According to data from the National Crime Registry of India, India has the highest number of deaths from dowry in the world. In 2012, 8,233 people died from dowry in India, which means that one bride was cremated every 90 minutes, or the dowry problem caused 1.4 deaths within 90 minutes, i.e., 100,000 women in India each year. In 2019, reported dowry death cases in India were more than 7.1 thousand.
Lets take a closer look into the provisions available in the Indian Penal Code regarding the punishment for dowry death.
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 purposes of this sub-section, “dowry” shall have the same meaning as in section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (28 of 1961).
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
To invoke Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code the following ingredients are essential:
- The death of a woman should be caused by burns or bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances.
- Such a death should have occurred within seven years of her marriage.
- She must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband.
- Such cruelty or harassment should be for or in connection with the demand of dowry.
- Such cruelty or harassment is shown to have been meted out to the woman soon before her death.
One of the important ingredients to attract the provision of dowry death is that the death of the bride must relate to the cruelty or harassment on account of demand for dowry. It is true that Section 304-B does not define cruelty. However, under explanation of Section 113-B of the Evidence Act, by which presumption of dowry can be drawn, it has been provided that ‘cruelty’ shall have the same meaning as in section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. As per requirement of clause (b) appended to section 498-A I.P.C. there should be a nexus between harassment and any unlawful demand for dowry.
If these conditions are fulfilled then a presumption acts under the Indian Evidence Act and the burden of proof shifts on the accused to prove that he is innocent. The section states:
In dowry death cases direct evidence may not be available. Such cases may be proved by circumstantial evidence. Section 304-B IPC read with 113-B of the Evidence Act indicates the rule of presumption of dowry death. If an unnatural death of a married woman occurs within 7 years of marriage in suspicious circumstances, like due to burns or any other bodily injury and there is cruelty or harassment by her husband or relatives for or in connection with any demand for dowry soon before her death then it shall be dowry death.
In the case of State of Punjab v. Iqbal Singh, 1997, the Supreme Court clarified the position as to why the necessity to introduce Section 113-B in the Indian Evidence Act was felt – The legislative intent is clear to curb the menace of dowry deaths, etc. with a firm hand. It must be remembered that since crimes are generally committed in privacy of residential houses and in secrecy, independent and direct evidence is not easy to get. That is why the legislature has by introducing Section 113-B in the Evidence Act tried to strengthen the prosecution hands by permitting a presumption to be raised if certain foundation facts are established and the unfortunate event has taken place within seven years of marriage.
This period of seven years is considered to be the turbulent one after which the legislature assumes that the couple would have settled down in life. When the question at issue is whether a person is guilty of dowry death of a woman and the evidence discloses that immediately before her death she was subjected by such person to cruelty and/or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry. Section 113-B, Evidence Act provides that the court shall presume that such person had caused the dowry death. A conjoint reading of Section 113-B of the Act and 304-B I.P.C. shows that there must be material to show that soon before her death the victim was subjected to cruelty or harassment. Prosecution has to rule out the possibility of a natural or accidental death so as to bring it within the purview of the ‘death occurring otherwise than in normal circumstances.’ ‘Soon before’ is a relative term and it would depend upon circumstances of each case and no straitjacket formula can be laid down as to what would constitute a period soon before the occurrence. There must be existence of a proximate and live link between the effect of cruelty based on dowry demand and the concerned death.
Recently in an judgement, the Supreme Court (SC) expanded the scope of Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and said that there is no ‘straitjacket’ formula that defines the abuse of women. For many years, the court interpreted the term “soon before” in Section 304B as “immediately before”. This explanation led to the fact that it was necessary that a woman was harassed a few minutes before her death, to constitute her death as dowry death. This “ridiculous” explanation should be avoided, as per the SC. An “proximate and live link” is sufficient to dowry death.
According to Chief Justice Ramana, “Due to the precarious nature of Section 304-B, judges, prosecution and defense should be careful during conduct of the trial.”
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