The Harassed Husbands of India

In the ‘psychological warfare’ between man and wife, there are support groups for victims of skewed laws that lend themselves to misuse
Gangs of India
(Photos: VIPURVA PARIKH)

The harassed husbands of Borivali, one of the last suburbs on Mumbai’s Western Railway line, used to meet in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park until it began to charge Rs 30 as an entry fee. So they switched to the Veer Savarkar Udyan, a smaller park some distance away, where there is a pond in the middle, abutting which are a series of steps. The husbands take seats on these every Sunday, starting at 11 am. On the day that I go, there are about six of them, plus a mother-in-law and father-in-law. The numbers go up and down. Jinesh Zaveri, who coordinates the Borivali group, shows a text message from someone named Manish. It says, ‘might not be able to come. Meeting my lawyer.’ Another regular Rahul, is in Delhi because his wife has filed a case against him there, and he has to go to the city whenever it comes up. Another member is in Ghazipur for his case, and, says Jinesh, every lawyer he hires ends up being ‘bought over’ by the other side. Manoj is in Mumbai at the moment, but could not come because he got a call from the Indore Police saying they had started for Mumbai to arrest him. “He’s running around about this,” says Jinesh, “And to help him, Shyam (another member) is running around too.”

That same evening, in a park in Mulund, a suburb at the other end of town, there is another meeting of harassed husbands being held. It is a better attended one. There are 15 to 20 of them seated in a circle on the grass, and all their sentences are peppered with terms like ‘DV’, ‘498a’, ‘bail’, ‘court’, ‘case’ and ‘arrest’. A sallow young man says that he has 10 days to surrender in Jaipur. He wants to know about anticipatory bail. He is told it might be better for him to spend 48 hours in jail and then get regular bail. An old man arrives after some time. He says murder attempts have been on him by his wife four or five times. He is also being tailed all the time. He calls all wives ‘prostitutes’. Most present are not so bellicose. They have plenty to say on the subject of wives. But they speak sensibly and often sound helpless.

Almost everyone either has a case or had a case filed against him by his wife. The new ones want to know what they should do. The old ones counsel them, and it inevitably ends in asking them to be patient.

One man says that his wife has filed a case of domestic violence against him in Delhi. When the postman turned up with the summons, he didn’t accept it, but he did pay him some money to open the letter so that he could read the details. He says a Section 498a charge may also be on its way and ask what he can do about it. The answer, again, is ‘patience’. “This is psychological warfare,” Amit Deshpande, the group coordinator, tells him, “There are different stages. The first stage is when they threaten and think that the man will agree and give the money demanded. You have to, first of all, become emotionally strong. Many people come here and say, ‘It’s alright if something happens to me, but my parents should not go to jail’.”

The man says he also felt that way.

Amit tells him if he thinks like that, he will keep making compromises to safeguard his parents also, if it was an arranged marriage, his parents are shareholders in the mistake.

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There are several such groups across the country, from Kanpur to Nagpur to Kerala. They have different names – The Indian Family Foundation, Protect Indian Family, Men’s Rights Association, and so on. Some are NGOs, other are forums. There are helplines and activists as well.

The group operate under the umbrella of Save Indian Family, which began as a Yahoo group setup in 2005. At the time, it’s members were husbands who had run-ins with Section 498a of the Indian Penal Code, which says: ‘Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.’ What brought on Section 498a, introduced in 1983 were widespread cases of dowry harassment and bribe burning. Offences under it are ‘non-bailable’ and the police have to arrest a husband accused of one – after only a court can grant him bail (not an investigating officer). All the wife needs do to put the husband behind bars is go to a police station.

Despite the provision’s good intent, it soon became apparent that husbands in many cases were getting thrown into jail over a petty domestic dispute that had nothing to do with dowry. Even the Supreme Court, in a case where 498a had been misused, observed, ‘it is a matter of common experience that most of these complaints under Section 498a [of the] IPC are filed in the heat of the moment over trivial issues without proper deliberation. We come across a large number of such complaints which are not even bona fide and are filed with oblique motives.’ In August this year, the Law Commission released a report that conceded widespread abuse of the provision, especially when it came to arresting family members other than the husband. It noted: ‘The implication of the relatives of husbands was found to be unjustified in a large number of decided cases.’ It went on to add that the conviction rate under Section 498a was low, at 20 percent, and not just because of ineffective investigation. The report said: ‘It is learnt that on a count of subsequent events such as out-of-court settlement, complainant women do not evince interest in taking the prosecution to its logical conclusion.’ According to harassed husbands, this is at the heart of the issue. Lawyers have found a creative use of Section 498a – as a powerful negotiation tool during divorce proceedings.

