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This article is authored by Nidhi Bajaj, of Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab. The article deals with the landmark judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court wherein certain guidelines have been laid down for the trial of dowry death cases.

Introduction

On 29th May, 2021, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India delivered a landmark judgment wherein it expounded the phrase ‘soon before’ occurring in Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code,1860 that provides for the definition of dowry death. This article will take you through the facts, issues and judgment of the case along with the analysis given by the court and the various guidelines laid down for trial of cases of dowry death.

Case name: Satbir Singh & Another v. State of Haryana

Citation: Criminal Appeal Nos. 1735­1736 OF 2010

Date of the judgment: 28th May 2021

Court: Hon’ble Supreme Court of India

Bench: CJI N.V. Ramana, Justice Aniruddha Bose

Facts of the case

The appellants have filed appeals by special leave against the order and judgment dated 6.11. 2008 of the Punjab and Haryana High Court wherein the Court dismissed their appeals and upheld the order of conviction passed by the trial court.

The deceased and accused-Appellant No.1 were married on  1st July 1994. On 31st July 1995, at about 4 or 4:30 p.m., the complainant was informed by some persons that his daughter was ailing and admitted in the hospital. On reaching the hospital, the complainant found that the deceased had passed away due to burn injuries. The prosecution’s case was that the deceased had committed suicide by setting herself ablaze just after one year of her marriage and that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty and harassment for bringing less dowry by both the accused.

Decision of the Trial Court

The Trial Court convicted both the appellants for the offences under Section 304B and Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code 1860. The accused were given—

  1. 7 years rigorous imprisonment for the offence under Section 304B I.P.C, and
  2. 5 years rigorous imprisonment for the offence punishable under Section 306 I.P.C.

Decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court

The High Court dismissed the appeals filed by the appellants and upheld the order of conviction passed by the trial court. 

Contentions on behalf of Appellants

The Learned Counsel appearing on behalf of the appellants made the following submissions—

  1. The possibility that the fire was accidental has not been ruled out in the case.
  2. The prosecution has failed to prove that there was a demand for dowry.
  3. Even if it assumed that there was a demand for dowry, it has not been proved by the prosecution that the demand was made proximate to the death of the deceased.

Contentions on the behalf of respondent-state

Following submissions were made by the learned counsel appearing on the behalf of respondent-state—

  1. The appellants had failed to show any material which would merit the interference of the Supreme Court in the concurrent findings of the courts below. 
  2. It was emphasized that the deceased victim died in suspicious circumstances within almost one year of marriage. 
  3. The witnesses have stated the specific instances of demand for dowry with consistency.

Issues framed by the Hon’ble Court

The Supreme Court framed the following issues—

  1. Whether the Trial Court and the High Court, was correct in convicting the accused under Section 304B I.P.C.?
  2. Whether the Trial Court and the High Court was correct in convicting the accused under Section 306 I.P.C.?

Decision of the Supreme Court

Issue I

Analysis of Section 304B I.P.C.

The Court analyzed Section 304B of the I.P.C. that provides for ‘Dowry death’ of a woman. It provides that:

Dowry death is the death of a woman—

  • 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.

Sub-section (2) of Section 304B provides for punishment to those who commit dowry death i.e. imprisonment for a term not less than 7 years but which may extend to life imprisonment.

The Court referred to its judgment in Major Singh v. the State of Punjab (2015),  wherein it was held that the following essential ingredients are to be established in order to sustain a conviction in case of dowry death—

  1. the death of a woman should be caused by burns or bodily injury or otherwise than under a ‘normal circumstance’;
  2. such a death should have occurred within seven years of her marriage;
  3. she must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband;
  4. such cruelty or harassment should be for or in connection with the demand of dowry; and
  5. such cruelty or harassment is shown to have been meted out to the woman soon before her death.

Interpretation of ‘Soon Before’

The Court observed that a criminal statute has to be construed strictly except in cases where the strict interpretation leads to absurdity, in which case the courts may place reliance on the genuine import of the words, taken in their usual sense to resolve such ambiguities. 

The legislative history of Section 304B

In order to understand the intention of the legislature behind the inclusion of Section 304B, the court undertook a study of the legislative history of the said Section—

  • The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was the first step undertaken to remedy the social evil of dowry.
  • However, the Act was proving insufficient to tackle the problem of dowry. Hence, the  Criminal   Law   (Second Amendment) Act, 1983 was passed by which Chapter XXA was introduced in the I.P.C. containing Section 498­A. Despite this, the cases of deaths of young brides in suspicious circumstances were increasing.
  • The Law Commission in its 91st Law Commission Report pondered upon the need for a stringent law to deal with dowry deaths. It was observed by the Commission that the I.P.C, as it stood at that time, was insufficient to tackle the issue of dowry deaths due to the nature and modus of crime.
  • Thereafter, the Dowry Prohibition(Amendment) Act 1986 was passed which made certain amendments to the Dowry Prohibition Act and added Section 304B in the I.P.C.

“Soon Before” Section 304B IPC Cannot Mean ‘Immediately Before’

The Court held that the phrase ‘soon before’ in Section 304B I.P.C. cannot be construed to mean ‘immediately before’. The court held that the factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case and no straitjacket formula can be laid to define the phrase ‘soon before’ and what would be included under it.

The Court placed reliance on the case of  Kans Raj v. the State of Punjab (2000), where it was held that in case of dowry death, the circumstances showing the existence of cruelty or harassment to the deceased are not restricted to a particular instance but normally refer to a course of conduct, which may be spread over some time. The prosecution has to prove the proximate and live link between the effect of cruelty based on dowry demand and the consequential death of the deceased. The demand for dowry or the cruelty and harassment based on such demand should not be too remote in time.

