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Why is it necessary to interpret Section 304-B IPC, keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the social evil of the Dowry Death?

Citation: Criminal Appeal Nos. 1735-1736 OF 2010
Bench members: N.V. Ramana and Aniruddha Bose (Divison Bench)
Date of the judgment of the Supreme Court: May 28, 2021

The deceased (Meena Kumari) and accused, herein Appellant no.1, in the case (Satibir Singh & Another v State of Haryana) were married on July 01, 1994.

When the brother of the deceased (P.W.7), a month after the deceased's marriage, visited the deceased's matrimonial house, the brother of the deceased came to know about the physical harassment faced by the deceased on the account of bringing insufficient dowry and not fulfilling the demand of a scooter. The people behind physical harassment were the deceased's husband and mother-in-law, as revealed by the deceased. After the disclosure, she was brought back to her parental house, where the facts were disclosed to the deceased's father (P.W.6). The deceased returned to her matrimonial house just one month prior to her death, where she had to face harassment again as her husband continues to torture her as revealed by her in her visit to the paternal house. One week before her death, another brother of the deceased(P.W.10) visited her, and the deceased reiterated her plight to her brother.

The complainant on July 31, 1995, in the evening around 4 PM came to know about his daughter (the deceased) being admitted to the hospital. On reaching the hospital along with other family members the complainant found that his daughter died due to burn injuries on 85% of her body. The doctor(P.W.3) detected the odor of kerosene oil on the deceased's body.

The Trial Court convicted the appellants by order dated December 11, 1997, under sections 304-B and 306, IPC, and sentenced them to rigorous imprisonment for seven and five years respectively. The appellants then approached the high court so that they could set aside the conviction and sentence of the Trial Court. Dismissing the appeal and upholding the trial court's order, the High court passed the Judgement on November 06, 2008. The appellants then filed the appeal by the way of Special Leave challenging the above-mentioned Judgements in the Supreme Court.

  1. Whether the conviction of the accused under Section 304-B, IPC, correct or not?
  2. Whether the conviction of the accused under Section 306, IPC, correct or not?
Courts Holding:
The Supreme Court held the decision of the Trial court and the High court, i.e., imprisonment for seven years to the appellants, true and reasonable on the issue of conviction under Section 304-B, IPC[1], as the appellants failed to discharge the burden under Section 113-B, Evidence Act[2].[3] On the question of conviction under section 306, IPC[4] the supreme court differed from the opinion of the trial court and the high court and held that the offense was not made out. The conviction of the appellants by the trial court and high court was based on an assumption that the reason for death was suicide. This reason for the conviction was pointed out and corrected by the supreme court.

Ratio Decidendi:
The Supreme Court agreed to the trial and the high court's judgment on the issue of section 304-B, IPC.

Answering the question of why "soon before" in section 304-B, IPC, although part of a criminal statute, is not to be interpreted strictly, the supreme court has laid down the following points:
  1. Where strict interpretation leads to absurdity or goes against the spirit of legislation the court may rely upon the genuine import of the words, taken in their usual sense to resolve the ambiguities.
  2. Considering the significance of section 304-B, IPC, and its history into account, a strict interpretation of the section would automatically defeat the very object of section 304-B, IPC.

According to the interpretation, it can be concluded that when the word "soon before" is used in Section 304-B, IPC, it does not mean "immediately before"; instead, it is determined by the court on the case to case basis. Every fact has a different case and the severity of cruelty and harassment differs in every case. The severity and the spectrum of cruelty also vary from case to case. Thus, there are no straightjacket formulae as to what the phrase "soon before" entails but it is necessary to establish a "proximate and live link" between the cruelty and the consequential death of the victim.

The supreme court stated that the judgment of the trial court and the high court on the issue of 306 IPC was based on an assumption that the reason for the death was suicide. According to the supreme court, the assumption does not hold any merit as the prosecution could not establish that the reason for death is suicide.

Obiter Dictum:
On its way to the judgment, the supreme court put forth the ingredients necessary for conviction under 304-B, IPC, and have been proved by the prosecution in the case.

The ingredients needed to be established are the following:
  • The death of a woman should be caused by burns or bodily injury or otherwise than under a 'normal circumstance';
  • 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 demand of dowry; and
  • Such cruelty or harassment is shown to have meted out to the woman soon before the death.

History Of Section 304-B, IPC:

The supreme court analyzed the history and origin of section 304-B, IPC, to explain why it is necessary not to interpret this section in a strict sense.

