India regularly gets hauled over the coals for its shabby treatment of women. And rightly so.
Every 15 minutes a rape is recorded, every five minutes an incident of domestic violence is reported, a bride is killed for dowry every 69 minutes and every year hundreds of thousands of female foetuses are aborted and infant girls are killed, leading to an appallingly skewed gender ratio. Girls and women also have to battle lifelong discrimination, prejudice, violence and neglect.
In a climate like that, 31-year-old Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj knows she sticks out like a sore thumb, but she has some questions that are reasonable enough: “Are men not vulnerable? Do they not face discrimination? Can they not be victims?”
And she goes on to add: “Just as you don’t have to be a woman to fight for women, similarly, you don’t have to be a man to fight for men. I don’t talk about atrocities against women because there are millions who are talking about it.”
Her fight at the moment is against the misuse of Section 498A of the Indian penal code which is a tough anti-dowry law. Ms Bhardwaj is travelling across India, screening Martyrs of Marriage, her first feature-length documentary, in an attempt to persuade the authorities to re-write the law.
India introduced Section 498A in 1983 after a spate of dowry deaths in Delhi and elsewhere in the country. There were daily reports of new brides being burnt to death by their husbands and in-laws and the murders were often passed off as “kitchen accidents”. Angry protests by female MPs and activists forced parliament to bring in the law.
“It was a law made with very noble intentions,” agrees Ms Bhardwaj. “But a law that was made to save lives, has taken many lives.”
Ms Bhardwaj is not alone in her criticism. Over the years, Section 498A has acquired the reputation of being the “most abused law in the history of Indian jurisprudence”.
With cases of divorce in India steadily rising, campaigners say that disgruntled women, aided by unscrupulous lawyers, routinely misuse the law to harass their husbands and their relatives.
It has also been questioned by the Supreme Court with one judge describing its misuse as “legal terrorism”, warning that it was “intended to be used as a shield and not as an assassin’s weapon”, and the National Commission for Women expressing concerns over its misuse.
As the law prescribes the immediate arrest of those named in a complaint, 2.7 million people, including 650,000 women and 7,700 children, were arrested between 1998 and 2015. The accused in some of the cases were as young as two years old and, in a particularly bizarre case, a two-month-old baby was hauled into a police station.
Perturbed by such reports, in July 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the police to follow a nine-point checklist before arresting anyone on a dowry complaint.
Ms Bhardwaj, a former journalist, says she began researching the subject in 2012 after “a very personal experience”.
“In 2011, a cousin’s marriage fell apart within three months and his wife accused him and our entire family of beating her and demanding dowry from her. She filed a false case against us. I was also named as an accused, as someone who beat her and tortured her regularly,” she says.
Ms Bhardwaj says her family paid “a large sum of money” to buy peace, but “even though the case got over, I was not at peace”.
“The law has become a tool for extreme blackmail and extortion,” she says.
The documentary, which took four years to complete, has powerful first-person accounts from men who have been falsely accused under the anti-dowry law – from husbands who spent years in jail only to be acquitted later by courts; from the parents of young men who killed themselves unable to bear the harassment and ignominy of being labelled wife-abusers; a tearful video message from a husband recorded minutes before he hanged himself; and a suicide note from a young banker questioning the “one-sided law”.
We also hear from a retired Delhi high court judge who says the law is often “used as a leverage to settle scores”; a former Indian law minister who admits to the failure of governments to deal with the “abuse of this law”; one women’s rights activist who believes the law must be amended; while a second insists that “cases of misuse are few” and the law must remain unchanged to protect women from dowry abuse.
Ms Bhardwaj, however, insists that laws must be gender neutral.
“You cannot deny it saying the number of such cases is small. In the past few years, thousands of people have reached out to me for help and I’ve referred them to the Save Indian Family. In Delhi, I’m told that 24% of calls to women’s helplines are from men in distress. Lives are being destroyed. People are killing themselves.”
She now wants to organise a screening of Martyrs of Marriage for Indian MPs.
“I have shown the documentary to judges, police officials and magistrates, activists and general public, men and women impacted by the law. I have received a tremendous response from the viewers. Now I want to take it to the parliament, to lobby for a change in the law to stop its misuse.”
In recent months, Ms Bhardwaj has also been speaking out against false rape cases. After the December 2012 gang rape of a young woman on a bus in the Indian capital, Delhi, and her subsequent death, India introduced Section 376, a tough new anti-rape law.
Since then, there has been a surge in the registration of rape cases, amid reports from courts that many are filed by women after a consensual relationship has gone sour or to settle other disputes.
Judges across India have warned against its misuse and the Delhi Commission for Women has said that 53.2% of the rape cases filed between April 2013 and July 2014 were found to be false.
Ms Bhardwaj, too, has often taken to social media to speak up for men accused in false cases, attracting a severe backlash – she regularly gets trolled on social media, feminists and women’s rights activists accuse her of bias, she’s been called a “pimp for rapists” and is berated for her “love for rapists”.
Even her two-year-old niece has been dragged into the sordid debate by internet trolls who claim to feel sorry for the toddler “for having an aunt like her”.
But Ms Bhardwaj remains unfazed. “Some feminists say it’s politically incorrect for me to fight for men, but I want justice for everyone, regardless of their gender. My work is not against women. My work is against injustice.”