Cruelty: Legal meaning, semantic meaning and strict interpretation

The Supreme Court’s decision in Bhaskar Lal Sharma v Monica has raised a furore, and the government seems set to seek a review. The media (including the venerable Hindu) reported the case as one where the Supreme Court has held that ‘kicking a daughter-in-law does not amount to cruelty under s. 498A of the IPC’.

This is what the Court did hold:

The Parliament by Act No. 46 of 1983 with a view to combat the menace of dowry deaths and harassment to woman at the hands of her husband or his relatives introduced Section 498A and Section 304B in the IPC. Section 498A reads as under:

“498-A. Husband or relative of husband or 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.”

The `Explanation’ appended thereto defines cruelty to mean: (i) 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 (ii) 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.

Thus, the essential ingredients of the aforementioned provisions are:
1. A woman must be married.
2. She must be subjected to cruelty.
3. Cruelty must be of the nature of:
(i) any willful conduct as was likely to drive such woman:
a. to commit suicide;
b. cause grave injury or danger to her life, limb, either mental or physical;
(ii) harassment of such woman,
(1) with a view to coerce her to meet unlawful demand for property or valuable security,
(2) or on account of failure of such woman or by any of her relation to meet the unlawful demand,
(iii) woman was subjected to such cruelty by:
(1) husband of that woman, or
(2) any relative of the husband.

Strict interpretation of a crime is standard criminal law interpretation technique. The legal meaning of ‘cruelty’ in s. 498A as explained above is distinct from its semantic meaning. It must be motivated by a dowry-demand, must be likely to drive her to suicide or cause grave physical or mental injury etc. Clearly, this is a special meaning of cruelty. But all that the media picked up was this statement from the judgment, without explaining the context in which it was made:

Allegations that appellant No.2 kicked the respondent with her leg and told her that her mother to be a liar may make out some other offence but not the one punishable under Section 498A.

Clearly, the Court recognises that kicking a person may constitute another offence (for example, ‘hurt’ under s. 319 of the Code). Kicking a person would have been an offence under s. 498A as well if it was motivated by dowry, and was likely to drive her to suicide or cause grievous hurt. But on the facts of this case, these essential ingredients required to consitute a crime under s. 498A were not present. Feminists may call for ‘progressive interpretation’ of criminal law, but the day judges start interpreting criminal statutes expansively (and, in effect, start creating new crimes) will be a very sad one for liberal freedoms. Calls for ‘purposive’ or ‘progressive interpretation of criminal laws, howsoever benign the objective, must be rejected. This opinion suggests that purposive interpretation is already being used by judges in terrorism and narcotics cases – if this is indeed the case, it is condemnable. Purposive interpretation has its place, especially in constitutional law and arguably in regulatory frameworks, but should never form part of the criminal law jurisprudence. A crime should only be what Parliament explicitly and unambiguously says it is, nothing more. It is time we celebrate traditional criminal law principles – presumption of innocence, strict interpretation of an offence, right to silence, proof beyond reasonable doubt, and criminalisation as a weapon of last resort.

[Readers may be interested in this previous post on a related issue.]

Arun says:
I couldn’t agree more with your argument, and I like the way you’ve refocused attention on the importance of construing criminal statutes in a strict manner. One small quibble – I thought you were a bit too critical of purposive interpretation in the abstract. I’m sure a good purposive interpreter would say that criminal law is different, and proper PI of crim law would require strict construction. Aharon Barak, as you know, has written about PI quite extensively, and I’ll try and check what he says about PI of criminal statutes. Am pretty sure he would say something like what I’ve set out above.

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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  • Rightly, media does need to mention the context of such cases to achieve accurate reporting. Such reporting would also restore the faith in apex judicial body (Re, the talibanisation comment).

    Our daily experiences show that the implementation of law is actually manifestation of implementer's biases, and reinforces palm tree justice (e.g. 'racial profiling', torture in police custody , trial by social affiliation, etc.). Thus, Tarunabh rightly points out that the reasoning of the judgement is something to be celebrated. Though I am not sure, if any directions were sought from the Court to direct institution of separate proceedings for trial for causing hurt. That, I guess, would have been a better situation, than just letting the mother-in-law off the hook. (But, I am not too sure if the advocate for the complainant pleaded that, or was there a separate charge under ordinary sections of the IPC)

    Secondly, the rule of strict interpretation extends even to taxation statutes, and the ambiguity in anti-avoidance provision in the new proposed tax code does need some thought. The distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance needs a further clarification if the rule has to find any relevant continued application in the field of taxation.

  • Tarunabh,

    I agree with the broader point you make about the need for strict construction of criminal law. However, one small quibble: S.498-A does not limit itself to cruelty motivated by dowry demands (though J. Pasayat in a number of cases, appears to have opined so). As you know, the two clauses in the explanation to Section 498-A are disjunctive. The first part (driving a woman to commit suicide or causing grave injury to the life, limb or mental or physical health of the woman) is not qualified by a demand for dowry. It is only the second limb of the explanation regarding the harrassment of the woman that deals with the dowry question.
    Whether or not "kicking" constitutes grave injury to the mental health of the woman remains open to interpretation.

  • I think the judgment allows for a disjunctive reading of the explanations, and yet no offense will be made out. The daughter in law's complaint is the factual basis on which the case has been decided. Even if aparna's interpretation of the law is correct (and i think the judgment allows scope for such reading), even then the facts as alleged by the complainant do not make an offence under 498A. The daughter in law did not allege in her complaint that kicking by mother in law caused her grave injury to her mental health, let alone drive her to suicide, or grave injury to life, limb etc. or related to a dowry demand. Had she alleged so in her complaint, the judgment could have been different.

  • Hi Aparna,

    I don't think the judgment or Tarunabh's post suggest that cruelty must be motivated by dowry demands. The provision seems unambiguously clear that the two clauses are disjunctive.

    Perhaps Tarunabh's comment: "Kicking a person would have been an offence under s. 498A as well if it was motivated by dowry, and was likely to drive her to suicide or cause grievous hurt" was slightly confusing as one may understand it to mean that cruelty must be motivated by dowry demands. But his earlier comment ("It must be motivated by a dowry-demand, must be likely to drive her to suicide OR cause grave physical or mental injury etc") I think clarifies the issues and also suggests that he regards the provisions as disjunctive.

    What say Tarunabh?

  • yes, my bad. the requirement is disjunctive, but even then the facts of the case do not satisfy the requirements to constitute an offence. VV is right. so the broader critique stands.