Death by Dowry: A Social Evil Forbidden by the Penal Code
The evil practice of giving and taking dowry has engaged attention of the Government for some time past, and one of the methods by which this problem, which is essentially a social one, was sought to be tackled by the conferment of improved property rights on women by the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. There has been a persistent demand for a law which not only discourages dowry practice but also penalizes it, both in and outside Parliament. Accordingly, the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was enacted by legislature effective from 20th May, 1961.
2. Legislative Steps taken for prevention of dowry
2.1. First Legislative Step: The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.
The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 defines the term dowry under Section 2 and its Section 3 provides for the punishment for the giving and taking of dowry. Section 4 tells the punishment for demanding dowry as imprisonment for 6 months which may extend to 2 years and with fine which may extend to 10,000/- rupees.
2.2. Second Legislative Step: Section 498A, IPC and Section 113A, Indian Evidence Act
The national conscience was disturbed by the intensity and volume of instances of wife beating, bride burning, and cruelty of different degrees which necessitated a law to punish such acts.
Accordingly the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1983 was passed by the parliament. Salient features of this Act were:
1. Section 498A, IPC: This provision has been engrafted in the IPC specifically to deal firmly and effectively with all cases of cruelty towards and harassment of women. A perusal of this provision makes it clear that what is made penal is the conduct of the husband or the relative of the husband who subjects such a woman to cruelty.
2. Section 113A, Evidence Act: The legislature in its wisdom has rightly enacted Section 113A raising a presumption against the husband or the relatives of the husband for the abetment of suicide by a married woman within a period of seven years of her marriage if she has been treated with cruelty by her husband or such a relation in order to coerce her to fetch more dowry or on her refusal to do so.
3. Section 198A, CrPC: The person aggrieved by the offence punishable under Section 498A, IPC is the wife who has been subjected to cruelty. Accordingly suitable provision in the form of section 198A, CrPC has been incorporated.
2.3. Third Legislative Step: Section 304B, IPC and Section 113B, Indian Evidence Act
As the evils of the dowry deaths could not be taken care of, therefore the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986 was passed by the Parliament. The salient features of this Act were Section 304B of IPC and Section 113B of Indian Evidence Act. These provisions have been discussed further in the article in detail.
3. Dowry death under Section 304B of IPC
Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code reads as:
304B. 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.
Explanation.—For the purpose of this sub-section, “dowry” shall have the same meaning as in section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (28 of 1961).
(2) 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.
First part of Section 304B, IPC defines dowry death and second part prescribes the punishment for such cases. After reading the Section 304B, IPC it is clear that following are the essential ingredients in order to charge a person in this section for this offence:
1) The death of the woman must be caused by burns or bodily injury or otherwise than normal circumstances.
2) Such death must occur within the period of seven years of marriage.
3) She must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any other relative of her husband.
4) Such cruelty and harassment should be for or in connection with demand for dowry.
5) Such cruelty or harassment is shown to have been meted out to the woman soon before her death.
5. Punishment under Section 304B, IPC
Under Section 304-B (2) of IPC whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 7 yrs. but which may extend to imprisonment for life.
6. Classification of Offence the offence u/s 304-B is
- Non- compoundable.
- Tribal by Court of Session.
7. Expression “Death……. otherwise than under normal circumstances”
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 dowry death. Section 304B, IPC does not deal with homicidal cases. It applies to acase of suicide, where it is sequel to cruelty and harassment with the demand of dowry. The death of a wife by strangulation, or stomach ache without any history of any dreadful disease of the stomach, are covered within deaths other than normal circumstances.
In Raja Lal Singh v. State of Jharkhand, the death of the deceased occurred about 7 months after marriage. Husband of the deceased, his brother and his wife were charged for the offence. Accused husband and his brother were living on separate floors. Harassment for dowry was 10 to 15 days before death. Incident took place with her husband. It was held that even if death was by way of suicide, section 304B, IPC would be attracted and husband would be liable for conviction under Section 304B.
8. Expression “Subjected to cruelty and harassment”
Explanation to Section 498A gives the meaning of cruelty. In Section 304B, there is no such explanation about the meaning of “cruelty”. However, having regard to the common background of these offences, it has to be taken that the meaning of “cruelty or harassment” is the same as prescribed in the explanation to Section 498A under which “cruelty” by itself amounts to an offence.
In Rajayyan v. State of Kerala, when persistent and continuous demands for dowry by the accused husband were not met by his father-in-law and mother-in-law, with the accused going to the extent of even disowning his deceased wife, it is needless to say that the conduct of the accused is eloquent proof of his having subjected the deceased to mental cruelty.
In Venugopal v. State of Karnataka, constant demand of dowry leading to ill treatment, harassment and torture of the wife at the hands of the husband soon before her death, led her to take the extreme step of ending her life. The husband was held liable for dowry death under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 for creating a situation whereby the wife committed suicide within two years of marriage.
9. Expression “For or in connection with demand of dowry”
This ingredient is decisive in deciding the issue whether accused should be convicted under Section 304B, IPC or Section 306, IPC for abetment to suicide. Where the accused husband was charged with and convicted under Section 304B by the sessions court, but the demand of dowry by the husband was not proved, the offence can’t be decided under Section 304B.
In Appasaheb v. State of Maharashtra, the accused husband demanded money from his wife and her parents for meeting domestic expenses and to purchase manure. He was charged for an offence of dowry demand under Section 304B. but the Supreme court held that demand of money on account of financial stringency or for meeting urgent domestic expenses cannot be treated as a dowry demand and therefore the accused was not guilty of the offence under Section 304B.
10. Circumstantial Evidence and Dowry Death
In cases of dowry deaths and suicides, circumstantial evidence plays an important role and inferences can be drawn on the basis of such evidence.
In Trimukh Maroti Kirkan v. State of Maharashtra, the Apex Court observed that the crimes relating to killing of wife are committed in complete secrecy inside the house and it becomes very difficult for the prosecution to lead evidence to establish the guilt of the accused if strict principles of circumstantial evidence are insisted upon by the Courts. A judge does not preside over a criminal trial merely to see that no innocent person is punished but he also presides to ensure that a guilty man does not escape.
When an offence like murder is committed in secrecy inside a house, the initial burden to establish the case would undoubtedly be upon the prosecution but the nature and amount of evidence to be led by it to establish the charge cannot be of the same degree as is required in other cases of circumstantial evidence. The burden would be of a comparatively lighter character.
- Gaur, K.D, Indian Penal Code.
- Ratanlal and Dhirajlal’s The Indian Penal Code.
- What is dowry death?
- What are the various steps taken by the legislature to prohibit the practice of dowry?
- Explain section 304B of the IPC with help of case laws.
- Explain the meaning of the term “Subjected to cruelty and harassment”, in Section 304B of the IPC.
- Explain the meaning of the term “For or in connection with demand of dowry”, in Section 304B of the IPC.
 SC AIR 2007.
 AIR 1998 SC 1211.
 AIR 1999 SC 146.
 AIR 2007 SC.
 2007 CrLJ 20 SC.