Author: Shambhavi Sharan,
3rd Year,
CHRIST(Deemed to be University).
The practice of giving dowry to a bridegroom is one which has existed in India throughout history. Imbibed into the patriarchal society, the practice has been seen as a vice due to the societal and economic pressure it puts on the families of brides. To prevent this practice which leads to heinous crimes against women, several legislations have been passed. Legislations like the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and subsequent amendments made to the Indian Penal Code, 1860 are examples of such efforts made by the legislature. Though the intention of the legislature cannot be questioned in this aspect, several issues with respect to implementation arise, especially one such instance where the law is misused by wives by filing frivolous complaints against husbands to their advantage.

This paper analyses this misuse of the law by wives against husbands by way of filing malicious complaints and getting away with it due to the nature of the law. It starts by giving a brief account of the history of the concept of dowry and its prevalence in society. It then goes on to establish the idea of marriage in India and the need for such legislations in the country. Further, it analyses why this misuse takes place and how the nature of the existing laws contribute to this misuse. Finally, it points out the ideals of an effective legislation and suggests changes to the existing laws in order to protect the rights of husbands who are made victims in these cases.  The paper aims at bringing out the main reasons why the laws in effect are weak and seeks to bring about effective changes in the legal system to benefit those who suffer because of the misuse of law.

Key words: Dowry, Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, Indian Penal Code, 1860, Frivilous, Effective Legislations


The prevalence of dowry has existed in India since time immemorial. Its origin lies in the concept of giving gifts at the time of marriage as a form of financial security to newly married couples and as a form of affection shown to the daughter who was departing from her parents.[1] Historically, it is symbolic in the way that it was given as a voluntary gift and not as a compulsory remuneration to the husband as a ‘price’ paid for the marriage of their daughters.

During the Vedic period, the concept of “brideprice” existed in what was known as the Asura form of marriage where the husband was paid an amount as a contractual consideration for the marriage. Eventually, this was condemned on the ground that it breached the sacredness of the matrimonial bond and was severely looked down upon.[2] The Brahma form of marriage required the father to give gifts to his daughter at the time of marriage on the basis of what he could afford. When the idea of affordability came in, the practice had now become a question of prestige. As the practice evolved, it took a commercial turn and it prevailed as those of a higher caste preferred it. Another practice leaning in the direction of dowry was that of a compensatory nature where the parents would give the bridegroom some amount to make up for any sort of defect t
hat their daughter might have. This was known as “tika” and it was paid to fulfill the defects of the bride.
[3] Even though the use of these terms died along with the passage of time, these practices still exist as an evil in society and they continue to dilute the purity of marriage.

The demands for dowry have increased immensely since the medieval period and have become an issue of prestige since the 19th century with its increasing popularity among all castes. What was intended to be given for social and economic security became a way for families to showcase their wealth and socio-economic status.[4]
The reason this practice has turned into an “evil” is due to its shift from an obligatory practice to a compulsory one. The general notion now is that a man is entitled to a certain remuneration on the sole basis of his gender, and this price increases based on factors such as educational qualifications, caste, religion, place of residence, etc. The widespread acceptance of this can be seen all over the country and very much in practice, despite the existence of laws to counter it. In a research conducted on 585 unmarried students in 1975, in Karnataka, it was noticed that the general attitude of families with respect to marriages in India does include the exchange of dowry and that it is very prevalent in practice. [5]

Essentially, the vice of dowry has reduced the sacrament of a marriage to a mere commercial transaction where “rates” of bridegrooms are fixed based on their social status, and those who do not pay the amount are subject to torture such as violence, physical or mental cruelty and sometimes even death in extreme cases. 


Due to this change in attitudes with respect to marriage, women were being subject to immense torture in several forms such as harassment, physical violence, abetted suicides, brutal murders and many other forms of abuse and exploitations, when demands were not fulfilled.[6] This was mostly prevalent in rural areas where the families of the brides could not afford the high demand of dowry by the bridegroom’s family and this would put immense pressure on the bride’s family to pay them.  This eventually led to forcing the bride to meet their demands to such an extent that the bride would have no choice left but to kill herself. In cases where she didn’t kill herself, she was killed by the husband’s family in a practice widely prevalent as “bride burning” where the bride was burnt alive and the excuse of an accidental fire was used to get away with it.[7]
With the existence of such social evils on a huge scale, the need for a legislation to counter this was felt and several state legislations were enacted in this respect.

