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This article has been written by Saurav Narayan, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.


In this article, I will be discussing the meaning of dowry, legal provisions related to dowry death,  dowry death statistics, pathway of dowry death and last but not least the guideline for trial in dowry death case which given by the Apex Court in the recent landmark judgment of Satbir Singh & Another Versus State Of Haryana, 2021.

Meaning of dowry

The term “dowry” has been defined in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. The definition of “dowry” provided by this section is: “any property or valuable security to be given directly or indirectly by one party to a marriage to the other party to marriage at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties”.

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According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, dowry means “the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage”.

Let us quickly look at the statute part of dowry death.

Legal provision related to dowry death

At the outset, it is pertinent to analyse the law on dowry death. Section 304B IPC, which defines, and provides the punishment for dowry demand, lets us quickly see the essentiality of dowry death.

Essential element of dowry death

  • A woman’s death is caused by burns, bodily injury, or something else other than normal circumstances.
  •  It should take place within seven years after the marriage.
  •  It should also be established that she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any of his relatives shortly before her death.
  • Such harassment or cruelty should pertain to dowry demands.
  • This clause makes the offence punishable by imprisonment for a period of not less than seven years, but up to life.

Another such provision that deals with dowry death is Section 113-B of the Evidence Act. It states—

113-B. Presumption as to dowry death.— When the question is whether a person caused the dowry death of a woman and it is established that such woman was exposed to cruelty or harassment by such person soon before her death for, or in connection with, any dowry demand, the Court would presume that such person caused the dowry death.

On this note let us look at the dowry death -statistics briefly.

Dowry death – statistics

In India, 20 women die every day as a result of dowry harassment – either as a result of being murdered or being forced to commit suicide. Why does the dowry system continue to be a threat? Why do we base a woman’s worth on how much gold she brings in as dowry? These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked over and over again.

According to GLOBAL STUDY ON HOMICIDE: The gender-related killing of women and girls issued by UNITED NATIONS OFFICE ON DRUGS AND CRIME states that in the year 2018 dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 per cent of all female homicides in India annually, with a consistent trend from 1999 to 2016.

According to the most recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 7115 cases were reported under Section 304B of the IPC alone in 2019.

Evolution of dowry death 

Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code is one of several legislative actions adopted by Parliament to address a long-standing societal problem. The vexing nature of dowry harassment, in which married women are subjected to abuse as a result of the husband’s and his family’s covetous demands, has not gone ignored. As a first step toward eradicating this social evil, Parliament passed the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Furthermore, because the measures were deemed insufficient, the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983 (Act 46 of 1983) was passed, which included the addition of Chapter XXA to the IPC, which contains Section 498A.

Despite the regulations, however, dowry harassment continued to be a problem. In addition, there was a growing trend of young brides dying in questionable circumstances as a result of dowry demands. The Law Commission took up the issue of a strict law to prevent dowry deaths suo motu in its 91st Law Commission Report, because of the nature and modus operandi of the crime, the Law Commission acknowledged that the IPC, as it existed at the time, was insufficient to address the issue of dowry deaths. The Parliament introduced revisions to the Dowry Prohibition Act, as well as the IPC, by adopting the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986, in response to the Law Commission Report and the ongoing concerns linked to dowry-related offences (Act 43 of 1986). Section 304-B, IPC, was explicitly introduced in the IPC as a result of this amendment, as a stringent provision to curb the menace of dowry death in India.

 Shrimati Margaret Alva, who presented the Amendment Bill before Rajya Sabha observed “You have never really heard of a   girl being burnt while cooking in her mother’s house or her husband’s house. It is always in the mother-in-law’s house that she catches fire and is burnt in the kitchen.   Therefore, getting evidence immediately becomes a   great big problem. Therefore, we have brought in a couple   of   amendments   which   give certain   presumptions where   the   burden of proof shifts to the husband and to his people to show that   it  was  not  a  dowry death   or   that   it   was   not   deliberately done.”

Fact of the case 

In July of 1994, a woman married a man. As fate would have it, she died the next year after suffering from burn injuries, purportedly after setting herself on fire in response to her husband and in-laws’ cruelty and dowry demand. The appellants were found guilty by the trial court in December 1997 for violating Sections 304B and 306 of the Indian Penal Code and were sentenced to seven years in jail for the offence punishable under Section 304-B, and five years in prison for the offence punishable under Section 306, IPC.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court, in November 2008, confirmed the trial court’s decision and dismissed the appellants’ appeal.

Issue before the Court 

Whether the trial court and the High Court were correct in convicting the accused of violating Indian Penal Code Sections 304B and 306?

Appellant’s Contention 

According to learned counsel presenting on behalf of the appellants, the potential of an accidental fire has not been ruled out in this case. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the prosecution failed to establish that a dowry demand existed. Finally, the prosecution has failed to show that the demand, if there was one, was made shortly before the victim’s death.

Respondent’s Contention

The respondent State’s learned counsel argued that the appellants had failed to present any evidence that would justify this Court interfering with the concurrent conclusions of the lower courts. According to the counsel, the deceased victim’s strange death occurred within about a year of their marriage. Furthermore, the witnesses have stated the exact instances of dowry demand with consistency.

