India's far from happy husbands
Wives abusing dowry law are causing men trouble and strife
A support group for men being harassed by their wives meets in Chennai, India (Photo by Anna Thomas)
On Saturday evenings, Gauribai, 56, and her grandson head to Marina Beach in Chennai, buy some peanuts and settle down near the water. A few men are already there, and as twilight deepens more join to form a 25-strong group, including a few children.
The stories they share contradict the traditional portrait of the patriarchal Indian male, powerful and in control in this conservative country.
The men have all been married and claim to be victims of misuse of a law by their wives. They have all been charged under what is commonly called the dowry law, which penalizes husbands and their family members for demanding dowry.
Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), an activist group for men’s rights, organizes the weekend support meetings, and has chapters in several Indian cities.
Attendees meet to share their thoughts on how to counter what they claim is the misuse of a law enacted with good intent to protect hapless women, but increasingly used by disgruntled wives to harass their husbands.
Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code makes cruelty to a woman by her husband or his relatives a cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable criminal offense that is punishable by imprisonment and a fine. But even the Supreme Court has suspected that some wives misuse the provisions of the law.
On July 2, the court directed state governments to instruct police officers “not to automatically arrest” when a person is accused of violating the dowry provisions of the law.
Justice CK Prasad in his judgment on the issue said there had been “a phenomenal increase in dowry harassment cases in India in the past few years”.
Gauribai, her daughter, and her son Shivakumar, 31, have all been accused by the son’s wife of cruelty. Shivakumar lives in a suburb of Chennai.
Four more families from his locality have had some or all of their family members charged under the same section of the law by their brides.
This Saturday, a new member is invited to tell his story. He speaks diffidently about how he worked as a software specialist at the Ford Motor Company after moving from neighboring Andhra Pradesh state.
“I have been falsely accused of cruelty,” he says. “My wife wanted a divorce after a few months; she filed 498A against me instead.”
A barrage of advice comes from men who have apparently learned the Indian Penal Code by rote. One of them, also a software specialist, is studying for a law degree. “You learn not to trust lawyers, or even hire one,” he says.
“Mine asked me to file for separation to pre-empt arrest, but that made my case weaker. Reconciliation is the first recourse, and I should have known that then,” he cautioned.
Gauribai’s son Shivakumar shut down the retail business he owned and now lives on his savings. Disentangling legal procedures to extricate his family from the cases filed by his wife in the Chennai High Court does not leave him time for work.
“My sister and her husband lived in Chennai city, while my wife and I lived 17 kilometers away; but they have also been charged with cruelty to my wife.” He refers to her in the possessive, rather than by name, after five years of living apart from her and their child.
“She did not want to live in a joint family,” says Shivakumar. “Her parents wanted her near them and encouraged her to move at the first sign of conflict, so they could be with her.”
His wife Bhuvaneshwari and their child live in Coimbatore with her parents and have received several financial settlements from Shivakumar, but she does not want a divorce. Asked if he has ever abused her, he strongly denies it.
“In an arranged marriage, it takes a period of adjustment to settle in, and when your wife’s parents intervene, relationships can sour fast and sound more ominous than they are,” he says.
SIFF activists advise members to first attempt reconciliation.
“When an urban educated woman has got married under parental pressure, despite being in love with another man, she finds ways to leave the marriage,” says Meyyappan, an activist whose wife filed a case of cruelty against him.
She was forced to marry him and wanted to be with her lover, Meyyappan claims.
The shortest way out was the provisions of the law and she used them, he says. Showing cause for divorce, he says, is a complex and expensive legal procedure.
It is 9 pm when the men reluctantly get up to leave.
“Do they sound or look like they can hit anyone?” asks Gauribai. “They are like sons to me, and they now spend their lives fighting cases which will take decades to resolve.”
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