The very first legislation was the Sind Deti-Leti Act, 1939, followed by other legislations such as the Bihar Dowry Act, 1950 and the Andhra Dowry Act, 1959, which were ineffective as despite their existence, cases on dowry fatalities still piled up in large numbers.[8] 

The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was the central legislation which was passed in an attempt to counter the practice of this social evil. The enactment of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 g
ave some sort of confidence to the public in the hopes that it would help in eradicating the practice of demanding dowry and the consequences that exist subsequent to this demand, but in practicality, it made very little difference due to several loopholes.


The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was weak in its implementation due to these loopholes and was termed a “Paper Law”, i.e. an ineffective law which is weak due to the incapacity of being implemented or due to no proper steps being taken to actually implement it properly.[9] Among other backlashes of the law, one of the most pertinent is the misuse of it by a wife to blackmail her husband and his family.

The practice of wives misusing the law to her malicious benefit emanates from the practice of the law in such a way that only the taker of the dowry is held guilty and not the giver. This is because in practice, no case is ever registered against the giver of the dowry, but the giver of the dowry registers complaints against the taker. [10]

In several cases, complaints arise out of domestic discord and not due to the husband’s misconduct, but the general assumption in all these cases lies against the accused and advantage is taken by the wife to her benefit as she has the upper hand due to her “apparent” weak position.

The rationale behind the enactment of these laws is to protect a woman from the social evil of dowry due to its economic burden on families and the increasing rate of crimes subsequent to non-payment or non-fulfillment of the demands of the husband of his family. It is a tool of empowerment to prevent the victimization of women by their husbands or in-laws due to harassment.[11] Several amendments have been made to give the law more teeth in order to make it more effective in implementation and to facilitate a woman’s goal to achieve justice in a patriarchal society. But the sad state of affairs indicates that what was meant to be a law for empowerment is now being used for the fulfillment of malicious demands.

Among the several laws that exist for the protection of women, section 498A and 406 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 and the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 are relevant to our discussion.

Section 489A and 406 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines “cruelty” and provides for punishment for criminal breach of trust. Cruelty, under section 498A, is defined as –
“(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 to meet such demand.”[12]
And the punishment for this is prescribed to be imprisonment for a term of up to three years along with a fine.

Section 406 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 prescribes the punishment for criminal breach of trust as imprisonment for a term of up to three years, or a fine, or both.[13] Both these offences are cognizable and non-bailable. This means that upon a single complaint made by the wife, her husband and his family can be put behind bars.

The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 defines dowry and provides for a penalty for giving and taking dowry to be imprisonment for a term not less than 5 years and a fine not less than 15,000 rupees or the amount of dowry, whichever is higher.[14]
The practice in common law is usually that a person is held to be innocent until proven guilty, but in these cases, the presumption is always against the accused due to the nature of the offence and the general submissiveness of the woman in a marital arrangement. The burden of proof lies on the accused to prove that he is not guilty of the offence as the legal presumption is that he is guilty of the crime, unless proven otherwise. The rationale behind all these laws is that dowry requests often lead to harassment, physical violence, ejection from the husband’s house, and even death – often by burning, or by “assisted suicide” – of the hapless, isolated wife.[15] In India, women are socially at a weaker position as compared to men, and so in an ideal situation, this works to the advantage of a woman who is already distressed due to cruelty being inflicted on her. But in cases where the laws are being misused by her to get her own malicious ways, this legal presumption is less than ideal as a man is now put in a weaker position despite his innocence.

The lacuna in the law exists in the fact that there is no legal backing to protect the rights of a man. No provisions exists for men to file cases against a woman for cruelty of any sorts. In several cases, the woman uses the legal provisions as a tool to pressurize the husband and his parents to fulfill her demands such as the demand to live in a nuclear family instead of a joint family, to put the property in her name or other issues related to marital discord.[16] In Jasbir Kaur v. State of Haryana[17], the high court of Haryana said that an estranged wife will go to whatever extent she has to in order to save her estranged marriage, even if it includes involving relatives of her husband who are completely innocent. This is seen in many cases where the wife ropes in many relatives of the husband on the basis of false allegations and gets away with it due to the biasness of the law towards her.

The only scope that a man has against his wife is by using “cruelty” as a ground for divorce. Even in this case, a man is granted a decree of divorce based on the discretion of the court and no legal action is taken against the wife on the ground of being cruel. Due to the laws being cognizable and non-bailable, a court can initiate proceedings upon its own knowledge or on the basis of a police report, even if the aggrieved person has lodged no such complaint.[18] Upon investigation, there is no check on whether it is done based on the reality of the crime. In most cases, the investigation is heavily biased by the statement given by the wife as she is considered to be saying the truth.

