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TODAY’S TALK ON EDITORIALS

AUGUST 5, 2017

Editing ourselves

  • Scientists have for the first time managed to edit genes in a human embryo to repair a genetic mutation, fuelling hopes that such procedures may one day be available outside laboratory conditions.
  • In results announced in Nature this week, scientists fixed a mutation that thickens the heart muscle, a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
  • The cardiac disease causes sudden death in otherwise healthy young athletes and affects about one in 500 people overall. It is caused by a mutation in a particular gene and a child will suffer from the condition even if it inherits only one copy of the mutated gene.
  • In an attempt to remove the small portion of mutation, the researchers injected sperm of a man affected by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and the gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9, that cuts the DNA near the position of the mutation, into the egg at the same time.
  • Though the research marks a major milestone in genome editing of embryos, it will be a long while before it becomes available as a tool to produce healthy embryos.
  • While several diseases can potentially be prevented by using this technique, including some cancers, the announcement has also revived fears about designer babies being within the realm of possibility.

Punishing the victims

  • On July 27, 2017, the Supreme Court in Rajesh Sharma & Ors vs State of U.P. & Aanr , dealt another punishing blow to what has become a toothless anti-dowry law. When first enacted in 1961, the law sought to protect women from being killed or tortured in their marital homes by greedy husbands and in-laws. Thereafter, passionate advocacy by women’s rights activists resulted in the insertion of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, making the offence of dowry harassment cognisable and non-bailable, thereby bringing enormous relief to women who face virtually insurmountable obstacles in the public space, especially when taking complaints to the police or facing long-winded judicial proceedings.

Gradual dilution

  • The first attempt to dilute Section 498A came from a 2014 judgment of the Supreme Court which mandated a nine-point checklist before any arrests could be made under Section 498A.
  • Then followed the latest Supreme Court judgment which has almost irretrievably diluted 498A and rendered it nearly unreachable to victims. This judgment mandates a family welfare committee in every district to scrutinise dowry harassment cases.
  • The Supreme Court has also done away with the need for the accused to make a personal appearance in court in addition to other forms of relief.
  • Sadly, the victim remains ignored in the judgment. As a result of these constraints, thousands of genuinely distressed women will not be able to access justice. Women victims, it would appear, become victims only if they die. While still alive, getting justice is a Sisyphean impossibility.

Subject of debate

  • The judges observe that women who ought to use Section 498A as a shield are actually using it as a weapon against their unfortunate in-laws, going so far as to say “this court earlier noticed the fact that most of such complaints are filed in the heat of the moment, over trivial issues”, thus leading to “harassment of the accused”. This is a breathtaking assumption, and not based upon any substantial research whatsoever, nor do the judges quote such research.

The story from data

  • In fact, the statistics cited by the judges lead to a contrary conclusion. They note the earlier observation of Justice C.K. Prasad that in 2012 two lakh arrests were made under Section 498A, including 47,951 women. Although chargesheets were filed in 93.6% of the cases, the conviction rate was only 14.4%. Based on this, the judges conclude that the complaints were frivolous and “trivial”.
  • The actual fact of the matter is that in 93.6% of the cases, the police — notoriously unsympathetic to women — found the complaints worthy of chargesheets being filed. In other words, the complaints passed police scrutiny.
  • Further, the low conviction rate of 14.4% is more an indictment of the agonising judicial process, which is time-consuming and drains women of their resources and resolve. Many just opt for settlement out of sheer frustration.
  • In a just society, a penal provision should be reviewed only after fully protecting the perspective of the victim.
    • A total of 24,771 dowry deaths have occurred in India from 2012 to 2014, averaging more than 20 dowry deaths every single day.
  • Thus, Section 498A is not only relevant but also vital for the protection of genuine victims. Alleged, perceived, and sometimes even some genuine cases of misuse of this law should not endanger the huge number of women who are in genuine distress.
  • It is time to remember that the object of the law and democracy require that our suffering women be protected and not that safeguards for accused be constantly created.