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LONE CRUSADER

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By making her first powerful documentary about men who are victims of Section 498A, one of the most abused laws in India, Deepika Bhardwaj is now known as a crusader for men’s rights. But she remains unfazed.
Makhdoom was a happy-go-lucky person who loved his family dearly. Despite living in Canada for the past 11 years, not a day went by where he did not call up his family in India. In his pursuit for a traditional Indian wife, he sought the help of his family but ended up finding someone himself through shaadi.com, a website many go through.
But within 15 days of the marriage, Makhdoom’s wife Muskaan said she had to share something she hadn’t shared earlier. She revealed she had been married a few times in the past. It was found out that she was married four times in the past seven years – a conspicuous sign that there was something not quite right. The news shook Makhdoom who had envisioned a happy married life for himself and his family. And two months into the marriage, Muskaan became pregnant.
The joys of having a child knew no bounds for Makhdoom, and his wife’s past began to wane from his mind. But it would be a joy that would be short-lived. One day over a petty fight, she left the house with their son. No sooner had she left the house than the police came to arrest Makhdoom. He was slapped with 498 A, an Indian law in which a husband and his family are summarily arrested without any investigation when a complaint is lodged by the wife or any of her relative claiming that the husband or his relatives treated her cruelly.
“498A destroyed him,” says Makhdoom’s friend. Separated from his son and tortured emotionally, Makhdoom hung himself after video recording a heart-rending message: “I am unable to bear the betrayal and torture I have been subjected to at the hands of Muskan… I was dead the day they dragged me to the police station. I want harsh punishment meted out so that people think twice about separating a father from his child.”
This haunting video message of Makhdoom forms part of the opening of Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj’s powerful documentary film Martyrs of Marriage. Like Makhdoom, there are many other men in similar predicaments. These are men who are victims of what Deepika calls “misues of 498A”.
Martyrs of Marriage corroborates the fact that it was in the 1980s when India was hit by a series of dowry deaths by women prompting the government to come out with a law to tackle dowry and domestic violence. Thus was introduced Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to protect married women from being subjected to cruelty by the husband or his relatives. The offence is non-compoundable and non-bailable which provides for immediate arrest of the accused.
Indeed Deepika shows through her interviews and investigation how Section 498A has become an easy weapon for some women to use against a marriage they want to get out of or are no longer interested in. Interestingly, India’s own apex court in a 2014 order said, “The fact that Section 498-A is a cognizable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives. The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision. In quite a number of cases, bed-ridden grand-fathers and grand-mothers of the husbands, their sisters living abroad for decades are arrested.”
True enough, it is not just the man but his entire family and extended family that gets bizarrely affected. Deepika narrates one case in which a man had to pay a hefty sum to strike a deal as the FIR lodged by the wife included the names of his brother who lived abroad, the brother’s wife and her parents, his sister, sister’s husband and parents, some of whom didn’t even attend the wedding. How can one file a criminal complaint against someone living in another country?
While this misuse of 498A is very common, there are no official figures to that effect. “There are women cells dedicated for crime against women. Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau in the crime against women is anywhere between 40-45 per cent cases filed every year. But there is a problem. In our criminal system, the statistics at the level of police stations – where a final report can be obtained on close of an investigation after finding no evidence to the allegation/accused – is anywhere between 9-11 per cent of false cases. But almost 95 to 96 percent of the cases go to the court. In the court you are either acquitted or convicted. There are some cases in which the judges put their foot down and say the allegations were false, baseless and eventually that also results in acquittal, which doesn’t get statistically presented anywhere. So the National Crime Records Bureau data would not have these false cases which are given by the cops nor the court’s data. For instance in West Bengal where the maximum number of 498A cases is filed, conviction is 1.5 per cent. The overall conviction rate of 498A across India is 11 per cent, as per last year’s data,” says Deepika.
For this software programmer turned journalist, it was seeing the first-hand experience of her cousin become victim to this gross misuse of 498A that sowed the seeds of her film. But it took Deepika four years to complete as she had to manage her own resources to fund the film, save for some crowd funding. Nonetheless it spurred a four-year long process of research that took her to police stations and courts, and put her in touch with the Save Indian Family, an NGO fighting for the rights of wronged men. The result is a composite story from different parts of India and everything else that happens alongside the now infamous 498A.
“So this is what I tell in my documentary: that misuse of 498a has been going on for long. But now that I have been in this for so long I think it’s also not about 498A alone but all the provisions which have been made for women are very easy to abuse. I am not saying there is no crime against women in India, but there is also an alternate story where people are using these laws as tools. We are dealing with lives here, so is the law serving its purpose?” she asks.
Deepika’s filmmaking reveals the different forces at play: the connivance of lawyers with both parties, the prevalence of an extortion industry, pressures of victims versus the fight for rights, the insistence of lawyers to pay up and compromise as the cases get dragged on for years and years.
“In many courts there are now open bargaining going on. It’s crazy,” says Deepika, citing a number of cases including the case of a victim who was based in Melbourne. The guy, she says, was asked to pay 2.5 lakh rupees (about 4,500 AUD) for his parents to get bail.
In another case, a man was able to capture the conversation between his wife and her Lawyer. The lawyer tells her: “You have to rehearse the lines of your complaint, read it five-six times before you go to the police station because only if you read it well will you remember the story, otherwise you will spoil the game.” The woman laughingly replies, “Yes I have read in 2-3 times so far”, at which the lawyer says, “No read it 5 more times. Think you are Madhuri Dixit.” While such incidences do provide a comic relief to the film, it is also a commentary on the professionals who are the mediators.
Deepika often gets told by lawyers (when asked if they don’t feel scared filing all these false cases) that, “We have to fight the case, what will happen to us? We write what the clients tell us to write… at times we fight cases for both sides.”
So despite the Supreme Court of India giving many guidelines to not immediately arrest people, the number of arrests has gone high. In 92 to 93 percent of these cases, chargesheets are filed, rues Deepika.
However, suicides are the worst outcome of this, says Deepika. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that there is a sheer sense of helplessness. One suicide note of a man says: “How can we have laws that are so one-sided that a person is not even allowed to present his side and prove his innocence”. It is time lawmakers woke up and listen to the stories of these people, says Deepika, adding, “But, of course, it’s not a politically important subject.”
After giving up her job and four years of her life, Deepika hopes her film will pave the way for something good. “I don’t know if films have a tangible outcome, to be very honest. You can’t say this film led to this. The reason I wanted to make this film is because I wanted to take the entire issue on a platform where there can be larger conversations rather than just saying there is misuse of 498A. It is also a very important commentary on how all the provisions we have are extremely one sided. The Domestic Violence Act, for instance, is very one-sided in India whereas in most developed countries it is gender neutral. In India whenever the conversations come up, feminists and women organisations would just go back on numbers and it comes down to statistics but where do you generate statistics for men when there is no platform.”
In fact, media reports say 30 per cent of the complaints coming to the Delhi Commission for Women are coming from men.
Since its release last October, Martyrs of Marriage has had 18 screenings including in three Australian cities. “The film has received positive response. But the fact that I am a woman fighting for men has received more attention,” she laughs.
One of the good things that have come out is that the documentary has been accepted in judicial academies of India. The Tamil Nadu Judicial Academy and the Maharashtra Judicial Academy have screened the film. Talks are on for more screenings. It will be available online too.
“This is my first film; I don’t really have a team working behind me. I feel a little lonely a lot of times,” says Deepika. But her purpose is clear: that Martyrs of Marriage will give the strength and conviction to a lot of people to speak up!
(join the conversation at www.martyrsofmarriage.com)

By Indira Laisram

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