Downy death and bride burning are symptoms of peculiar social malady and are an unfortunate development of our societal setup. The lawmakers taking things note of the grave problem enacted a new provision to make the law pragmatic and practical.
In 1986 a special provision Section 304B was inserted in the IPC to deal with dowry deaths. A simultaneous amendment was made in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 in the form of Section 113B. The rule of evidence to prove the offense of dowry death is contained in Section 113B, Evidence Act providing for presumption as to dowry death.
The essentials of Section 304B are as follows:
- (1) The death of a woman must be caused within by burns or bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances
- (2) The death must occur within 7 years of marriage
- (3) Woman must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relatives.
- (4) Cruelty or harassment should be in connection with the demand of dowry and soon before death.
- (5) Such cruelty or harassment is shown to have been meted out to the woman soon before her death
Section 304B imposes a statutory obligation on a court to presume that the accused has committed the dowry death when the prosecution proves that:
- (i) The death of his wife has occurred otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage; and
- (ii) soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relatives in connection with a demand for dowry.
If any accused wants to escape from the catch, the burden is on him, to disprove it. If he fails to rebut the presumption the court is bound to act upon it.
Dowry’s death is a non-bailable and cognizable offense.
Expression: Death ……….otherwise than under normal circumstances
The prosecution is required to prove unnatural death and when there is nothing to show that the death of the victim is unnatural then it does not amount to the offense under section 304B. The words death caused by burns or bodily injury is redundant because such death would also fall within the wide province of death caused otherwise than under normal circumstances.
304B applies to a case of suicide where it is the sequel to cruelty or harassment with the demand of dowry. The death of a wife by strangulation or stomach ache without any history of dreadful disease of the stomach are covered within the deaths otherwise than caused under normal circumstances.
The expression ‘otherwise than under normal circumstances ‘would mean that the death is due to an unusual cause’ and under suspicious circumstances if not caused by burns or bodily injury.
Expression: “Subject to the cruelty of harassment”
Section 304B does not explain the term cruelty. However, S.498A of IPC, presents what amounts to cruelty.
In Shanti vs the State of Haryana2, the Supreme Court held that S.304B and 498A are not mutually exclusive. And the meaning of cruelty given in explanation to S.498A having regard to common background to S.304B and S. 498A, can be applied to S.304B. The expression cruelty postulates such treatment as to cause reasonable apprehension in the mind of the wife that her living with the husband will be harmful and injurious to her life.
In State of Rajasthan vs Jaagu Ram3, the death of the deceased occurred within one and half years of marriage due to head injuries. Cruel treatment and harassment were meted out to her immediately after her marriage till her death for bringing insufficient dowry. It was held that under such circumstances S.304B will be attracted.
Expression: “For or in connection with demand for dowry”
The main component of S.304B is that the death of the women should not only be under the circumstances specified in the section but also the consequence of the demand for dowry.
As per the explanation Dowry means “dowry as defined under S.2 of Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961”. Section 2(1) of the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 defines dowry as follows:
In this act, `dowry’ means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly:
a) by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or
b) by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of said parties but does not include dower or mahr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) applies.
Explanation II.-The expression `valuable security has the same meaning as in Sec. 30 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).
Agreement for dowry is not always necessary:
The word agreement referred to in section 2 has to be inferred from the facts and circumstances of the case. The interpretation that the accused seeks that there can be conviction only if there is an agreement for dowry is misconceived. This would be contrary to the mandate and the object of the Act.
In Pawan Kumar vs Ste of Haryana, the Supreme Court held that it is not always necessary that there be any agreement for dowry. When persistent demands for a TV and scooter are made from the bride after the marriage or from her parents it would constitute be in connection with the marriage and it would be a case of demand for dowry under Section 304B.
Expression: “Soon before her death”
Section 304B uses the words that it should be shown that soon before her death, the woman was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband. Given these words, the prosecution must establish that any cruel treatment or harassment was nearby immediately preceding her death.
Soon before is a relative term and it would depend on the circumstances of each case and no straight jacket formula can be laid down as to what constitutes a period soon before the occurrence. It would be hazardous to indicate any fixed period.
It needs to be judged from the facts and circumstances of the case. The importance of the proximity test is both for the proof of offense of dowry and for raising a presumption under S.113B of the Evidence Act.
In Satvir Singh vs the State of Punjab 4there was no sufficient evidence to show that the wife was subjected to cruelty soon before her death she attempted to commit suicide. The conviction of the accused under section 304B/306 was therefore set aside and his conviction under 498Awas confirmed.
The Supreme Court in Kunhiabdulla vs the State of Kerala5 observed that the words ‘soon before’ used in Section 304B have to be used relatively depending upon the facts and circumstances of the case and no straightjacket formula can be laid down for deciding as to what constitutes soon before the period in the context of occurrence of dowry death.
Presumption as to Dowry Death
Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 talks about the Presumption as to dowry death. If a woman dies about any demand for dowry and it was shown that soon before her death she was subjected to harassment or cruelty by any such person. Then the court shall presume that such person had caused such dowry death.
Section 113B uses the word “shall” thus it is a presumption of law. On proof of the essentials mentioned above, it becomes obligatory for the court to raise a presumption that the accused caused the “dowry death”. The court has no discretion to draw the presumption under this Section if the essential ingredients are proved then they are bound to draw this presumption under Sec.113B of the Indian Evidence Act.
If it is proved that soon before her death, the woman was subjected to cruelty or harassment in connection with a dowry demand, then the presumption under S.113B can be raised. If the prosecution has failed to prove the case under Sec 304B, IPC, then, no presumption can be raised under Sec. 113B of the Indian Evidence Act.
Thus, S.304B is an integral part of S.113B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Cruelty need not be confined to physical cruelty. Even mental torture in a given case would be a case of cruelty or harassment under 304B and 498A.
In Shanti v State of Haryana6, the death of a woman took place within seven years of marriage, the in-laws of the deceased did not inform the deceased’s parents about the death and hurriedly cremated the deceased. The prosecution succeeded in establishing cruel treatment towards the victim. The death could not be said to be a natural death and the presumption under S.113B of the Evidence Act was attracted.