Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In a case where the Madhya Pradesh High Court had held that demand of money for construction of a house cannot be treated as a dowry demand, the 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, CJ and AS Bopanna and Hima Kohli*, JJ has found the said observation erroneous and has held that the word “Dowry” ought to be ascribed an expansive meaning so as to encompass any demand made on a woman, whether in respect of a property or a valuable security of any nature.

The Unfortunate Facts

The deceased, Geeta Bai, was 18 years old when she got married on 7th May, 1998. In less than four years of her marriage, Geeta Bai committed suicide at her matrimonial home by pouring kerosene oil and setting herself on fire. She was admitted in a burnt condition in the Community Health Centre, Baroda on 20th April, 2002 and breathed her last on the same day. At that time, she was five months pregnant. While the Mother-in-law and Brother-in-law were acquitted by the Trial Court, the husband and father-in-law of the deceased were convicted under Sections 304-B, 306 and 498-A IPC and were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for life for the first offence, RI for a period of seven years with fine for the second offence and RI for three years with fine for the third offence.

The conviction and sentence imposed on the respondents was primarily based on the evidence maternal uncles of the deceased who stated that the respondents had been demanding money from the deceased for constructing a house which her family members were unable to give. As a result, she was constantly harassed and subjected to cruelty, finally leading to her committing suicide.

The High Court gave clean chit to the father-in-law and also set aside the order of conviction in respect of the husband under Sections 304B and 306 IPC. However, his conviction was sustained under Section 498-A IPC, but the sentence of RI for three years imposed on him was reduced to the period already undergone by him on the ground that the demand of money for construction of a house cannot be treated as a demand for dowry.

Analysis

Dowry

In a three Judge Bench decision of this Court in Rajinder Singh v. State of Punjab, (2015) 6 SCC 477, Section 2 of the Dowry Act was split into six distinct parts for a better understanding of the said provision, with the first part stating,

“ Dowry must first consist of any property or valuable security— the word “any” is a word of width and would, therefore, include within it property and valuable security of any kind whatsoever.”

Since the word “dowry” takes in its ambit any kind of property or valuable security, the Court held that the High Court fell into an error by holding that the demand of money for construction of a house cannot be treated as a dowry demand.

“The Latin maxim “Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat” i.e, a liberal construction should be put up on written instruments, so as to uphold them, if possible, and carry into effect, the intention of the parties, sums it up. Interpretation of a provision of law that will defeat the very intention of the legislature must be shunned in favour of an interpretation that will promote the object sought to be achieved through the legislation meant to uproot a social evil like dowry demand.”

The Court, hence, held that the word “Dowry” ought to be ascribed an expansive meaning so as to encompass any demand made on a woman, whether in respect of a property or a valuable security of any nature.

“When dealing with cases under Section 304-B IPC, a provision legislated to act as a deterrent in the society and curb the heinous crime of dowry demands, the shift in the approach of the courts ought to be from strict to liberal, from constricted to dilated. Any rigid meaning would tend to bring to naught, the real object of the provision. Therefore, a push in the right direction is required to accomplish the task of eradicating this evil which has become deeply entrenched in our society.”

Ingredients of Section 304-B IPC

The most fundamental constituent for attracting the provisions of Section 304-B IPC is that the death of the woman must be a dowry death. Four pre-requisites for convicting an accused for the offence punishable under Section 304- B are as follows:

  • that the death of a woman must have been caused by burns or bodily injury or occurred otherwise than under normal circumstance;
  • that such a death must have occurred within a period of seven years of her marriage;
  • that the woman must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment at the hands of her husband, soon before her death; and (
  • that such a cruelty or harassment must have been for or related to any demand for dowry

Key facts

  • The respondents had been constantly tormenting the deceased and asking her to approach her family members for money to build a house and it was only on their persistence and insistence that she was compelled to ask them to contribute some amount for constructing a house.
  • The marriage of the deceased and the respondent No.1 was conducted in a community marriage organization where some couples would have tied the knot goes to show that the parties were financially not so well off.
  • Before the marriage of the deceased also, her maternal uncle used to bear her expenses and that of her mother and brother as her father had abandoned them.

