Cruelty under IPC 498A

In the recent case of Bhaskar Lal Sharma versus Monica, 2009(10) SCALE 744, the Supreme Court examined the ingredients of “cruelty” to determine which acts would fall within the ambit of the offence of cruelty by the husband or his relatives, under Section 498 A of the IPC.

Vikas and Monica got married on January 16, 2004, in Delhi’s Sanatan Dharm Mandir Hall. The marriage was registered on January 22, 2004, with the Registrar of Marriages. Negotiations for the couple’s marriage took place through a matrimonial agency. The husband Vikas had been married earlier and had obtained a decree of divorce in July 2003 from the civil court in the Congo. Vikas had two children, born on April 23, 1999, and July 8, 2000, respectively, from his first wife. Immediately after the marriage, the couple left India for South Africa where they stayed for around 10 days. Thereafter, they lived in their matrimonial home in the Congo for two months. The relationship between Vikas and Monica was cordial during this period.

Vikas worked in the family import and export business and was managing director of the company. The business was extensive and spread across many countries. The family also had a residential house in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi.

Monica returned to India on April 5, 2004, and stayed in Lajpat Nagar with her in-laws until May 10, 2004. Thereafter, she re-joined her husband in the Congo.

Their relationship deteriorated. The couple came back to India on May 21, 2004. Monica allegedly brought all her belongings back with her including clothes and jewellery.

In an attempt to sort out their relationship, Monica and Vikas consulted a psychiatrist in Delhi who advised them to try and make their marriage work. Vikas left for the Congo on May 27, 2004, hoping that Monica would change her mind with regard to their marriage and return to the Congo. Monica stayed on at Lajpat Nagar till June 14, 2004; then took her belongings, including her jewellery, and went to her parents’ house. The allegations of mistreatment and humiliation by her in-laws pertain to the period of her stay in Lajpat Nagar.

On September 9, 2004, Monica filed a complaint of cruelty and criminal breach of trust under Sections 498 A and 406 of the IPC, respectively, against her husband Vikas and her mother-in-law and father-in-law. She also moved an application claiming maintenance of Rs 2 lakh per month, and interim maintenance of the same amount. The magistrate examined Monica, recorded her evidence, and issued a summons on March 21, 2005. By order dated May 10, 2005, the magistrate granted Monica interim maintenance of Rs 5,000 per month. The magistrate also issued non-bailable warrants, dated June 29, 2005, against Vikas and his parents. Monica subsequently went to the high court, which fixed maintenance at Rs 50,000 per month.

Vikas and his parents approached the Delhi High Court for a quashing of the order directing the issuance of non-bailable warrants against them. The high court, by order dated August 8, 2005, stayed the issuance of non-bailable warrants with an undertaking that Vikas and his parents would appear before the magistrate. The husband and in-laws also approached the high court for a quashing of the order summoning them for trial under Sections 498 A and 406 of the IPC, for cruelty and criminal breach of trust respectively. Vikas and his parents came to India, appeared before the magistrate and were released on bail. The high court directed that Vikas’ passport be impounded on grounds that efforts were being made for a reconciliation. But the reconciliation talks broke down and his passport was returned with permission to go abroad subject to a bank guarantee of Rs 1 lakh.

On November 21, 2005, Monica filed a criminal complaint of cheating with regard to property, under Section 420 of the IPC, against her husband Vikas and her in-laws. It was alleged that material facts with regard to Vikas’ first marriage, particularly that the first wife had alleged acts of cruelty by the husband, had not been disclosed. The magistrate took cognisance under Sections 417/415 of the IPC for cheating, as the allegations were not made out under Section 420 of the IPC, as property was not involved. At the instance of the wife, several attempts at a reconciliation between her and Vikas were made.

The high court, by an order dated January 21, 2008, dismissed the in-laws’ application for a quashing of the summons with regard to the criminal case of cruelty and criminal breach of trust. The high court held that whether the conduct of the in-laws amounted to cruelty or not would be determined only after detailed evidence by the prosecution at the trial. With regard to criminal breach of trust, the high court held that the allegations indicated that property belonging to the wife was in the possession of her in-laws and that they had refused to return it when they were asked to. The order observed that it was not necessary, at the stage of the quashing, to determine whether the contents of the complaint were true or not. Whether or not the ingredients of criminal breach of trust were made out would be determined at the trial. The father-in-law and mother-in-law appealed to the Supreme Court against the high court’s order refusing to quash the summons with regard to the criminal case.

The Supreme Court examined the ingredients of Section 498 A of the IPC and observed that, in order to constitute cruelty under the provision, the husband and relatives’ conduct should be such as to be likely to drive the woman to suicide or cause grave injury or danger to her life, limb or to her mental or physical health.

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