This misuse of law is further encouraged by lawyers and policemen who push females to include dowry harassment in their complaints by making them believe that their complaints will not be taken seriously otherwise.[19] In several cases, the police refuse to register cases under section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 unless they include allegations of dowry harassment. Even though a preliminary investigation is required after the filing of an FIR, in a majority of the filed cases, arrest warrants are issued without any investigation and merely on the word of the complainant. [20]

The origin of this misuse lies in the legal presumption of guilty until proven innocent. In a genuine situation, this works for the benefit for the woman who is generally subject to more cruelty than a man in a patriarchal society, but cases filed under these provisions are increasingly found to be frivolous in nature. In the case of Savitri Devi vs. Ramesh Chand[21], it was said by the Delhi High Court that even though these laws were made with good intentions, they have been made counter-productive due to their misuse by women.


It is a fact that every law which is enacted has scope for misuse by finding its weaknesses and loopholes. But the mere existence of a ‘potential’ misuse cannot invalidate the law itself as there is a history behind passing of all legislations. Generally this history is filled with immense injustice which brings about the need to enact a law to fix the wrongs in a society. Due to this history, the mere scope of misuse is not enough ground to do away with it. Such laws are generally titled “transformative laws” as they seek to transform traditional norms.[22]  These laws emerge from a pluralistic society in which a class of people succeed in enacting reformist laws by displacing popular norms which they perceive as outdated and unjust.[23] The issue that arises out of such laws is that its effort to eradicate “traditional norms” usually goes in vain as it is widely followed by a majority of the population. The issue lies in implementation of these laws and they remain “Paper Laws”[24] which entail no practical enforcement even though they are legally in place. This leaves them susceptible to misuse, which is the situation at hand. The failure to create a law-enforcement machinery capable of providing genuine recourse to all those whose rights have been violated contributes to this majorly.[25]

Generally, the requisites of an effective legislation are as follows- The law must be practical, not utopian, the rationale of the law must be compatible with established cultural and legal principles, there must be sincere conviction in the enforcement agencies (they must be neither hypocritical about it nor corrupt) and the law must contain adequate sanctions and incentives, sanctions to deter the law-breaker and incentives for the victims to enforce the law.[26]

(1) The law must be practical, not utopian.
In the given situation, the legislation does not look at the ground realities of the situation at hand. In fact, it provides no safeguard or backing to the potential misuse of the law which may lead to a miscarriage of justice. The flaw with the legislation is that it is not entirely practical as it contains several loopholes and potential ways to escape conviction. An effort must be made to make the law more advantageous for protecting men’s rights too as the trend is increasing and the issue is getting grave. For example, 4,206 fake cases were reportedly filed in Jaipur in 2016, wherein most of them pertained to allegations of dowry harassment, molestation and rape.[27]  Also, steps must be taken to prevent misuse by creating an efficient machinery of checking the genuineness of the claim.

(2) The rationale of the law must be compatible with established cultural and legal principles.

The rationale of the existing laws are compatible with the cultural principles of protecting women’s rights, but it does not look at the rights of men. The laws also aren’t in consonance with the legal principle of presumption in common law. The general idea of innocent until proven guilty must be implemented in these cases too as the misuse due to the presumption of guilt is too high already. The legislation must be looked at through a gender neutral frame while giving adequate provisions to the woman, but also protecting the rights of men who have been subject to misuse and consequences which are uncalled for. By safeguarding the rights of both, men and women, and being in line with the legal principles of common law, the legislation will be ideal.

 (3) There must be sincere conviction in the enforcement agencies; they must be neither hypocritical about it nor corrupt.

One of the major flaws, as we have seen earlier, lies in the enforcement agencies in practically applying this law. It is being misused not only by the policemen, but also by lawyers. The issue with this is that the very body which is responsible for enforcement of the law misuses it. To prevent this, there must be a system to ensure that effective enforcement is taking place at all levels and that there are enough deterrents to make sure that the law isn’t broken by those who are benefitted by it and by those who enforce it.
In this way, the law will comply with the fourth factor of an effective legislation, i.e. (4) The law must contain adequate sanctions and incentives, sanctions to deter the law-breaker and incentives for the victims to enforce the law. While providing safeguards to protect men’s rights too, the legislature will be bringing men within the ambit of “victims” and thus they’ll provide them with an incentive to seek a recourse to law.