Ruling on facts

The Court hence held that the High Court fell in an error in drawing an inference that since the deceased had herself joined her husband and father-in-law, respondents herein and asked her mother or uncle to contribute money to construct a house, such demand cannot be treated as a “dowry demand”. On the contrary, it observed that the evidence brought on record showed that the deceased was pressurized to make such a request for money to her mother and uncle.

“It was not a case of complicity but a case of sheer helplessness faced by the deceased in such adverse circumstances.”

The Court held that such glairing circumstances, when viewed together, can hardly mitigate the offence of the respondents or take the case out of the purview of Section 304-B IPC, when all the four pre-requisites for invoking the said provision stand satisfied, namely,

  • that the death of Geeta Bai took place at her matrimonial home within seven years of her marriage;
  • that the said death took place in abnormal circumstances on account of burning and that too when she was five months pregnant;
  • that she had been subjected to cruelty and harassment by the respondents soon before her death and
  • such cruelty/harassment was in connection with demand for dowry.

[State of Madhya Pradesh v. Jogindra, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 33, decided on 11.01.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Hima Kohli


Counsel For State: Advocate General Prashant Singh

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court of India: In an appeal regarding dowry death case the Division Bench of Navin Sinha and R. Subhash Reddy, JJ., granted acquittal to an old aged couple. Opining that the Courts below had failed to consider the evidences available on the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” The Bench stated,

“Conviction of the appellants was not maintainable on a probability in absence of direct evidence. The benefit of doubt ought to have been given to the appellants.”

The instant appeal had been filed by an elderly couple, appellant 1, 77 years old and appellant 2, 69 years old who was stated to be bed ridden. The case of the appellants was that they had been wrongfully convicted under Section 498A IPC leading to three years of imprisonment with fine and a default stipulation in relation to the death of their daughter-in-law.

Counsel for the appellant, Mr. S. Nagamuthu submitted that their appeal had been dismissed by the High Court of Madras. It was further contended by the counsel that there was no evidence to support the conviction of the appellants; therefore, the Trial Court should have given benefit of doubt to the appellants. Contending that the husband of the deceased was already in custody having been convicted under Sections 304-B and 498A IPC, and there being no evidence to establish the involvement of the appellants, the counsel argued that their conviction was not sustainable in law.

On the other hand, the State opposed the appeal on the ground that the appellants were residing under the same roof. The parents of the deceased had met the appellants also and complained with regard to the harassment being meted to the deceased. The failure of the appellants to take steps to remedy the situation had made their complicity very evident. Therefore, conviction being based on concurrent findings of their complicity by two Courts the same should not be interfered.

Whether merely residing in the same house makes in-laws accomplice in a dowry death case? 

Considering the submissions made on behalf of the parties and after going through the evidence and the order of the Trial Court as well as of the High Court, the Bench opined that the allegations against the appellants were generalised in nature. Therefore, the Trial Court came to the conclusion that though they were living in a separate portion of the house, their conduct amounted to indirect harassment of the deceased.

Noticeably, while discussing that the appellants allegedly fed the ears of their son against the deceased, the conclusion of the Trial Court was that these were normal wear and tear of married life and that they probably (emphasis) added fuel to the fire. The High Court had not even bothered to discuss the nature of evidence available against the appellants and the reasoning of the Trial Court for conviction.

Hence, the Division Bench opined that the conviction of the appellants was not maintainable on a probability in absence of direct evidence. The benefit of doubt ought to have been given to the appellants. Consequently, the conviction of the appellants was set aside. Noticing that appellant 2 had already been granted exemption from surrendering on account of her medical condition, the Bench directed release of appellant 1 as well from the custody.

[R. Natarajan v. State of T.N., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 455, decided on 01-07-2021]


Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together 

Appearance before the Court by:

For Petitioners: S. Nagamuthu, Sr. Adv., B. Mohanraj, Adv., K. Kanagaraj, Adv. and K. Krishna Kumar, AOR

For Respondent(s): D. Kumanan, AOR, Pulkit Tare, Adv. and M. Yogesh Kanna, AOR

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Allahabad High Court: Dinesh Pathak, J., addressed a matter of dowry death and upheld the lower court’s decision.