Case Analysis 

  • The phrase “soon before,” which appears in Section 304B, IPC, is the first point of disagreement in the interpretation of the Section. In most circumstances, because it is a criminal statute, it must be read carefully. In cases where strict interpretation leads to absurdity or goes against the spirit of the law, courts may, in appropriate cases, rely on the true meaning of the words in their regular context to resolve disputes.
  • Given the gravity of the law, a strict interpretation would jeopardise the very objective for which it was enacted. As a result, it’s safe to believe that when lawmakers said “soon before,” they didn’t mean “exactly before.” Rather, they chose to leave the decision to the courts.
  • The term “cruelty” or “harassment” is defined differently depending on the situation. Cruelty has a broad definition, as it can be physical, verbal, or even emotional in character. This is far from a comprehensive list. As a result, this Court is unable to prescribe any strict criterion for determining what the phrase “soon before” means.
  • Establishing a “proximate and living link” between the cruelty and the victim’s death is crucial to the aforementioned determination. When the prosecution proves that “shortly before her death such woman was exposed to cruelty or harassment by such person for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry,” Section 113B of the Evidence Act creates a presumption of causation against the accused.
  • The second point of contention with Section 304B of the IPC is that, unlike prior legislation, it does not apply a categorical method to categorising death as homicidal, suicide, or accidental. The lack of classification is due to the fact that death that occurs “other than under normal circumstances” can be violent, suicide, or accidental in some cases. Section 304­B of the IPC, on the other hand, aims to deal with circumstances where murders or suicides are portrayed as accidents.


  • The trial court and the High Court concluded that the aforementioned witnesses’ statements were corroborative and consistent after a comprehensive review. They found the witnesses to be credible and based on their testimony, they came to the conclusion that the death was brutalised just before her death because she did not provide enough dowry. The findings of the trial court and the High Court are totally consistent with the Top Court.
  • Coming to the issue –  It appears that the prosecution was successful in establishing that the dead died of burn injuries within a year of her marriage. It has also been shown that she was harassed and treated cruelly just before her death as a result of dowry demands. Because the components of Section 304B of the IPC have been met, the presumption under Section 113B of the Evidence Act works against the appellants, who are presumed to have caused the offence stated under Section 304B of the IPC. The defendants, in this case, failed to present any evidence that the death was unrelated to them or occurred by an accident. According to the trial court and the High Court, in this case, the deceased committed suicide. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, regarded the conclusion of the lower courts to be based on assumptions, because there is no evidence on record to support the same. The presumption under Section 113A of the Evidence Act is of little value to the prosecution because there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate the fact of suicide beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution has not shown sufficient evidence to establish the requisite factor of the deceased’s suicide. In this case, the prosecution has been unable to establish that the death was caused by suicide. As a result, the Supreme Court intervened in the appellants’ convictions under Section 306 of the IPC by the lower courts.

Supreme Court guidelines for trial in dowry death cases

  • Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) must be interpreted considering the legislative objective to address the societal evils of bride burning and dowry demand.
  • The prosecution must first prove the existence of the elements that make up an offence under Section 304-B of the IPC. Once these conditions are met, the rebuttable presumption of causation established by Section 113B of the Evidence Act works against the accused.
  • The wording “soon before” in Section 304B of the IPC cannot be interpreted to indicate “immediately before.” The prosecution must show that there is a “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and the husband’s or relatives’ abuse or harassment for dowry demand.
  • Section 304-B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. The reason for such non-categorization is since death occurring “otherwise than under normal circumstances” can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental.
  • Because of the fragile nature of Section 304-B of the IPC in conjunction with Section 113B of the Evidence Act, judges, the prosecution, and the defence should exercise caution during the trial.
  • The fact that trial courts usually record the statement under Section 313, CrPC in a very casual and superficial manner, without expressly asking the accused as to his defence, is cause for significant worry. It is important to emphasise that an accused’s examination under Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure Code cannot be viewed as a simple procedural formality because it is based on the fundamental principle of fairness. This clause reflects the important natural justice principle of “audi alteram partem,” which allows the accused to explain the incriminatory evidence presented against him. As a result, the court is required to question the accused fairly, carefully, and cautiously.
  • The Court must provide the accused with incriminating circumstances and ask for his response. The accused’s lawyer is also obligated to prepare his case with care from the start of the trial, taking into account the nuances of Section 304-B of the IPC and Section 113B of the Evidence Act.
  • “If, after taking the prosecution’s evidence, examining the accused, and hearing the prosecution and the defence on the point, the Judge considers that there is no evidence that the accused committed the offence, the Judge shall record an order of acquittal,” says Section 232 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The trial courts must exercise this authority as a best-efforts responsibility.
  • Once the trial court determines that the accused is not eligible for acquittal under Section 232 of the CrPC, it must schedule hearings specifically for ‘defence evidence,’ allowing the accused to present his defence under Section 233 of the CrPC, which is also a valuable right granted to the accused.
  • Other crucial factors, such as the right to a speedy trial, must be balanced by trial courts.
  • When sentencing and inflicting appropriate punishment, the presiding Judge should follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines.
  • Despite the fact that the threat of dowry death is growing by the day, family members of the spouse are occasionally drawn into the fray, even if they played no active role in the crime and live-in other parts of the country. In those situations, the Court must proceed with caution.


In my opinion, trial courts should not take a pigeon-hole approach to Section 304B in categorising death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. While tightening the procedure to be adopted by trial courts in deciding dowry death cases, including confronting the accused with evidence, the court should take care to ensure that its endeavour to close the chink in Section 304B did not result in unnecessary harassment to the husband’s relatives, who ordinarily did not reside with the couple in question.


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