One of the most evil practices in India, dowry is unfortunately regarded as a status symbol. But is it? Just like every clothing item in a fashion store has a price tag attached to it. Similarly, this practice had become synonymous with the context “groom on sale”, with even bigger and bolder price tags. In 2021, Kerala witnessed the maximum increase in dowry paid by brides. Today the government has come up with several legislations like the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 etc., to eliminate the dowry system, & uplift the status of the girl child by implementing many schemes. But, due to the social nature of this issue, the legislation has failed to fulfil its objective in our society.
It is not uncommon that refusing to pay dowry by the bride can even cost her life, thus, resulting in dowry deaths. And UP recorded the highest number of dowry death cases in 2021. Dowry death brings disgrace to society and so it gets very important to prevent such a heinous crime from happening. Our criminal law code, therefore, makes this offence punishable under IPC. Dowry death is defined under Section 304B of IPC whereas section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act states the presumption as to dowry death.
This article discusses the meaning of dowry death, the interpretation of Section 304B IPC, the relation of dowry death with cruelty, landmark cases and many more.
What is Dowry death under IPC?
Section 304B of IPC defines dowry death as “if a woman dies within seven years of marriage by any burns or bodily injury or it was revealed that before her marriage she was exposed to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any other relative of the husband in connection to demand dowry then the death of the woman will be considered as dowry death.” Let’s break down the definition into essential ingredients for better understanding.
Essentials of dowry death
Death must be caused by burns, bodily injury, or other circumstances.
Death must occur within seven years of marriage.
It must be disclosed that soon before her marriage, she was exposed to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any other relative.
The cruelty or harassment of her should be connected to the demand for dowry.
Punishment for dowry death
Punishment for dowry death is a minimum sentence of imprisonment for seven years or a maximum sentence of life. The bare act reading of the punishment for dowry death states that "whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life."
Section 498A Cruelty
This provision defines cruelty as "whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine."
What is Section 113B of the Evidence Act?
This provision deliberates presumption as to dowry death: "When the question is whether a person has committed the dowry death of a woman & that soon before her death, the woman has been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, the Court shall presume that such person (accused) had caused the dowry death." In simple words, court presumes accused to have committed such crime, so accused has to prove him innocent.
Difference between sections 304B and 498A IPC
If we check out the definitions of both these offences, dowry death does include cruelty within it but not vice versa. However, both these provisions cannot be held to be mutually inclusive as they deal with two distinct offences. Cruelty is common in both these sections but yet it has to be proved. The clear differentiation between these two offences alongside relevance is given by Gurmeet Singh’s case which is explained ahead in this article. So, stay tuned till the end!
Is dowry a cognizable offence?
Dowry death is a cognizable (the police officer can arrest without a warrant and can investigate the case without seeking permission from the court) and non-bailable offence. This offence is so serious that it is considered a crime against society and in order to convey a strong message to the offenders, it must be dealt with an iron hand, as the Supreme Court had already iterated.
Meaning of soon before in dowry death
The definition of dowry death constitutes the phrase “soon before” whose interpretation have been done clearly in the case of Devender Singh & Ors. v. The State of Uttarakhand (2022), it was held: The phrase 'soon before her death’ under Section 304B IPC must be interpreted as proximately before the wife's death and not immediately prior to such death.
- A Supreme Court bench comprising CJI N.V. Ramana & Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli ascertained the principles accounting for ‘dowry death’ by analysing the factors given under Section 304B IPC and under Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act.
- Here, the court was hearing a criminal appeal against the Uttarakhand High Court’s decision that convicted the three appellants under Sections 498A 304B and 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy) of the IPC due to the death caused to the victim (wife of first appellant)
- SC upheld the High Court’s conviction of the first appellant (husband), i.e.; a sentence of rigorous imprisonment for seven years and a fine of Rs. 10,000/- while it set aside the convictions of second and third appellants (brother and mother of the husband) and acquitted them.
- The Supreme Court laid down the main features of the section 304B IPC authored by Justice Kohli:
“(i) that soon before the death, the deceased was subjected to cruelty and harassment in connection with the demand of dowry;
(ii) the death of the deceased was caused by any burn or bodily injury or some other circumstance which was not normal;
(iii) such a death has occurred within 7 years from the date of her marriage;
(iv) that the victim was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband;
(v) such a cruelty or harassment should be for, or in connection with the demand of dowry; and
(vi) it should be established that such cruelty and harassment were made soon before her death.”
- Also on the other hand, considering section 113B of Evidence Act, it held that “this presumption can be rebutted by the accused on demonstrating during the trial that all the ingredients of Section 304 IPC have not been satisfied”.
- The judgment, further, observed, “the question, therefore, is as to whether the evidence tendered by the prosecution would be sufficient to establish the remaining ingredients of Section 304B IPC with regard to the demand for dowry and preparation of cruelty and harassment in connection with such demand”.
- So, “what is relevant is the demand for dowry which was made subsequent to the marriage and soon before the incident.”
Can conviction under Section 304-B IPC sustain without any charges under Section 498A IPC?
This question was clearly answered in the case of Gurmeet Singh v. State of Punjab (2021) relating to dowry death, wherein it was contended from the accused side that without any charges under Section 498A, IPC (cruelty) a conviction under Section 304-B, IPC (dowry death) cannot be sustained.
- The Supreme Court comprising the bench of CJI NV Ramana and Justices Surya Kant, and Aniruddha Bose rejected the contention.
- SC stated that “although cruelty is a common thread existing in both the offences, however the ingredients of each offence are distinct and must be proved separately by the prosecution. If a case is made out, there can be a conviction under both the sections.”