Factual Matrix

An FIR was filed by the informant (PW-1) with regard to the dowry death of his daughter who was allegedly killed by her in-laws.

Accused was married to the informant’s daughter and at the time of marriage, he had received Rs 1 lakh cash as well as goods worth Rs 1 lakh. That apart, he had given one golden chain and golden ring to the groom, but in-laws of his daughter were not satisfied with the dowry.

Due to non-fulfilment of dowry demand, in-laws of the informant’s daughter attempted several times to kill her and later kicked her out of their house. She was subjected to cruelty and later in June, 2015 the police informed her about the death of the daughter.

Analysis, Law and Decision

High Court noted that the present matter pertained to the dowry death of the lady who had been allegedly hanged by her in-laws.

Bench stated that the case is of circumstantial evidence. Trial Court concluded that demand for dowry was the root cause and drew the victim to take a drastic step of ending her life.

Section 304-B IPC and Section 113-B of Evidence Act are decisive provisions to ascertain the unnatural death as dowry death.

Conjoint reading of Section 304-B IPC and presumptive provision of Section 113-B of the Evidence Act, one of the essential ingredients, amongst others, is that the woman must have been soon before her death subjected to cruelty and harassment for or in connection with demand of dowry. On the proof of essentials as mentioned in the aforesaid sections, it becomes obligatory on the Court to raise a presumption that the accused caused the dowry death.

“…it becomes obligatory on the Court to raise a presumption that the accused caused the dowry death.”

Supreme Court expounded the legal presumption qua dowry death in Sher Singh v. State of Haryana, (2015) 3 SCC 724.

It was expressed in the present matter that in case of dowry death initial burden lies upon the prosecution to prove the ingredients of Section 304-B IPC by a preponderance of probability.

In the matter in hand, prosecution witnesses of fact i.e. PWs-1, 2 and 3 were consistent in their depositions qua cruel attitude of husband and his family member in connection with demand of dowry.

Main ingredients of dowry death are harassment and cruelty for the demand of dowry.

Main Question:

Whether the victim had died otherwise than under normal circumstances and it was shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty and harassment by her husband or his relatives for, or in connection with, any demand of dowry.

Matter in hand relates to dowry death of victim, which is obviously a case of death other than under normal circumstances.

Bench noted that it may be a matter of dispute as to whether she had been forcibly hanged to death or hanged herself to death but there was no doubt that she had ended her life under extreme pressure created by her on laws.

After careful consideration of evidences of prosecution witnesses and defence witnesses, Trial Court has taken a pragmatic view that involvement of parents of husband (i.e. appellant herein) is not made out on the facts and circumstances of the present case, who were living separately from their son but the involvement of husband cannot be ruled out.

Adding to the above analysis, it was stated that from the evidence on record it is proved that appellant was living with his wife, therefore, his claim for acquittal on the ground of acquittal of his relatives (i.e. parents) was not sustainable and being cohabitant with his wife, his complicity in the commission of a crime could easily be inferred.

High Court concluded that there was persistent demand of dowry made by the accused from the victim who was subjected to cruelty and harassment and ultimately she had ended her life in suspicious circumstances wherein injury inflicted on her forehead suggested some violence soon before her death.

Prosecution successfully discharged its duty and it is obligatory on the Court to raise a presumption that the accused caused the dowry death.

Hence, the present appeal was dismissed and the decision of the lower court was upheld. [Deepak v. State of U.P., 2021 SCC OnLine All 190, decided on 3-03-2021]


Advocates before the Court:

Counsel for Appellant:- Ashok Kumar Yadav, Rakesh Dube

Counsel for Respondent :- A.G.A.

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In a case relating to dowry death, where it was argued by the accused that without any charges under Section 498A, IPC a conviction under Section 304-B, IPC cannot be sustained, the 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, CJI and Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose, JJ has rejected the contention and has explained,

“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.”

