she is doing permanent psychological damage to them. She may fill their ears with horrible things about the father and his family and permanently scar the children too.
I am a feminist. I believe that we have come a long way in fighting for women's rights and fully supportive of equal rights and pay for women. There are genuine instances of dowry, rape, harassment, abandonment and other problems that a woman has gone through in a marriage and family. She must be strong and use these laws to protect herself. I believe that being strong doesn't mean putting someone else down. I believe in allowing room for dialogue. And I believe that men have a right to be innocent till they're proven guilty and not the other way around.
Behind every case, there is a human story, of someone being hurt and threatened, with an extortion that leaves them bitter, sick and damaged. At the end of the day, we need to be humanists. Whether a woman has been hurt or a man, let's be sensitive to both. Instead of playing the power card, you have another ace up your sleeve. It's called forgiveness.
And if people don't let ego get in the way, forgiveness can help save a marriage.
(*Name changed to protect identity)