Dowry deaths | Supreme Court widens scope of Section 304-B

CJI Ramana’s judgement goes beyond a straitjacket and literal interpretation of provision

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

Dowry deaths accounted for 40% to 50% homicides in the country for almost a decade from 1999 to 2018. The judgment pronounced by a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana called dowry harassment a “pestiferous” crime where women are subjected to cruelty by “covetous” husbands and in-laws.

In 2019 alone, 7,115 cases of dowry death were registered under Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code.

But the language used in Section 304-B has always flummoxed courts. 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 N.V. Ramana, 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, the apex court noted in the judgment on Friday.

Instead, Chief Justice Ramana said the prosecution needed to show only a “proximate and live link” between the harassment and her death.

“It is safe to deduce that when the legislature used the words ‘soon before’ they did not mean ‘immediately before’. Rather, they left its determination in the hands of the courts. The factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case. Even the spectrum of cruelty is quite varied, as it can range from physical, verbal or even emotional… No straitjacket formulae can therefore be laid down by this court to define what exact the phrase ‘soon before’ entails,” Chief Justice Ramana explained.

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,” Chief Justice Raman noted.

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.

“Due to the precarious nature of Section 304-B, judges, prosecution and defence should be careful during conduct of the trial,” Chief Justice Ramana observed in the judgment.

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