Provisions in question

Section 304-B. Dowry death.—(1) Where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called “dowry death”, and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death.

Explanation.—For the purpose of this sub-section, “dowry” shall have the same meaning as in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (28 of 1961).

(2) 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 498-A. Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty.—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.

Explanation.—For the purposes of this section, “cruelty” means—

(a) any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or

(b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand.

Background

The deceased got married to the accused in November, 2004 and gave birth to child in 2006. The death of the deceased occurred in 2008 after she consumed poison in her matrimonial home.

Both, the trial court and the Punjab and Haryana High Court, convicted the husband under Section 304-B for dowry death.

The counsel appearing on behalf of the accused-appellant argued that “the Courts below have, as a matter of routine, applied the presumption u/s 113B of Evidence Act in the instant case wherein even the basic and essential ingredient of Section 304-B, IPC are not satisfied.”

It was submitted that just because the death of the deceased occurred within seven years of marriage, by no stretch of imagination can it be said that the deceased soon before her death was subjected to cruelty in connection with the demand of dowry.

“The fact that the deceased was happy with the appellant is clearly evident as she lived with him and bore his child, and never mentioned any harassment or cruelty being meted out by the appellant. Furthermore, the gifts received by the appellant-husband were voluntarily given by the complainant and his family.”

It was also argued that without any charges under Section 498A, IPC a conviction under Section 304-B, IPC cannot be sustained.

Analysis

Section 304-B(1), IPC defines ‘dowry death’ of a woman. It provides that ‘dowry death’ is where death of a woman is caused by burning or bodily injuries or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances, within seven years of marriage, and it is shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband, in connection with demand for dowry.

Considering the aforementioned said law, the Court noted that since,

  • the marriage between the deceased and the accused-appellant took place on 23.11.2004, and
  • the death of the deceased occurred in 2008 after she consumed poison in her matrimonial home,

therefore, the first two ingredients as to death under otherwise than ‘normal circumstances’ within seven years of marriage stand satisfied.

Coming to the next ingredient necessary for establishing the existence of dowry demand i.e. “soon before her death”, the Court noticed that,

  • the deceased had expressed her unhappiness due to the constant harassment and dowry demands, to her father.
  • The father also stated as to how the families attempted to mediate the dispute themselves and on multiple occasions the father of deceased gave certain gifts to the accused and his family to ameliorate the situation.
  • Further, the mother of the deceased had informed the father 15-20 days prior to the incident about the continuing harassment of the deceased on account of dowry.
  • Finally, on 08.08.2008, the father-in-law of the deceased informed this witness about the consumption of poison by the deceased.

It is also important to note that both the Trial Court and the High Court found the above evidence of the father of the deceased to be reliable and consistent despite a thorough cross-examination. No evidence was produced by the appellant to disregard the aforesaid testimony.

On the defence of the accused is that his family and family of the deceased shared a cordial relationship, and in fact, the appellant had helped the mother of deceased in getting treatment of cancer, the Trial Court, after a thorough examination of the evidences- both oral and documentary, concluded that the accused-appellant, who was working as a technician in a hospital, has forged the hospital records to prove the existence of cordial relationship between the families of the deceased and the accused.

It was hence concluded that necessary ingredients under Section 304-B, IPC stood satisfied.

Explaining the difference between offences under Section 498-A and Section 304-B, IPC, the Court note of the judgment in Kamesh Panjiyar v. State of Bihar, (2005) 2 SCC 388, wherein it was held,

“… Sections 304- B and 498-A IPC cannot be held to be mutually inclusive. These provisions deal with two distinct offences. It is true that cruelty is a common essential to both the sections and that has to be proved. The Explanation to Section 498-A gives the meaning of “cruelty”. In Section 304-B there is no such explanation about the meaning of “cruelty”. But having regard to the common background to these offences it has to be taken that the meaning of “cruelty” or “harassment” is the same as prescribed in the Explanation to Section 498-A under which “cruelty” by itself amounts to an offence. Under Section 304-B it is “dowry death” that is punishable and such death should have occurred within seven years of marriage. No such period is mentioned in Section 498-A. If the case is established, there can be a conviction under both the sections.”