The Court thus held that the establishment of a “proximate and live link” between the cruelty and the consequential death of the victim is pivotal.

The presumption under Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872

The Court held that when the prosecution shows that ‘soon before the death of the women she has been subjected to cruelty or harassment by such person for or in connection with any demand for dowry’, a presumption of causation arises against the accused under Section 113B of the Evidence Act 1872. Thereafter the accused has to rebut such statutory presumption.

The Court referred to the case of Bansi Lal v. the State of Haryana (2011) wherein it was held that once the ingredients of Section 304B stand proved, the presumption under Section 113B shall be mandatorily applicable to the case.

Therefore, the Court held that once all essential ingredients of Section 304B I.P.C. are fulfilled, Section 113B of Evidence Act shall operate and the court is duty-bound to raise a presumption that the accused has caused the dowry death. Such a presumption of causality can be rebutted by the accused. The Court also gave certain guidelines to be followed by the trial court regarding the recording of statements of the accused which are mentioned hereinafter.

Judgment

The Hon’ble Court rejected the submissions made by the appellants and held that—

  • As it is an admitted fact that the deceased and accused were married on 1st July 1994 and the deceased died on 31st July 1995, the first essential ingredient of offence is proved.
  • The doctors had found the smell of kerosene oil on the body of the deceased who suffered 85% injuries. As the death was due to burn injuries within 7 years of marriage the second ingredient of offence also stands proved.
  • The evidence on record indicated that just after one month of marriage when the brother of the deceased visited her in her matrimonial home on Raksha Bandhan, she told him that the accused, husband and mother in law used to physically harass her because she had brought insufficient dowry. Thereafter, she was brought back to her paternal home where she told all this to her father. It is important to note that the deceased had returned to her matrimonial house just one month before her death. However, even still she was being harassed. A week before her death, another brother of the deceased visited her on Teej in her matrimonial home and the deceased once again told him about her miserable condition. And then on 31st July 1995, the father of the deceased got information that she was admitted to the hospital and later found out that she had died due to burns injuries. 

The Court held that the chain of circumstances prove that there is a proximate link between the instances of demand of dowry and the death of the deceased.

  • The Court held that the Trial Court and High Court have carefully examined the evidence and have held that the statements of the witnesses were consistent and reliable.
  • The Court agreed with the view taken by the Trial Court and High Court and held that the prosecution has proved that all the essential ingredients of the offence of dowry death have been satisfied in the case. 
  • Thus, the presumption under Section 113B shall apply and the burden of proof is on the accused to rebut such presumption.
  • The appellants have maintained that the occurrence of death was accidental but have failed to show any evidence to prove the same.
  • Noting that according to the doctor, that the entire body of the deceased was doused in kerosene oil, the court held that the possibility of accident does not arise at all.
  • As the appellants failed to rebut the aforesaid presumption, there are no grounds made out for interference by this court in the decision of the courts below.

Issue II

The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that two essential ingredients are required to be proved in order for an offence to be made out under Section 306 of I.P.C.—

  1. The person committed suicide.
  2. A person who is said to have abetted the commission of such suicide has played an active role in the same. 

The Court held that the conclusion arrived at by the courts below that the deceased had committed suicide is based on assumptions as there is no evidence to prove the same. The Court held that as the fact of commission of suicide has not been proved by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt, and set aside the conviction under Section 306 I.P.C.

Other guidelines are given by the Court

  1. Trial courts while interpreting Section 304B I.P.C. must keep in mind that by the inclusion of this section the legislature intends to curb the social evil of bride burning and dowry demand.
  2. The use of rebuttable presumption under Section 113B creates a greater responsibility on the judges, defense and prosecution. Judges need to be extra careful while conducting criminal trials in case of dowry death.
  3. Statements of the accused recorded by courts under Section 313 Cr.P.C. should not be recorded in a casual or cursory manner. The examination of the accused under this section cannot be treated as a formality and the judge should ask specific questions to the accused regarding his defence. The said provision incorporates the principle of audi alteram partem as it offers an opportunity to the accused to explain the incriminatory material presented against him. Thus, the court is under an obligation to question him in a fair, cautious and careful manner.
  4. The court must put incriminatory circumstances before the accused and seek an explanation from him.
  5. The counsel of the accused should also prepare his defence with due caution, considering the peculiarities of Section 304B I.P.C. read with Section 113B of Evidence Act.
  6. Section 232 of Cr.P.C. provides that the judge shall order acquittal of the accused if after taking evidence, examining the accused and hearing the prosecution and defence, the judge considers that there is no evidence that the accused committed the offence.  This discretion has to be utilised by the courts as an obligation of best efforts. 
  7. If the court does not acquit the accused under Section 232 Cr.P.C., it shall fix hearings for ‘defence evidence’. The accused shall be called upon to present his evidence in accordance with the procedure prescribed by Section 233 Cr.P.C. This is an invaluable right of the accused.
  8. Other important considerations such as the right to a speedy trial have also to be balanced. The Court cautioned the trials courts that the above provisions should not be allowed to be used as delay tactics. 
  9. Guidelines laid down by this Court have to be followed while sentencing and imposing appropriate punishment. 
  10. The courts have to be cautious in cases where family members who have no active role in the commission of the offence and are residing at distant places are wrongfully roped in.

Conclusion

According to the data furnished by the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2019, 7115 dowry death cases were registered. It is very unfortunate that even today, the cases of dowry deaths are on the rise. Dowry is yet another deep-rooted tradition that has been a curse for women. The Parliament may pass social legislation, but social legislation cannot correct everything. The state, courts and society, are all collectively responsible for putting an end to this evil. In the case at hand, the Supreme Court has once again played its role as a Sentinel on the qui vive.

References


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