A closer examination of Section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’ for short) will reveal that all acts of cruelty (as generally understood) against a woman by her husband or his relatives may not amount to matrimonial cruelty within the meaning of the Section. Such cruelty may amount to other offences either under the IPC or any other law but not the cruelty as contemplated by Section 498 A of IPC. The said Section reads as follows :-
“498A : Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty
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.
Explanation - For the purpose of this section, "cruelty" means –
a) any wilful 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 meet such demand.”
The word “cruelty” occurring in Section 498 A is to be understood in accordance with the definition of the said word as given in the Explanation thereto. The said Explanation consists of two clauses namely, clauses (a) and (b). With regard to clause (b) there is little scope for any confusion. But clause (a) of the said Explanation, in my view, admits of two interpretations as follows:-
As can be seen, if Interpretation 1 above is adopted, then the words “drive the woman” occurring in clause (a) of the Explanation will have to be made applicable to both the overt acts contemplated by clause (a), namely, “to commit suicide” and “to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health of the woman”. To put it differently, going by Interpretation 1 above, the words “to drive the woman” are common to both the overt acts. This means that the overt act of committing suicide or the overt act of causing grave injury or harm to the wife should be that of the wife herself, naturally as an impulse reaction to the “wilful conduct” of the husband or his relatives. In other words, the ‘cruelty’ envisaged by the Section is a wilful conduct on the part of a husband or his relatives triggering off, as a logical corollary, an instinctive and self-inflicted action on the part of the woman. Such natural reaction can be an act of cutting her vein or swallowing sleeping pills or making a noose for hanging and the like. The words “of the woman” occurring at the end of clause (a) of the Explanation are obviously employed to indicate that the harm by way of “injury or danger” is intended only to the wife and not to anybody else including her living children or any child in her womb.
In contradistinction to the above, if Interpretation 2 above is to be adopted, then the words “to drive the woman” should be confined only to the first part of the overt act, namely, “to commit suicide” and the said words “to drive the woman” will not be applicable to the latter part of the overt acts, namely, “to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (both mental and physical) of the woman.”
Let us now apply the two Interpretations given above to two hypothetical situations in order to test the sustainability of a successful prosecution under Section 498 A of IPC.
During the first year of marriage, the husband alleges infidelity to his wife and says that she is having extra-marital sex and that he is not responsible for her pregnancy. So saying he slaps her on the cheek. Unable to bear the insult, she attempts to commit suicide by cutting her vein. Due to timely medical intervention, her life is saved. The husband is prosecuted for the offence punishable under Section 498 A of IPC.
During the first year of marriage the husband alleges infidelity to his wife and says that she is having extra-marital sex and that he is not responsible for her pregnancy. The wife emphatically denies the allegation with a fighting spirit. Hearing her loud retorts, the husband gets more infuriated and with a view to kill her by strangulation, he throttles her neck. The timely intervention of the husband’s mother dissuades him from accomplishing his intention. He is prosecuted for offences punishable under Sections 307 and 498 A of IPC.
In Situation A above, the overt act of causing the physical harm to the wife has been caused by the wife herself thereby attracting Interpretation 1 . For the wilful conduct of the husband slapping her, he may be punishable under Section 323 IPC but not under Section 498 A. However, in Situation B above, the overt act of causing physical harm to the wife has been committed by the husband only and will not fall under Interpretation 1 above, but will fall under Interpretation 2 above as per which the overt act committed by the husband will not only attract the offence punishable under Section 498 A of IPC but may also attract the offence punishable under Section 307 IPC.
If Interpretation 1 above is adopted as the proper interpretation of Section 498 A of IPC, then to attract the said offence, the overt acts constituting the harm to the wife should be committed by the wife herself as a spontaneous reaction to the wilful conduct of the husband or his relatives. Any physical harm on the woman by the husband or his relatives will not attract Section 498 A, but may attract other offences under the IPC. If Interpretation 2 above is adopted as the proper interpretation of Section 498 A of IPC, then any physical harm on the woman by the husband or his relatives will not only attract other offences under the IPC bit also attract Section 498 A of IPC resulting in duplication of the offences. For the facts constituting the wilful conduct of attempt to murder, there cannot be two different offences charged under the very same penal statute.
It is well settled that if two Interpretations of a statutory provision are permissible, the Court should adopt such a construction which will favour the accused. In paragraph 11 of Sajjan Singh v. State of Punjab – AIR 1964 SC 464 a three Judge Bench of the Supreme Court observed as follows :-
“If the words are capable of two constructions, one of which is more favourable to the accused than the other, the Court will be justified in accepting the one which is more favourable to the accused”.
Unlike the basic offences in the IPC as originally drafted with precision and perfection, Section 498 A is an example of inelegant drafting giving room for ambiguity. One is reminded of the classic observation made by Justice M. N. Venkatachaliah in paragraph 13 of Dineshchandra Jamnadas Gandhi v. State of Gujarat and Another – 1989 (1) SCC 420 = AIR 1989 SC 1011, which reads as follows:-
“The degree of precision should be such that not only those who read it in good faith understand but also that those who read it in bad faith do not misunderstand.”