As a Senate inquiry currently underway looks into the practice and abuse of dowry against women in Australia, there are also men whose stories have not been told.
While women undoubtedly bear the brunt of the abuse, men have also come forward with submissions to the inquiry of false dowry accusations and the misuse of anti-dowry laws in India which are having far-reaching consequences on Australian men.
SBS Punjabi has interviewed dozens of men and is aware of hundreds more of Indian background living in Australia who tell similar stories of psychological trauma they and their families have endured due to what they say are false dowry cases.
Whilst women allege dowry is the price they are forced to pay at the time of marriage, men claim it is the price extorted from them during divorce.
Shaan*, an Australian citizen since 2007, claims to be a victim of reverse dowry abuse.
“I would say that it’s not right to commit suicide but what would you do in a situation when so many cases are slapped on you?” he asks.
It's been seven years since his divorce, but he says he is still languishing between courtrooms, both in Australia and in India because of what he claims are “false dowry cases”.
“After six months of my divorce, my ex-wife filed four different cases against me in the Indian courts,” he says.
“The fourth was in which she slapped a dowry case not only against me but my brother, his wife and also my poor elderly mum.”
Over 100 court sittings and an estimated $125,000 in legal costs later, all four cases were decided in his favour in March 2018.
“The courts in India were surprised that my case was investigated five times because in every report it was written, there’s no case against me, no police report, no evidence; but the tragedy was that I was arrested and a criminal case filed against me. I was blamed, I was shamed and I was victimised - but for what?”
Shaan is not alone. While women claim their families are coerced to send more money and gifts even after paying a large sum of dowry at the time of marriage, men claim that women extort money by lodging fake cases against them and their families.
In short, both marriage and divorce come with a hefty price tag.
Dowry banned in India
In India, the practice of giving and receiving dowry – a cash payment or gift given at the time of marriage - was outlawed in 1961, under the Dowry Prohibition Act.
Subsequent amendments were made including Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code introduced in 1983, focussing not only on dowry deaths but also cases of cruelty to married women by their in-laws.
Despite the ban, the practice continues. According to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, in 2016 alone, dowry abuse accounted for the deaths of 7,621 women – roughly one death every 77 minutes.
Misuse of Section 498A – ‘false cases’
While the law was undoubtedly put in place to protect vulnerable women from domestic violence and death, many, including even India's Supreme Court are concerned that it’s being misused by some women to intimidate or extort money from their husbands, or ex-husbands.
Former Additional Advocate General of Punjab and Haryana High Court, Rajinder Goyal, says false cases are clogging up India’s legal system.
"The fact that Section 498A is a cognisable 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," Justices CK Prasad and PC Ghose, Supreme Court of India, July 2014
“A number of false complaints are registered whereby all the family members including the sister-in-law, the brother-in-law, the old parents and the married sisters, they are all being implicated,” he says.
Section 498A does not require women to provide evidence of abuse, and there’s a presumption of guilt until innocence can be proven. Those found guilty face up to three years in jail and the trial can take many years. The vast majority, says Rajinder Goyal, end up being acquitted by the courts.“In India, I can say that after the case is put to trial under Section 498A, 80 per cent is the acquittal rate. That means, it is found that the case is not proved.”
The latest figures released by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), show that while the number of cases registered under Section 498A is increasing each year, the conviction rate is falling:
‘Gender biased laws’
Deepika Bhardwaj has been described as ‘the woman fighting for men’s rights’. The Delhi-based journalist and filmmaker has written extensively on what she calls ‘gender biased laws’ in India and the effect of their misuse.
Abuse of Section 498A is prolific, she says, regardless of caste and financial status.
“The moment a marriage breaks down charges of dowry and harassment are levelled on the groom. I have seen cases of incompatibility, adultery, medical problems being turned into dowry complaints,” Deepika told SBS Punjabi.
“There have been umpteen number of suicides by men owing to false cases under 498A. Mere threats of this law have driven men to suicide because they think that a suicide will save their family members from the ordeal. There is no statistical recording of such cases but the number is overwhelming.”
Sunny* believes his marriage was a ‘scam’ from the beginning, with his wife only marrying him to come to live in Australia.
“She didn’t like the fact that I was ready to, maybe, look at separation and discussing that kind of stuff with her,” he told SBS Punjabi. “The more she researched that divorce was a legal right here in Australia and it was easier to separate and eventually to get a divorce, even though there is no mutual consent, that is when the divorce went to another level.”
He claims his wife ‘conspired’ with her father and uncle, who worked in the Indian police force, to use Section 498A against him.
“By misuse of the provision (Indian Penal Code 498a - Dowry and Cruelty Law) a new legal terrorism can be unleashed. The provision is intended to be used as a shield and not an assassin’s weapon” Sushil Kumar Sharma vs. Union of India and others, Supreme Court of India
“(The charge) basically means that we harassed her and her family for demanding dowry and in the process, there was domestic violence from our side as well as my parents. It was a completely false and made up story. My parents never lived with her. She always lived here (in Australia) and I never lived in India.”
The use of that law extended to his parents, too.
“They were arrested at the airport. It’s just so easy. Just by someone merely making a statement that ‘I have been harassed for dowry’, police can take that as a gospel and book you for that complaint but it actually ends up as a criminal case in India which is actually a non-bailable law. So once you’re accused you don’t get bail - you have to go to the court to get the bail and the police exploit that situation by arresting you and they demand money.