[Gurmeet Singh v. State of Punjab, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 403, decided on 28.05.2021]


Judgement by: CJI NV Ramana

Know Thy Judge| Justice N.V. Ramana

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In a case relating to dowry death, the bench of NV Ramana*, CJ and Aniruddha Bose, J has said that judges need to be extra careful while conducting criminal trials relating to Section 304-B, IPC. The Court went on to summarise the law under Section 304­B, IPC read with Section 113­B, Evidence Act and the guidelines to be followed by the Courts while conducting trials in such cases.

The Court noticed that, often, Trial Courts record the statement of an accused under Section 313, CrPC in a very casual and cursory manner, without specifically questioning the accused as to his defense.

“It ought to be noted that the examination of an accused under Section 313, CrPC cannot be treated as a mere procedural formality, as it is based on the fundamental principle of fairness.”

Hence, the Court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. A duty is also cast on the counsel of the accused to prepare his defense, since the inception of the trial, with due caution, keeping in consideration the peculiarities of Section 304¬B, IPC read with Section 113-B, Evidence Act.

Dowry deaths – Facts and Figures

A study titled “Global study on Homicide: Gender-related killing of women and girls”, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, highlighted that in 2018 female dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 percent of all female homicides recorded annually in India. The dismal truth is that from the period 1999 to 2016, these figures have remained constant.

The latest data furnished by the National Crime Records Bureau indicates that in 2019 itself, 7115 cases were registered under Section 304-B, IPC alone.

Law on dowry death – The trajectory

Section 304¬B, IPC is one among many legislative initiatives undertaken by Parliament to remedy a long-standing social evil of dowry death. The pestiferous nature of dowry harassment, wherein married women   are   being   subjected   to   cruelty   because   of   covetous demands by husband and his relatives has not gone unnoticed. The Parliament enacted the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 as a first step to eradicate this social evil. Further, as the measures were   found   to   be   insufficient,   the   Criminal   Law   (Second Amendment) Act, 1983 (Act 46 of 1983) was passed wherein Chapter XX-A was introduced in the IPC, containing Section 498¬A.

The need for a stringent law to curb dowry deaths was suo motu taken up by the Law Commission in its 91st Law Commission Report. The Law Commission recognized that the IPC, as it existed at that relevant time, was insufficient to tackle the issue of dowry deaths due to the nature and modus of the crime.

The Parliament, then, introduced amendments to the Dowry Prohibition Act, as well as the IPC by enacting Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986 (Act 43 of 1986). By way of this amendment, Section 304-B, IPC was specifically introduced in the IPC, as a stringent provision to curb the menace of dowry death in India.

Margaret Alva, who presented the Amendment Bill before Rajya Sabha observed:

“You have never really heard of a girl being burnt while cooking in her mother’s  house or her husband’s  house. It is always in the mother-in-law’s house that she catches fire and is burnt in the kitchen. Therefore, getting evidence immediately becomes a great bit problem. Therefore, we have brought in a couple of amendments which give certain presumptions where the burden of proof shifts to the husband and to his people to show that it was not a dowry death or that it was not deliberately done.”