The growing trend of injustice towards husbands is being realized by the courts and steps are being taken towards realizing a legislation where the law isn’t misused. For example, by acknowledging the growing misuse of section 498A, the Supreme Court has stated that no arrests can be made till charges are verified by conducting adequate investigation.[28] This is a small step towards safeguarding men against frivolous complaints made by wives, but it is a move towards realization of an ideal legislature by ensuring sincere conviction in the enforcement agencies, which is one of the requisites to achieve the same.


The issue of dowry harassment, after passing of several legislations, has become somewhat gender neutral. Women are affected directly, whereas men are affected by it indirectly through misuse of the laws which exist in place to protect them. Essentially what needs to be done is to make the implementation of the law more effective so that the objective of the legislation if fulfilled and the scope for misusing it is removed. Considering the prevalence of dowry in the current society, the practice will take several social reforms to bring about a change. It is a work in progress, but it will be achieved eventually through legislative reforms too. 

[1] Meredith Sherman Fahn; Noncompliance with India’s Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961: A Society’s Reactions to Imposed Law; 4 Temp. Int’l & Comp. L.J. 105, 101-131.

[2] Id. At 106.

[3] Id. At 105.

[4] V.V. Prakasa Rao and V. Nandini Rao; The dowry system in Indian marriages: Attitudes, Expectations and Practices; International Journal of Sociology of the Family 100, 99-113(January-June1980).

[5] Id. At 101.

[6] Madhu Kishwar; Laws Against Domestic Violence: Underused or Abused?; NWSA Journal 111, 111-122(Summer, 2003).

[7]Meredith Sherman Fahn; Noncompliance with India’s Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961: A Society’s Reactions to Imposed Law; 4 Temp. Int’l & Comp. L.J. 113, 101-131.

[8] S. V.; Dowry Amendment Bill: Another Toothless Legislation; Economic and Political Weekly 1609, 1609-1610(Sep. 15, 1984).

[9] Atul Setalvad; Paper Laws; Economic and Political Weekly 1467, 1467-1470(Jul. 16, 1988).

[10] Madhu Kishwar; Laws Against Domestic Violence: Underused or Abused?; NWSA Journal 115, 111-122(Summer, 2003).

[11] Neeta Lal, India’s Anti-Dowry Laws: Tools to Harass Husbands, AsiaSentinel(March 28, 2014, 12:43PM),

[12] S. 498, Indian Penal Code, 1860, No. 45, Acts of parliament.

[13] S. 406, Indian Penal Code, 1860, No. 45, Acts of parliament.

[14] Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, No. 28, Acts of parliament.

[15] Linda Hamilton Krieger; The Burdens of Equality: Burdens of Proof and Presumptions in Indian and American Civil Rights Law; The American Journal of Comparative Law 97, 89-127(Winter, 1999).

[16] Neeta Lal, India’s Anti-Dowry Laws: Tools to Harass Husbands, AsiaSentinel(March 28, 2014, 12:43PM),

[17] Jasbir Kaur v. State of Haryana 2 Rec Cri R 243 (1990).

[18] Supra at 17.

[19] Madhu Kishwar; Laws Against Domestic Violence: Underused or Abused?; NWSA Journal 116, 111-122(Summer, 2003).

[20] Id. At 117.

[21] Savitri Devi vs. Ramesh Chand CriLJ 2759 (2003).

[22] Linda Hamilton Krieger; The Burdens of Equality: Burdens of Proof and Presumptions in Indian and American Civil Rights Law; The American Journal of Comparative Law 89, 89-127(Winter, 1999).

[23] Id. At 90.

[24] Atul Setalvad; Paper Laws; Economic and Political Weekly 1467, 1467-1470(Jul. 16, 1988).

[25] Madhu Kishwar; Laws Against Domestic Violence: Underused or Abused?; NWSA Journal 121, 111-122(Summer, 2003).

[26] Atul Setalvad; Paper Laws; Economic and Political Weekly 1467, 1467-1470(Jul. 16, 1988).

[27] Dishank Purohit, 4,206 fake cases filed in Jaipur in 2016, The Times Of India(Jan. 20, 2017, 10:36 AM)

[28] Amit Anand Choudhary, No arrest in dowry cases till charges are verified, says supreme court, The Times Of India(Jul. 28, 2017, 2:24 PM),

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