The Supreme Court on February 09 set aside the conviction of three persons under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. It observed that the conviction would not be sustainable as the marriage has been found to be null and void. Under Section 498-A IPC, a husband or his relatives can be sentenced to a jail term of three years for subjecting the wife to cruelty.
In the case from Tamil Nadu, a woman had filed a complaint against her husband and his family members before the police which led to investigation and filing of a charge sheet under Section 498-A IPC and Section 3 and 4 of Dowry Prohibition Act. Besides the husband, the mother-in-law, the father-in-law and the brother-in-law were also accused in the case.
However, all the four accused were acquitted by the trial court. The State and the woman filed revision petitions against the acquittal. A Single Bench of Madras High Court allowed the appeals in 2011 and convicted three accused - husband and his parents. The decision was challenged before the Supreme Court in 2012.
In a turn of events, the marriage of the couple was declared null and void by the Madurai bench of Madras High Court in February 2021.
The couple had married in December 2003 as per Hindu rites. It is alleged that when the couple were living in Chennai, the husband found out that the woman was not a Hindu but a Christian. In a case seeking divorce in 2005, he alleged that his wife and her family were Christians and had misrepresented their religion when the marriage was performed. However, the woman argued that she and her family members were always Hindus. The trial and appellate courts dismissed the husband's case.
Justice R. Subramanian on February 25 in 2021 ruled that misrepresentation regarding the religion would be a misrepresentation regarding a material fact and would affect the very validity of the marriage. The single judge declared the marriage null and void.
With the new development, the counsel representing the husband and his parents in the appeal pending before the Supreme Court argued that the conviction under Section 498-A would not sustain. Reliance was placed on Shivcharan Lal Verma And Anr. vs State Of Madhya Pradesh.
Ruling in favour of the man and his parents on the basis of the precedent, the Supreme Court with regard to the charges under Sections 3 and 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act agreed with the trial court. It said the high court could have set aside the order of acquittal only if the findings as recorded by the trial Court were perverse or impossible.
What did the Supreme Court rule in Shivcharan Lal Verma in 2002?
In the decision dated February 19, 2002, the Supreme Court dealt with the appeals challenging conviction under Section 306 (abetment of suicide) and Section 498A of the IPC. While his wife was very much alive, the appellant had married a second woman. It was alleged that both he and first wife would torture the second wife, as a result of which she died by suicide. The accused were convicted in the case and their appeal was also dismissed by the High Court, leading to filing of an appeal before the Supreme Court.
The apex court in the decision set aside the conviction under Section 498A, on the ground that the alleged marriage with the second woman — who died by suicide, was null and void as it was performed while the first wife of the man was still alive. However, the Supreme Court in the case upheld the conviction under Section 306 IPC but reduced the sentence from seven years to five years.
But has the Supreme Court ever taken a different view on the issue?
In Reema Aggarwal v Anupam, the Supreme Court in 2004, while dealing with the case of a woman who had married a man during the lifetime of his first wife, said, "legislations, enacted with some policy to curb and alleviate some public evil rampant in society and effectuate a definite public purpose or benefit positively, requires to be interpreted with certain element of realism too and not merely pedantically or hyper technically."
Particularly referring to provisions of Dowry Act and Section 498-A, the apex court in the ruling said the obvious objective was to prevent harassment to a woman who enters into a marital relationship with a person and later on, becomes a victim of the greed for money.
"Can a person who enters into a marital arrangement be allowed to take a shelter behind a smokescreen to contend that since there was no valid marriage the question of dowry does not arise? Such legalistic niceties would destroy the purpose of the provisions. Such hairsplitting legalistic approach would encourage harassment to a woman over demand of money," the court had said.
The court ruled that a person can be held liable under Section 498-IPC even in absence of a legal marriage.
In May 2005, the Kerala High Court in John Idiculla vs State Of Kerala, while relying on Reema Agarwal, went on to add that proof of a legal marriage in the rigid sense as required under civil law is unnecessary for establishing an offence under section 498A IPC.
The question before the court was whether the second wife of the husband, who married her during the subsistence of his earlier marriage, can be treated as a relative for the purpose of Section 498A IPC.
"A second wife who is treated as wife by the husband, relatives, friends or society can be considered to be ‘the relative of the husband' for the purpose of section 498A of IPC. If she inflicts cruelty on the legally-wedded wife of the husband, an offence under section 498A IPC will lie against her," the court said in the decision.
Doesn't Reema Aggarwal serve as a binding precedent?
Delhi High Court in 2006 in Mohit Gupta And Ors. vs State Govt. Of Nct Of Delhi And Anr observed that the Supreme Court in the case of Shivcharan Lal Verma did not discuss the question with the same degree of elaboration as in the case of Reema Aggarwal.
However, the court said that the same by itself cannot be construed to mean that in Shivcharan Lal Verma, the Supreme Court did not consider the entire scope and ambit of the provisions of Section 498-A IPC.
"It must also be pointed out that the decision in Shivcharan Lal Verma has not been noticed in Reema Aggarwal although the latter decision is later in point of time. So, the decision in Reema Aggarwal has to be regarded as per incuriam. The second point that has to be kept in mind is that the decision in Shivcharan Lal Verma has been rendered by a bench of three honourable judges whereas the decision in the case of Reema Aggarwa is by a bench of two honourable judges. Clearly, the decision in Shivcharan Lal Verma would be binding," Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed said in the verdict.
The court also said one may be inclined to agree with the view expressed by the smaller bench of the Supreme Court "but, judicial decorum and propriety and the well settled rule with regard to precedents requires that the ratio of the larger bench be followed".
In November 2013, the Punjab and Haryana High Court — while dealing with criminal revision against acquittal in same Reema Aggarwal's case, noted that the Supreme Court in 2009 in U. Suvetha vs. State by Inspector of Police and another noticed the fact that the 2006 decision of Reema Aggarwal runs contrary to the decision of the larger bench.
"Even if this question is held to be in favour of the complainant this petition cannot be decided on the basis of this controversy alone, since, as mentioned above, there are number of reasons cited by the learned trial Court for acquitting the respondent/accused and on those grounds itself, this revision is liable to be dismissed," the high court said, while dismissing Aggarwal's revision.
Has Shivcharan Lal Verma been applied in other similar cases?
In Capt. Rajinder Tiwari vs The State NCT of Delhi, the Delhi High Court in December 2006 dropped the charges against an accused under Section 498A after declaring the couple's marriage a nullity as divorce proceedings of the accused in respect of his first wife was pending.
On December 12, 2022, the police in response to a writ told the Delhi High Court that it would take into consideration the ruling at the time of registration of a FIR on a complaint alleging offence under Section 498A IPC, after the person against whom the complaint was filed argued that since the earlier marriage of the woman - purportedly his ‘second wife’, was not dissolved by decree of divorce in accordance with law, their marriage is not valid.