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Dowry deaths: SC widens scope of Section 304-B


The Supreme Court indicated in a judgment that a straitjacket and literal interpretation of a penal provision on dowry death may have blunted the battle against the “long-standing social evil”.


GS-II: Social Justice (Issues related to women, Government Policies and Initiatives)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Dowry system in India
  2. Defining Dowry
  3. Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961
  4. Contention of the Language used in Section 304-B

Dowry system in India

  • The dowry system in India refers to the durable goods, cash, and real or movable property that the bride’s family gives to the groom, his parents and his relatives as a condition of the marriage.
  • The dowry system can put great financial burden on the bride’s family, and in many cases, the dowry system leads to crime against women, ranging from emotional abuse and injury to even deaths.
  • The payment of dowry has long been prohibited under specific Indian laws including the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 and subsequently by Sections 304B and 498A of the Indian Penal Code.
  • Dowry deaths accounted for 40% to 50% homicides in the country for almost a decade from 1999 to 2018.
  • In 2019 alone, more than 7,000 cases of dowry death were registered under Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code.

Defining Dowry

  • A court judgement clarifies the legal definition of dowry as: “Dowry” in the sense of the expression contemplated by Dowry Prohibition Act is a demand for property of valuable security having an inextricable nexus with the marriage, i.e., it is a consideration from the side of the bride’s parents or relatives to the groom or his parents and/or guardian for the agreement to wed the bride-to-be.
  • The Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 defines dowry as: “Dowry means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly – (a) by one party in marriage to the other party in marriage; or (b) by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person to either party to marriage or to any other persons; at or before or after the marriage as consideration for the marriage of the said parties, but does not include dower or mahr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal law applies.”

Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961

  • Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, intended to prevent the giving or receiving of a dowry applies to persons of all religions in India.
  • The legislation underwent subsequent amendment, significantly – in 1984, it was changed to specify that presents given to a bride or a groom at the time of a wedding are allowed.
  • The act and relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code were further amended to protect female victims of dowry-related violence.
  • Amendments to the original Dowry Prohibition Act also established minimum and maximum punishments for giving and receiving dowry and created a penalty for demanding dowry or advertising offers of money or property in connection with a marriage.
  • The Indian Penal Code was also modified in 1983 to establish specific crimes of dowry-related cruelty, dowry death, and abetment of suicide. These enactments punished violence against women by their husbands or their relatives when proof of dowry demands or dowry harassment could be shown.
  • Another layer of legal protection was provided in 2005 under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.

Contention of the Language used in Section 304-B

  • The language used in Section 304-B has always flummoxed courts, as the Courts have often opted for a strict and narrow reading of the provision, which was one of the many legal initiatives introduced against dowry.
  • Chief Justice of India who authored the judgment, said courts should instead interpret Section 304-B liberally while keeping in mind the law’s intention to punish dowry and bride-burning.
  • According to Section 304-B, to make out a case of dowry death, a woman should have died of burns or other bodily injuries or “otherwise than under normal circumstances” within seven years of her marriage. She should have suffered cruelty or harassment from her husband or in-laws “soon before her death” in connection with demand for dowry.
  • Over the years, courts had interpreted the phrase ‘soon before’ in Section 304-B as ‘immediately before’. This interpretation would make it necessary for a woman to have been harassed moments before she died. Such “absurd” interpretations should be avoided.
  • According to the current judgement, the Chief Justice of India said that the prosecution needed to show only a “proximate and live link” between the harassment and her death.
  • The court further said the phrase “otherwise than under normal circumstances” in the Section also calls for a liberal interpretation. “Section 304-B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorising death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. The reason for such non-categorisation is due to the fact that death occurring in ‘other than under normal circumstances’ can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental.”
  • The judgment also raised concern about the casual way in which trial courts examined accused persons in dowry death cases under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The examination of the accused about the incriminatory material against him should be done in a fair manner. The court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. He should be given sufficient opportunity to give his side of the story. The court should question the accused fairly, with care and caution.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023