Stating that the “menace of dowry death is increasing day by day”, the Supreme Court Friday called upon courts to interpret the law on the topic keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the “social evil of bride burning and dowry demand” while also being cautious against attempts to rope in family members of the accused husband, though they may have no active role in the commission of the offence and may be residing at distant places.
Tracing the history of the Dowry Prohibition Act and amendments to it, particularly the 1096 amendments by which Section 304B was specifically introduced in the IPC, as a stringent provision to curb the menace of dowry death in the country, a bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justice Aniruddha Bose said “considering the significance of such a legislation, a strict interpretation would defeat the very object for which it was enacted”.
Section 304B (1) defines ‘dowry death’ as the death of a woman 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.
The court was hearing an appeal against an order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court upholding the conviction and sentencing of a man in the case of death of his wife in the thirteenth month of their marriage. The accused took the defence that prosecution had failed to prove there was any demand for dowry and even if assuming there was such a demand, the state had not proved that it was made “soon before” or proximate to the death of the woman.
Writing for the bench, CJI Ramana said that though generally the section is to be interpreted strictly given that it is a criminal statute, however, “where strict interpretation leads to absurdity or goes against the spirit of legislation, the courts may, in appropriate cases, place reliance upon the genuine import of the words, taken in their usual sense to resolve such ambiguities”.
The bench said that “there is no denying that such social evil is persisting even today. 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 40-50 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. In fact, 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”.
Given the state of affairs, it is “therefore…safe to deduce that 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…No straitjacket formulae can therefore be laid down by this Court to define what exact the phrase ‘soon before’ entails”.
“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”, the bench added.
It also said that the section “does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental, as was done earlier. The reason…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 endeavours to also address those situations wherein murders or suicide are masqueraded as accidents”.
Warning against misuse of the law, the apex court also said that “undoubtedly…the menace of dowry death is increasing day by day. However, it is also observed that 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”.
The SC while upholding his conviction and sentence under 304-B however acquitted him of the charge of abetting her suicide saying the prosecution had failed to establish that the death had occurred due to suicide.