Dowry Death and Criminal Trial – Law Summarised

  1. Section 304¬B, IPC must be interpreted keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the social evil of bride burning and dowry demand.
  2. The prosecution must at first establish the existence of the necessary ingredients for constituting an offence under Section 304-B, IPC. Once these ingredients are satisfied, the rebuttable presumption of causality, provided under Section 113¬B, Evidence Act operates against the accused.
  3. The phrase “soon before” as appearing in Section 304¬B, IPC cannot be construed to mean ‘immediately before’. The prosecution must establish existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.
  4. Section 304-B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. 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.
  5. Due to the precarious nature of Section 304-B, IPC read with 113¬B, Evidence Act, Judges, prosecution and defence should be careful during conduction of trial.
  6. It is a matter of grave concern that, often, Trial Courts record the statement under Section 313, CrPC in a very casual and cursory manner, without specifically questioning the accused as to his defense. It ought to be noted that the examination of an accused under Section 313, CrPC cannot be treated as a mere procedural formality, as it based on the fundamental principle of fairness. This aforesaid provision incorporates the valuable principle of natural justice “audi alteram partem” as it enables the accused to offer an explanation for the incriminatory material appearing against him. Therefore, it imposes an obligation on the court to question the accused fairly, with care and caution.
  7. The Court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. A duty is also cast on the counsel of the accused to prepare his defense since the inception of the Trial with due caution, keeping   in consideration the peculiarities of Section 304-B, IPC read with Section 113¬B, Evidence Act.
  8. Section 232, CrPC provides that, “If, after taking the evidence for the prosecution, examining   the accused and hearing the prosecution and the defence on the point, the Judge considers that there is no evidence that the accused committed the offence, the Judge shall record an order of acquittal”. Such discretion must be utilized by the Trial Courts as an obligation of best efforts.
  9. Once the Trial Court decides that the accused is not eligible to be acquitted as per the provisions of Section 232, CrPC, it must move on and fix hearings specifically for ‘defence evidence’, calling upon the accused to present his defense as per the procedure provided under Section 233, CrPC, which is also an invaluable right provided to the accused.
  10. In the same breath, Trial Courts need to balance other important considerations such as the right to a speedy trial.
  11. The presiding Judge should follow the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court while sentencing and imposing appropriate punishment.
  12. Undoubtedly, the menace of dowry death is increasing day by day, however, sometimes family members of the husband are roped in, even though they have no active role in commission of the offence and are residing at distant places. In these cases, the Court need to be cautious in its approach.

[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

Case BriefsSupreme Court

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

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Telangana High Court: K. Lakshman, J.,  while addressing an issue, observed that,

there should be a perceptible nexus between the death of a woman and the dowry-related harassment or cruelty inflicted on her.

Deceased and accused 1 were married, wherein at the time of marriage parents of the deceased gave 15 tolas of gold, furniture and clothes.

Harassment

After 5 months of the marriage, appellants-accused started harassing the deceased physically and mentally by demanding additional dowry and motorcycle.

Accused had also threatened to perform a second marriage if the demands were not fulfilled.

Deceased parents informed the accused that they cannot fulfill the said demand and asked not to harass the deceased.

But the accused warned the parents and maternal uncles of the deceased that they would perform the marriage of accused 1 with another girl if they fail to accede to their demand.

Suicide

On the intervening night of 25/26-06-2003 parents of the deceased were informed that the deceased committed suicide hanging.

The mother of the deceased reported the event with instances of harassment that her daughter was subjected to the police.

Police registered a case under Section 304-B of Penal Code, 1860 and trial court framed the charge against the appellants and accused 4 under Section 304-B IPC.

Being aggrieved with the said conviction and imposition, the present appeal was filed.

Decision

Dowry death

Court observed that the post-mortem examination found the cause of the death of the deceased to be due to hanging.

Ingredients required for offence under Section 304-B IPC:

  • within 7 years of the marriage, there must happen the death of a woman (the wife)
  • the death must be caused by any burns or bodily injury, or the death must occur otherwise than under normal circumstances
  • it must be established that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment
  • the cruelty or harassment may be by her husband or any relative of her husband; and
  • the cruelty or harassment by the husband or relative of the husband must be for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry.

Section 113-B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 provides for presumption as to dowry death. When the question is whether the dowry death, namely, the death contemplated under Section 304-B of IPC has been committed by a person, if it is shown that soon before her death, the woman was subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment, for in connection with, any demand for dowry, the Court shall “presume” that such person had caused the dowry death.

It is, no doubt, a rebuttable presumption and it is open to the husband and his relatives to show the absence of the ingredients of Section 304-B of IPC.

Court observed that it is relevant to note that it is not enough that harassment or cruelty was caused to the woman with a demand for dowry at some time if Section 304-B of IPC is to be invoked but it should have happened “soon before her death”.

Bench held that the prosecution had proved the guilt of the accused’s and established the above-stated 5 ingredients of Section 304-B IPC.