“My parents had nothing to do with this to start with it. We never took a single penny there was no dowry in the marriage it was very clean, simple marriage. If at all we spent most of the money for most of the expenses. “
In another case of Gurpreet* whose wife was asked to leave Australia by the court after their short-lived marriage, his ex-wife was able to file multiple cases against him from India. She is now remarried and living in Canada, yet Gurpreet continues to face serious charges. He told SBS Punjabi, “These 498 clauses in India are a legal way of terrorising men.”
The case of brothers Manpreet Singh and Pawandeep Sabharwal
Another example of the alleged misuse of India’s anti-dowry law was witnessed in the recent case of Manpreet Singh Sabharwal – an Australian citizen – who, along with his brother, Pawandeep, was detained in the United Arab Emirates for 10 months.
Manpreet Sabharwal and his wife, Divya, divorced in 2012 after seven years of marriage.
“After one year of my separation, I filed for divorce where she tried to contest the divorce from India by sending all these dowry case documents to the court but the Australian court was not satisfied,” Manpreet tells SBS Punjabi.
"The allegations were that when we got married, the demand of dowry was made for Rs 15 lakh ($30,000 AUD),” he says.
“And that she was being physically and mentally tortured for the past six or seven years. She also said that when I visited India in 2011, my mother and I tried to kill her with an electric wire while she was sleeping.”
Based on an Interpol notice issued against them by Indian courts, the brothers were arrested at Dubai International Airport in February last year whilst on holiday. The arrests were made over allegations of dowry harassment and a charge of attempted murder filed by Manpreet’s wife.
Manpreet strongly refutes the allegations, and a document provided by DFAT reveals he wasn’t even in India when the alleged dowry demands were made.
The Sabharwal brothers returned to Australia in December 2017, after UAE authorities eventually dismissed the case. They estimate their ‘ordeal’ cost them over $300,000 on living expenses as well as lost income.
Yet they continue to face charges in India which include Manpreet’s parents as alleged perpetrators - because of which there are travel restrictions on them.
In another legal case, Manpreet was granted custody of his only son by the Family Court of Australia in December 2011. Yet he says he has not been able to see or meet his child for many years now. His wife Divya flew to India with their son seven years ago; Manpreet says he is unable to enter India whilst the cases there are pending. An Australian court also issued a request to repatriate Divya from India to Australia in March 2012, but so far Manpreet says the matter has not progressed.
Debate over anti-Dowry laws in Australia
In Australia, the Family Violence Act covers economic abuse as behaviour by a person that is coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controls another person, without their consent.
There are no statistics available for the extent of dowry abuse in Australia or even on the prevalence of family violence within the Indian community.
In August 2018 Victoria passed legislation to re-define the meaning of family violence to include ‘using coercion, threats, physical abuse or emotion or psychological abuse to demand or receive a dowry, either before or after a marriage’. The Bill, however, is yet to receive Royal Assent.
Currently, a Senate inquiry is investigating how dowry-related issues are impacting Australians and whether federal laws need to be enacted to address the issue. It will present its report and recommendations in February 2019, based on public hearings and submissions.
Many women and women’s advocacy groups have supplied written submissions to the inquiry. Men, too, have detailed their experiences and reasons why they believe laws should not be enacted here.
In its submission to the inquiry, Australia's Attorney General's office acknowledges that 'dowry and dowry'-related abuse is a form of violence affecting women and families across Australia', but adds: 'Australia’s current legal framework provides a range of protections against dowry and dowry-related abuse.'
Melbourne-based psychiatrist Dr Manjula O'Connor, however, has campaigned hard for a federal anti-dowry law in Australia.
“These practices are happening here in Melbourne, in Sydney, in Adelaide, in Brisbane. These are happening here. The marriage may have happened in India but the demands are happening in Australia as part of the ongoing marital condition. She maintains that all dowry victims are female, saying she has “not come across male victims” of dowry abuse.
But in his submission to the inquiry, GP Dr Sanoj Joseph questions the need for legislation.
“We also need statistics and strong evidence of dowry misuse in Australia before implementing such laws. The question also remains why other countries with a large Indian population such as the UK, US, Canada etc, don’t have similar laws.”
A prominent Indian community leader Dr Gurdip Aurora has told the Senate inquiry that the debate about dowry laws in Australia is upsetting. “Let me make it crystal clear that there is no dowry problem in Australia. If there is, it is inherited from the marriages that take place in India. Frankly, I am offended that this law targeting the Indian community is being considered in Australia.”
Deepika Bhardwaj believes Australian authorities are capable of separating the ‘wheat from the chaff’ but says there need to be better investigation mechanisms for both men and women.
“I believe Australia already has laws to tackle domestic violence so it doesn't need another specific law. I just hope (any) anti-dowry law doesn't become a tool of revenge in Australia the way it has become in India.”
Meanwhile, for Melbourne-based Rajiv*, a permanent resident of Australia who is facing legal cases under India’s Section 498A, it’s ‘mental torture’.
“If you make a specific dowry law, then 85 per cent of the times that law has failed in India.”
He says he’s been fighting what he believes are false claims since 2013 against both himself and his parents - many times flying to India, taking leave from work, only to have his court hearing adjourned.
“Women in India are already misusing this law to the hilt where people like me are being asked to pay $400,000 to settle extortion, to be able to stay away from the kids, to never see their kids,” he says.
“I think this will really be doomed, I would really like to urge the parliamentarians or senators to please look into the facts and not believe on hearsay and make the law. And in case you are thinking of including it, make the law gender neutral."
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. You can also call MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978 and Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. In an emergency, call 000.
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