After one year of marriage, woman burnt to death over dowry. Supreme Court finds accused guilty; explains the true import of “soon before” under Section 304-B IPC

Supreme Court: In a case where a woman died of burn injuries one year into her marriage, the bench of NV Ramana*, CJ and Aniruddha Bose, J has held that Courts should use their discretion to determine if the period between the cruelty or harassment and the death of the victim   would come within the term “soon before” as the factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case.

“When the legislature used the words, “soon before” they did not mean “immediately before”. Rather, they left its determination in the hands of the courts.”

Background

A woman got married to a man in July, 1994. As fate would have it, she died exactly after year after receiving burn injuries, allegedly after she set herself ablaze due to being subjected to cruelty and dowry demand at the hands of her husband and in-laws. The appellants were convicted by the Trial Court in December, 1997 for the offences under Sections 304¬B and 306, IPC and were sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for seven years for the offence punishable under Section 304-B, IPC and to undergo rigorous imprisonment for five years for the offence punishable under Section 306, IPC.

In November, 2008, the Punjab and Haryana High Court also  upheld the order of the Trial Court and dismissed the appeal filed by the appellants.

Analysis

Was the offence under Section 304-B IPC made out?

“Soon before” – Interpretation

When the legislature used the words, “soon before” they did not mean “immediately before”. Rather, they left its determination in the hands of the courts. The factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case. Even the spectrum of cruelty is quite varied, as it can range from physical, verbal or even emotional. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Therefore, Courts should use their discretion to determine if the period between the cruelty or harassment and the death of the victim   would come within the term “soon before”.

“What is pivotal to the above determination, is the establishment of a “proximate and live link” between the cruelty and the consequential death of the victim.”

When the prosecution shows that ‘soon before her death such woman has been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry’, a presumption of causation arises against the accused under Section 113-B of the Evidence Act. Thereafter, the accused has to rebut this statutory presumption.

Further, Section 304-B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal   or suicidal or accidental, as was done earlier. The reason for such non categorization is due to the fact that death occurring “otherwise than under normal circumstances” can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental. However, the Section 304-B, IPC endeavors to also address those situations wherein murders or suicide are masqueraded as accidents.

“Therefore, if all the other ingredients of Section 304¬B IPC are fulfilled, any death whether caused by burns or by bodily injury or occurring otherwise than under normal circumstances shall, as per the legislative mandate, be called a “dowry death” and the woman’s husband or his relative “shall be deemed to have caused her death” unless proved otherwise.”

Chain of circumstances  – Where did it lead?

  • The deceased and accused were married on 01.07.1994, and the death of the lady occurred on 31.07.1995.
  • According to the evidence of the doctor, the entire body of the deceased was doused with kerosene oil. Therefore, the possibility of an accident was ruled out.
  • The Deceased had disclosed to her brother, within a month after her marriage that the accused, husband and mother-in-law, used to physically harass her on the account of bringing insufficient dowry. Furthermore, the accused persons had made a specific demand of a scooter. Pursuant to this disclosure, she was brought back to her paternal house.
  • Only a month prior to her death, the deceased had returned to her matrimonial house. However, the accused still used to harass the deceased for dowry. The aforesaid fact was revealed by the deceased to her father, when she had come to visit him.
  • Just a week before the death, on the occasion of Teej festival, another brother of the deceased had visited her while she was in her matrimonial home. The deceased had reiterated her plight to her
  • On 31.07.1995, the father of the deceased was informed by some villagers that his daughter has been admitted in the hospital. Upon reaching, the father discovered that the deceased succumbed to burn injuries.

“The aforesaid chain of circumstances proves that there existed a live and proximate link between the instances of demand of dowry and the death of the deceased.”

The court noticed that since the ingredients of Section 304¬B, IPC stoodsatisfied, the presumption under 113¬B, Evidence Act operated against the appellants, who are deemed to have caused the offence specified under Section 304-B of IPC. The burden therefore shifted on the accused to rebut the aforesaid presumption, who in turn, failed to make out a case for acquittal.

Was the offence under Section 306 IPC made out?

A bare reading of the provision indicates that for the offence under Section 306, IPC the prosecution needs to first establish that a suicide has been committed. Secondly, the prosecution must also prove that the person who is said to have abetted the commission of suicide, has played an active role in the same.

With respect to this latter requirement, Section 113¬A, Evidence Act creates a presumption against the husband and/or his relative with respect to the abetment of suicide of a married woman, under certain conditions. Not going into the other conditions, a perusal of the provision indicates that such presumption shall be attracted only if the factum of suicide has been established by the prosecution first.

However, in the present case, the conclusion reached by the Courts below was based on assumptions, as there is no evidence on record to support the same.

The reasoning of the Trial Court in this regard was:

“Further, there is no direct evidence having been adduced by the prosecution the (sic) any of the accused caused death by sprinkling kerosene on the body of the deceased, the only possibility is that Meena Kumari put an end to her life by sprinkling kerosene on her body.”

Hence, since there was insufficient evidence to prove the factum of suicide beyond reasonable doubt, the presumption under Section 113-A, Evidence Act, is not of much help for the prosecution. The essential ingredient of deceased committing suicide has not been proved by the prosecution by adducing sufficient evidence.

“In the present case, the prosecution has failed to establish that the death occurred due to suicide. Therefore, we are of the opinion that the finding of the Courts below convicting the appellants under Section 306, IPC merits interference by this Court.”

Conclusion

Conviction under Section 304-B IPC was upheld and conviction and sentence under Section 306, IPC was set aside.

[Satbir Singh v. State of Haryana, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 404, decided on 28.05.2021]


Judgment by: Chief Justice of India NV Ramana

Know Thy Judge| Justice N.V. Ramana

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