Tariq, an instrumentation engineer, who joined the Borivali group just the previous week, says that soon after his marriage, his wife wanted them to move out and live apart from his parents. He didn’t want to, and they separated. First, she initiated a case under the Domestic Violence Act against him. This 2006 legislation seeks to protect wives against physical and mental harassment. It is quasi civil in nature and the husband usually need not fear arrest. Six months ago, however, Tariq’s wife slapped 498a on him. He along with his mother and brother, were summoned by the police late at night and locked up. He says he is not being asked to settle the case through a mediator. “Yeh jo cheez hai, yeh bandar ko mashaal dee gayi hai ki jao apna ghar jalao,” he says (These laws are a torch given to a monkey, asking it to go burn his own house down).

Tariq came to the group with legal knowledge, thanks to what he had gone through. In the group, knowledge is a common bank that all new ‘victims’ can dip into. At their core, the groups are a support system for those who have been dragged into a tortuous legal process, something like an Alcoholics Anonymous for victimised husbands.

The 80s and 90s had seen the emergence of fledgling groups of such husbands, but it was the internet explosion of the early 2000s that gave it momentum. A few affected husbands formed a Yahoo group, and when their numbers started increasing, they started meeting offline.

Even now, it is a loose autonomous agglomeration of groups with no central authority or hierarchy. Once their cases get resolved, many of the husbands go back their lives in second marriages. They drop out of the weekly meetings, but do join rallies and so on against 498a.

Over time, these groups have arrived at a number of strategies to counter angry wives. One is to never file for divorce. “The self respect of the girl is hurt,” says Jinesh, “She goes into the mode of ‘sabak sikhaoongi’ (will teach you lesson).” If a 498a charge has been slapped, the parents of the husband are advised to disown him on paper so that they don’t get implicated in the case. The main strategy, however, is to just let time pass until the wife realizes that there is no end to the dispute and wants to move on. From their standpoint, the whole point of most cases is to pressure the husband for high maintenance payments. But if the husband holds out long enough, she eventually turns more reasonable in her demands.

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Seen through a ‘man as victim’ prism, the universe of domestic abuse is upside down. Just as feminists use statistics, so do they. The Save Indian Family website says (and every member I meet seems to know this by heart) almost twice as many Indian husbands kill themselves as wives–one husband every 8.55 minutes to a wife every 16.7 minutes. But society, according to them, only seems to debate the wife’s death. Wife-beating might be an issue of concern, but there is a flip side to it. “So many here have been beaten up by their wives,” says Amit, “But no one uses the term ‘husband-beating’.” Likewise, battering of wives by mother-in-law is not the whole truth. Amit says, “A survey has found that mothers beat their daughters eight times more than mothers-in-law do, but no one discusses that.”

Oddly, the sometimes the solutions converge with those of feminists. They want daughters to be treated as sons when it comes to property inheritance. But this is only so that husband’s maintenance liability comes down if the marriage breaks down. Maintenance, harassed husbands suggest, must be extended in a form that lets an ex-wife sustain herself: say, if the ex-husband funds her education so that she is eligible for a job. “Instead of giving them fish, give them a fishing rod,” says Amit.

The public discourse, they argue, is completely tilted against the husband, and this usually makes him a ‘criminal’ at the first accusation. The only way to correct that, they say, is to have equivalent agencies protecting them: a Ministry for Men, for example, and a National Commission for Men. And also, slightly surreally, “domestic violence shelters for men” as Amit puts it. “A man facing domestic violence can come and stay over there. And then when we are ageing, men will have their own community shelters.”

Harassed husbands are not without allies in their struggle. There are affiliated associations like ‘Mothers and Sisters of Husbands Against Abuse of Law’ and ‘All India Mother-in-law Protection Forum’. These are made up of relatives of husbands who have been dragged into legal cases. There is also Child Rights and Shared Parenting (CRISP), a Bangalore-based group of fathers that focuses on custody rights of children. It is led by Kumar Jahgirdhar, whose wife separated from him to marry the cricketer Anil Kumble, after which he had to go through a protracted legal battle over child visitation rights. CRISP wants ‘Child’ separated from the Ministry for Women and Child Development. So, besides a Ministry for Men, they want a Ministry for Children. “Women’s rights and child’s rights are different,” according to Jahgirdhar, “Forty per cent of the country is children, and can you believe there’s no separate ministry for them?”

The conventional attitude of mainstream society is to dismiss these groups as amusing if not nefarious sideshows. But men caught in serious marital disputes are inevitably drawn towards them. In Mulund, a boyish looking 30-year-old told me how he had contemplated suicide two months ago. He called a harassed men’s helpline and then started attending meetings. He said he had only been married for ten months and was being terrorised by his wife for his house and salary. He had also been assaulted by her. His presence was unusual, since he had no case against him. “I fear that my wife will file a case against me,” he said. They still live under the same roof. In anticipation of trouble, he has been attending meetings every week without his wife’s knowledge. He was trying to anticipate and pre-empt whatever she might do.