India's highest court has sparked bitter controversy after it said laws set up to protect women from demands for dowry payments were being misused by "disgruntled wives" to get back at their husbands.

A small community of men's rights campaigners welcomed a ruling by the Supreme Court in Delhi which said men should no longer be automatically arrested when a woman alleges dowry abuse and that there must be sufficient evidence.

But activists fighting to protect women against abuse and violence said the court ruling was "retrograde" and would make women more vulnerable. Some claimed the court was out of touch. The payment of dowries by brides' families was banned in India in 1961, but the practice remains common and may be spreading.

According to anecdotal evidence, the size of dowries is increasing and reports suggest that grooms' families often demand everything from money to jewellery and even new cars before cementing a marriage agreement.


In 1983, Section 498a of the Indian penal code was introduced to offer more protection to women. It said any husband or member of his family convicted of cruelty or violence associated with attempting to force such payments should face up to three years in jail.

Men's rights campaigners have claimed the law is often misused, frequently when relationships break down. On Wednesday, the court sided with them, saying the law had become a "weapon" for discontented women.

"The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested," said the court. "In quite a number of cases, bed-ridden grandfathers and grandmothers of the husbands ... are arrested."

Rajesh Vakharia, of the Save Indian Family Foundation, said he welcomed the ruling. But Mr Vakharia, who says he spent six days in custody after being falsely accused of demanding dowry when he got married in 1999, said the court had acted too late. "Too many people have already suffered from frivolous litigation," he said, from the city of Nagpur. He fought and won his case but was prevented from seeing his child for four years.

Jyoti Tiwari, from Delhi, is still fighting accusations of demanding dowry, levelled by the widow of her late brother.

She said her former sister-in-law had claimed her brother, Anurag, and other members of the family had demanded dowry after the relationship broke down and the sister-in-law moved back to her parents' home. Ms Tiwari's brother later died in a road accident, but she said she and her parents are still fighting the allegations in court. "The law is supposed to protect women, but I am a woman, my mother is a woman," she said last night.

Yet women's rights campaigners say the anti-dowry laws are essential and the court's decision will make it less likely for women to report abuse to the police. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, said government figures showed that at least 91,202 women had been killed between 2001 and 2012 in incidents relating to dowry demands. She said the alteration of the law would dilute women's protection.

"Usually the police act very slowly or don't act. This will affect women," said Dr Kumari, author of Brides Are Not for Burning. Brinda Karat, a member of the national parliament and a veteran women's rights campaigner, said nobody supported misuse of a law but that the court had been wrong to change its nature.

She said it appeared that the court was out of touch on the ground in India where demands for dowries had spread to communities in which the custom had not been previously practised. "I think the effect will be disastrous," she said. "The police will now have an alibi not to take any action."

The ruling by the bench, consisting of two male justices, comes as India continues to undergo sometimes rapid social changes and where more women are entering higher education and the workplace and, sometimes, becoming more aware of their rights.

- UK Independent