SC quashes 'general and omnibus' allegations against in-laws in a dowry case

THE Supreme Court, on Tuesday, observed that there has been an increase in the tendency of employing dowry allegations as instruments to settle personal scores against the husband and his relatives. It opined that the false implications under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] by way of general omnibus allegations made in the course of matrimonial disputes, if left unchecked, would result in misuse of the process of law.

A division bench of Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari made these observations while quashing a First Information Report [FIR] under Sections 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 379 (punishment for theft), 354 (assault of criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) and 498A (husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty), read with Section 34 (common intention) of the IPC against the niece, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law of the complainant wife.

The relatives had challenged the judgment of the Patna High Court rejecting their petition to quash the FIR against them. Though the husband of the complainant had also approached the Patna High Court, he did not challenge the decision in the Supreme Court.

The complainant wife – Tarannum Akhtar – filed an FIR against her husband Md. Ikram and her in-laws alleging that all the accused were pressurizing her to purchase a car as dowry, and threatened to forcibly terminate her pregnancy if the demands were not met. This FIR came to be unsuccessfully contested by the husband and his relatives at the Patna High Court. The High Court held that the allegations in the FIR prima facie disclosed the commission of an offence and therefore, the matter was required to be investigated by the police.

The relatives argued at the Supreme Court that previously in the year 2017, the wife had instituted a criminal complaint on similar allegations, on which occasion the Judicial Magistrate, after considering the evidence, issued summons only against the husband and found that the allegations made against the relatives (the appellants before the Supreme Court) were omnibus in nature. They contended that the FIR had been made with a revengeful intent, merely to harass them.

The state government opposed the appeal and contended that FIR in question pertained to offences committed in the year 2019 after assurance was given by the husband Ikram before the Principal Judge, Purnea, to not harass the wife for dowry and treat her properly. However, the husband and his relatives, despite the assurances, had continued their demand for dowry and threatened with forcefully terminating the wife’s pregnancy.

These acts, the Bihar Government argued, constituted a fresh cause of action and therefore, the FIR in question filed on April 1, 2019, is distinct and independent, and could not be termed as a repetition of an earlier FIR filed on December 11, 2017.

The wife vehemently contended that allegations in the FIR are serious in nature, and that she has been repeatedly tortured physically and mentally in order to fulfill the demand for dowry. And that if her allegations are disputed, the same can be tested in a trial before the Trial Court.

The Court, in light of the arguments and counter-arguments, opined that the issue before it was whether allegations made against the in-laws were in the nature of general omnibus allegations and therefore liable to be quashed?

Before going into the merits of the matter, the Supreme Court referred to its previous decisions in Rajesh Sharma & Ors. vs. State of U.P. & Anr. (2017)Arnesh Kumar vs. State of Bihar & Anr. (2014)Preeti Gupta & Anr. vs. State of Jharkhand & Anr. (2010)Geeta Mehrotra & Anr. vs. State of U.P. & Anr. (2012), and K. Subba Rao vs. The State of Telangana (2018), to state that the Court has, at numerous instances, expressed concern over the misuse of section 498A IPC, and that these judgments have warned the courts from proceeding against the relatives and in-laws of the husband when no prima facie case is made out against them.

On the merits of the case, the Supreme Court held that the perusal of the FIR on April 1, 2019, revealed that general allegations were levelled against the appellants.

“The complainant/wife alleged that ‘all accused harassed her mentally and threatened her of terminating her pregnancy’. Furthermore, no specific and distinct allegations have been made against either of the Appellants herein, i.e., none of the Appellants have been attributed any specific role in furtherance of the general allegations made against them. This simply leads to a situation wherein one fails to ascertain the role played by each accused in furtherance of the offence. The allegations are therefore general and omnibus and can at best be said to have been made out on account of small skirmishes. Insofar as husband is concerned, since he has not appealed against the order of the High court, we have not examined the veracity of allegations made against him. However, as far as the Appellants are concerned, the allegations made against them being general and omnibus, do not warrant prosecution”, the Court held.

The Court thus proceeded to quash the FIR against the relatives stating that it would be unjust if they are forced to go through the tribulations of a trial, and general and omnibus allegations cannot manifest in a situation where the relatives of the complainant’s husband are forced to undergo trial.

Click here to read the Supreme Court’s judgment.