On Dowry Death and the Violent Days that Precedes it

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Facts

A woman had committed suicide in her matrimonial home within seven years of marriage which might be considered as a Dowry Death however, there were no immediate quarrels with her husband or in-laws that could have been said as a precipitating factor for the suicide. Nevertheless, the testimonials of the brother, mother and the neighbor of the woman was hinting at matrimonial cruelty meted out to her for over a long period. The testimonials states that she was beaten up by her in-laws. Two Days preceding her death, when her brother met her on the Rakshabandhan, the husband, Ashok Kumar had demanded  Rs. 5,000, a color TV and clothes. On account of all these facts, the State was alleging that Ashok Kumar is guilty under Section 498A and Section 304B.

Issue relating to the Dowry Death Case

Can the conviction of a man in a case of dowry death be set aside merely on the ground that no harassment had occurred right before the incident?

Judgment

The court held against Ashok Kumar in this matter. The court, first of all, referred to the facts of the case and held that there was sufficient evidence that the wife was harassed for dowry from the testimonials of the relatives and the neighbours of the deceased. The court noted that –

Merely because the postmortem report noted that the deceased was strong and well built would not belie the deposition of the mother of the deceased that she was not given food because the same was occasional and not that the deceased was never given food. Further non-mentioning of burn injuries in the postmortem report also does not show that the deceased was not meted out such a cruelty.”

Thereafter, the court looked into the interpretation of Section 304B IPC and turned to the legal question above. Can the conviction of a man in a case of dowry death be set aside merely on the ground that no harassment had occurred right before the incident? Section 304B deals with Dowry death and it defines it as follows :-

“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.”

Here, the language of the Section stipulates that the husband or in-laws must subject the woman to cruelty ‘soon before’ her death. But, what is the exact time required for it to become ‘soon before’?

The court referred to the landmark judgments in this regard. In Kans Raj Vs. State of Punjab and Others

“The term “soon before” is not synonymous with the term “immediately before” and is opposite of the expression “soon after” as used and understood in Section 114, Illustration (a) of the Evidence Act. These words would imply that the interval should not be too long before the time of making the statement and the death. It contemplates the reasonable time which, as earlier noticed, has to be understood and determined under the peculiar circumstances of each case. In relation to dowry deaths, the circumstances sowing the existence of cruelty or harassment to the deceased are not restricted to a particular instance but normally refer to a course of conduct. Such conduct may be spread over a period of time.”

Also, in Riyazuddin v. State Govt. of NCT of Delhi, it was held that in Section 304B, ‘Soon before’ is a relative term to be considered under specific circumstances of each case.”

Further, the court also noted that, by virtue of Section 113-B of Evidence Act, one can take presumption of dowry death if any reasonable connection can be shown with the death and the harassment. It is not required to show an immediate spark of violence on the day of the death of the wife. The court referred to the case of Bansi Lal v. State of Haryana to rely on this point.

Therefore, the court held that it is not necessary to prove the existence of an immediate violence to hold the appellant responsible for the dowry death. The court held in these words that –

Section 304B IPC does not contemplate that the harassment should be within minutes or hours or few days of the time since death but a reasonable period prior to the death when deceased is subjected to cruelty is sufficient to show the live link…

Learning Outcome

That it is not necessary to prove before the court an immediate link with a harassment from the in-laws side which has lead to the dowry death. The harassment can be caused even over a prolonged period.

For Supreme Court’s previous stand on Dowry Death, please refer to these posts.

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