To curb a long-standing social evil, i.e., cruelty and harassment faced by a married woman because of covetous demands by her husband and relatives, parliament undertook a legislative initiative that is today section 304-B, IPC. The first step of the government to eradicate this social evil was enacting the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961[6], which was later found to be insufficient and led to the passing of the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act of 1983[7] Wherein Chapter XX-A was introduced in the IPC, which contains chapters 498-A. Although measures were taken, the issue was not resolved as the trend of deaths of young brides related to dowry was growing. The Law Commission took up the task of making a stringent law in its 91st Law Commission Report, which observed that due to the nature and manner of the crime, the Indian Penal Code at that time was insufficient to tackle the issue of dowry deaths.

Taking 91st Law Commission Report[8] into consideration parliament amended Dowry Prohibition Act, and enacted the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986[9], this introduced Section 304-B, IPC into the Indian Penal Code to curb the issue of dowry death in India.

Shrimati Margaret Alva presenter of the bill in Rajya Sabha in her speech emphasized that:
"You seldom ever hear about a girl getting burned while cooking in her mother's or her husband's home. She always catches fire and is burned in the kitchen at her mother-in-house. Law's Consequently, obtaining proof becomes a major issue right away. Therefore, we introduced a few revisions that grant certain presumptions and shift the burden of proof to the husband and his supporters to demonstrate that it was not a dowry death or that it was not done on purpose."[10]

Procedural Framework:
The recording of a statement by the trial court under section 313, CrPC[11] was done very casually, and the accused is not questioned as to his defense. Hence, the supreme court condemned the practice and ordered the trial courts not to treat section 313, CrPC, as a mere formality that imposes an obligation on the court to question the accused with care, caution, and fairly.

During the trial, section 232, CrPC, becomes essential as it deals with the procedure of acquittal by the judge after hearing both the prosecution and defense. A specific hearing for defense evidence is called under Section 233, CrPC, when the trial court decides that the accused is not eligible for acquittal under Section 232, CrPC.

A simple decision on the question to convict the appellants under sections 304-B and 306, IPC would have settled the case. However, in this case, the judges dug deep into the history and origin of section 304-B, IPC, and procedural grounds followed in cases involving the above sections. The work involved turned a typical dowry death case into a landmark judgment.

This judgment explains why it is necessary not to interpret Section 304-B, IPC, in a strict sense, and the phrase "soon before" does not mean "immediately before." Instead, its interpretation differs case-to-case basis, as every case has different facts and a different spectrum of the cruelty involved.

The supreme court, in this case, also pointed out the laxity of trial courts while recording the statement under Section 313, CrPC, and laid down the strict guidelines to be followed by Trial courts while doing so to maintain a fair trial based on the principle of "audi alteram paterm."

In the end, The supreme court calculated the decision of the trial court and the high court on the issue of conviction of appellants under section 306, IPC. The reasoning upon which the conviction was found to be flawed. Therefore the decision on the question was reversed, and the appellants charged only under 306 IPC was acquitted.

Analysis Of The Author:
This case majorly revolves around the answer to the question, Why is it necessary to interpret Section 304-B IPC keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the social evil of Dowry Death?

Justice N.V. Ramana and Aniruddha Bose went back in time to trace the history of Section 304-B, IPC to conclude how the word "soon before" used in Section 304-B IPC did not mean "immediately before" rather must be determined by the court on the case to case basis. This Judgement put forth a brilliant observation before the world that will be a foundation for future cases having Section 304-B IPC in use.

The Judgement also brought a significant mistake of the trial court and the high court to light, where the judges observed that the punishment under Section 306 IPC could not be given on the assumption that the reason for the death was suicide. The Judgement also establishes that the reason for the death must be confirmed suicide to punish the accused under Section 306 IPC.

  1. Indian Penal Code, 1860, �304-B.
  2. Indian Evidence Act, 1872, �113-B.
  3. When the question is whether a person has committed the dowry death of a woman and it is shown that soon before her death such woman has been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, the Court shall presume that such person had caused the dowry death.
  4. Indian Penal Code, 1860, �306-B.
  5. Major Singh v. State of Punjab, (2015) 5 SCC 201.
  6. Act 28 of 1961.
  7. Act 46 of 1983.
  8. Law Commission of India, Dowry Deaths and Law Reform: Amending the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, Report No.91, 10(August 1983).
  9. Act 43 of 1986.
  10. The code of criminal procedure, 1973, �304-B.
Written By: Abdul Haseeb, National Law University Lucknow.

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