Is SOON BEFORE really a problem? :Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code

Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code,1860 was introduced in 1986, specifically to tackle the growing menace of dowry deaths in India. However, the straitjacket and literal interpretation of the said penal provision blunted the battle against the “long-standing social evil”-dowry and dowry death.

Therefore the Hon’ble Supreme Court on 28 May 2021 in Satbir Singh Vs. the State of Haryana remedied a loophole in the law on dowry deaths that was working as an escape route for the accused. The SC, in its judgment, has lamented that dowry-related deaths continue unabated in present-day India.

Before we deal with the intricacies of the said section it is pertinent to know the facts of the matter. The case of the prosecution is that the deceased(wife) and accused(husband) were married on 01.07.1994. On 31.7.1995, at around 4 P.M, some persons informed the parents of the deceased that his daughter was ailing and admitted to the hospital. On this information, he, along with his wife and son, reached the hospital and found that the deceased passed away due to burning injuries. The prosecution’s case was that the deceased committed suicide by setting herself ablaze just after one year of her marriage and that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty and harassment on account of bringing less dowry by both the accused and his family members. The counsel for the accused canvassed before the court that it was a case of accidental death, and hence no liability can be fixed upon them. The apex court however ruled against the accused and sentenced 7 years of imprisonment along with other charges. 

Now, section 304-B IPC, which defines, and provides the punishment for dowry demand, reads as under:

“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.

Here, it is noteworthy that the phrase ‘soon before her death has proven to be contentious and aided acquittals. The loophole was in defining the offence, the provision stipulated that the woman should have been subjected to harassment “soon before” her death. This ambiguous phrase worked as an escape route with the accused arguing that the term “soon before” should mean just moments before the death.

However, the Supreme Court realised the “legal mischief” used to exonerate persons accused of causing dowry deaths. The court said the phrase “soon before” cannot be construed to mean “immediately before” the death.

“The prosecution must establish the existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.”

According to my perspective, assuming that cases end in acquittal owing to a flawed interpretation of the words ‘soon before ‘does not lend itself to any clarity, and sidesteps the gravity and extent of the real problem. The judgment has probably not attempted to explain how courts should arrive at ‘proximate and live link’.

In reality, though, the prosecution is largely unable to prove dowry harassment in the first place. Some of the reasons for this are obvious — aggrieved women, out of shame and fear of reprisal, do not share their plight with anybody, leaving no witnesses to vouch for said harassment.

Often, family members turn hostile and refuse to testify, thus collapsing the case of the prosecution. In cases where the prosecution can adduce evidence and witnesses, trial courts routinely reject the existence of any dowry-related harassment prior to a woman’s death. They reject the testimonies of the victims’ families, even dying declarations on inconsequential grounds and acquit on technicalities.

Largely, courts in India are reluctant to accept harassment of married women as harassment concerning dowry.

If a woman is harassed after months, or years into her marriage, courts cite ‘passage of time’ to infer that the harassment does not constitute a demand for dowry.

This, despite the law specifically providing that dowry demands, can be made any time after the marriage.

When the main ingredient of the offence itself is not met, the question of interpretation of the term ‘soon before her death’ is somewhat redundant.

The Supreme Court is definitely in touch with reality but it needs the support and open-mindedness of the police machinery, the lower courts and the people of the nation to resolve this issue.



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