To bring home charge under Section 304-B of IPC, the prosecution is required to establish that the death of the woman has been caused by burns or bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and soon before her death, the woman is subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relative.

In the present matter, the fact that the incident had occurred 17 years ago and accused 1 got remarried and has to look after his children including the child born through the deceased and his old aged parents, hence Court took a lenient view with regard to the reduction of punishment.

Accordingly, the present criminal appeal was allowed.[Surender Singh v. State of A.P., 2020 SCC OnLine TS 874, decided on 06-07-2020]

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Chhattisgarh High Court: A Full Bench of Prashant Kumar Mishra, Rajendra Chandra Singh Samant and Gautam Chourdiya, JJ., has held that the prospective accused is neither necessary nor a proper party in a writ petition seeking direction for registration of FIR and investigation into a cognizable offence. The Court was answering the question formulated by the Single Judge.

The daughter of the petitioner was married to one Mithilesh Kumar. The petitioner alleged that on account of ill-treatment and demand of dowry, his daughter committed suicide by hanging. He filed an application before the police against Mithilesh and his family members. Since no action was taken by the police, the petitioner filed the writ petition seeking a direction to the police authorities to register FIR and arrest Mithilesh and his family members for committing offences punishable under Sections 498-A and 304-B IPC. The Single Judge before whom the petition was placed, referred the following question for an effective pronouncement by the Full Bench:

“Whether in a writ petition preferred under Article 226, 227 of the Constitution of India seeking direction for registration of FIR and investigation against the accused persons alleged to have committed the cognizable offence(s), the said accused persons are necessary or proper party and they are required to be noticed and heard before issuing any such writ/direction, if any?”

Relying on a catena of decisions including Lalita Kumari v. State of U.P., (2014) 2 SCC 1Union of India v. WN Chadha, 1993 Supp (4) SCC 260Anju Chaudhary v. State of U.P., (2013) 6 SCC 384; etc., the High Court observed: “In the above view of the matter, it is an absolutely settled legal position that a prospective accused has no right of hearing before registration of FIR and investigation by the police officer or before the Court including the writ court, therefore, in a writ petition seeking direction for registration of FIR and investigation into a cognizable offence, the prospective accused is neither necessary nor a proper party.”

The Full Bench answered the reference accordingly and directed the matter to be placed before the appropriate Bench for further proceedings. [Dhananjay Kumar v. State of Chhattisgarh, 2020 SCC OnLine Chh 4, decided on 30-01-2020]

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Delhi High Court: While wondering why the wife committed suicide, R.K. Gauba, J., acquitted the husband who was convicted under Sections 304-B and 498-A IPC.

The parties were married to each-other. On basis of the evidence available on record, it could be said that the parties seemed to be living a normal or rather a happy life. A child was born to the couple and just after a few days of celebrating the first birthday of her son, the wife was found hanging in her room in their house. The elder brother of the wife accused the appellant-husband and his family of harassing the deceased for dowry. A case was registered and the husband and his family were tried for the offences under Section 304-B and Section 498-A IPC. The trial court did not find the case against the family member of the husband to be believable and therefore acquitted them. However, the husband was found guilty by the trial court and was convicted under the sections charged with. Aggrieved thereby, the husband filed the present appeal.

The High Court perused the impugned judgment and noted that “it was unfair on the part of the trial court to evidence of the same witnesses against the appellant even while the same had been rejected qua the other accused. It was stated that “the judgment was vitiated by an inherently contradictory approach”. The Court was of the view that the case of the prosecution on a version which had come after 4 days of the suicide, was quite apparently an afterthought. It was observed, while other ingredients of the offence under Section 304-B IPC are made out (the marriage being less than seven years old and the death of the married woman being for unnatural causes), credible evidence providing link as to she being subjected to ill-treatment, leave alone connection with demand or expectation of dowry, are missing”. Holding that the prosecution failed to cover the long journey from suspicion to conclusion inherent in a criminal trial, the Court set aside the trial court’s judgment and acquitted the husband. [Kirti Abrol v. State (NCT of Delhi), 2019 SCC OnLine Del 7407, dated 06-02-2019]