The Supreme Court has elucidated the law under Section 304-B, IPC, in order to curb the social evil of dowry and the deaths related to it.
The bench of Chief Justice N.V. Ramana and Justice Aniruddha Bose on Friday elucidated the Section 304-B, IPC read with Section 113-B, Evidence Act. According to the elucidated law:
i. Section 304-B, IPC must be interpreted keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the social evil of bride burning and dowry demand.
ii. The prosecution must at first establish the existence of the necessary ingredients for constituting an offence under Section 304-B, IPC. Once these ingredients are satisfied, the rebuttable presumption of causality, provided under Section 113-B, Evidence Act operates against the accused.
iii. The phrase “soon before” as appearing in Section 304-B, IPC cannot be construed to mean ‘immediately before’. The prosecution must establish existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.
iv. 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 due to the fact that death occurring “otherwise than under normal circumstances” can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental.
v. Due to the precarious nature of Section 304-B, IPC read with 113-B, Evidence Act, Judges, prosecution and defence should be careful during conduction of trial.
vi. It is a matter of grave concern that, often, Trial Courts record the statement under Section 313, CrPC in a very casual and cursory manner, without specifically questioning the accused as to his defense. It ought to be noted that the examination of an accused under Section 313, CrPC cannot be treated as a mere procedural formality, as it based on the fundamental principle of fairness. This aforesaid provision incorporates the valuable principle of natural justice “audi alteram partem” as it enables the accused to offer an explanation for the incriminatory material appearing against him. Therefore, it imposes an obligation on the court to question the accused fairly, with care and caution.
vii. The Court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. A duty is also cast on the counsel of the accused to prepare his defence since the inception of the Trial with due caution, keeping in consideration the peculiarities of Section 304-B, IPC read with Section 113-B, Evidence Act.
viii. Section 232, CrPC provides that, “If, after taking the evidence for the prosecution, 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”. Such discretion must be utilized by the Trial Courts as an obligation of best efforts.
ix. Once the Trial Court decides that the accused is not eligible to be acquitted as per the provisions of Section 232, CrPC, it must move on and fix hearings specifically for ‘defence evidence’, calling upon the accused to present his defense as per the procedure provided under Section 233, CrPC, which is also an invaluable right provided to the accused.
x. In the same breath, Trial Courts need to balance other important considerations such as the right to a speedy trial. In this regard, we may caution that the above provisions should not be allowed to be misused as delay tactics.
xi. Apart from the above, the presiding Judge should follow the guidelines laid down by this Court while sentencing and imposing appropriate punishment.
xii. Undoubtedly, as discussed above, the menace of dowry death is increasing day by day. However, it is also observed that sometimes family members of the husband are roped in, even though they have no active role in commission of the offence and are residing at distant places. In these cases, the Court need to be cautious in its approach.
The above observation were made by the Apex Court while hearing the dowry death case named Satbir Singh & Anothers Vs State of Haryana.
The Trial Court and the High Court had concluded that Satbir Singh was guilty under section 304-B (Dowry Death) and Section 306 (Abettment to Suicide). Therefore Satbir Singh had filed an appeal in the Apex Court against the order of his conviction.
The facts of the matter is that the deceased and accused¬- Satbir Singh were married on 01.07.1994. On 31.7.1995, at about 4 or 4.30 P.M, some persons informed the father of the deceased that his daughter was ailing and admitted in the hospital. On this information he, along with his wife and son, reached the hospital and found that the deceased passed away due to burn injuries.
The prosecution’s case was that the deceased 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 on account of bringing less dowry by the accused.
The appellant- Satbir Singh was convicted by the Trial Court vide order dated 11.12.1997 for the offences under Sections 304¬B and 306, IPC and were sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for seven years for the offence punishable under Section 304¬B, IPC and to undergo rigorous imprisonment for five years for the offence punishable under Section 306, IPC.
The learned counsel appearing on behalf of the appellants submitted that the possibility of accidental fire has not been ruled out in the present case. And the prosecution failed to prove that there was a demand for dowry. Lastly, the prosecution has failed to prove that the demand, assuming there was one, was made proximate to the death of the deceased¬ victim.
On this point the Apex court made the observation that “soon before” as appearing in Section 304-B, IPC cannot be construed to mean ‘immediately before’. The prosecution must establish existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.
The bench also observed that, apart from appellant conviction under Section 304¬B, IPC, the appellant have also additionally challenged his conviction under Section 306, IPC. Section 306, IPC relates to the abetment of suicide and is extracted below:
“306. Abetment of suicide. —If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
A bare reading of the provision indicates that for the offence under Section 306, IPC the prosecution needs to first establish that a suicide has been committed. Secondly, the prosecution must also prove that the person who is said to have abetted the commission of suicide, has played an active role in the same. With respect to this latter requirement, Section 113¬A, Evidence Act creates a presumption against the husband and/or his relative with respect to the abetment of suicide of a married woman, under certain conditions. Not going into the other conditions, a perusal of the provision indicates that such presumption shall be attracted only if the factum of suicide has been established by the prosecution first.
Therefore, the bench did not went into the other conditions and and observed that a perusal of the provision in Section 306 of IPC indicates that such presumption shall be attracted only if the factum of suicide has been established by the prosecution first, Which is necessary ingredients to constitute an offence under Section 306, I.P.C.
The Bench relied on Wazir Chand v. State of Haryana, (1989) 1 SCC 244, wherein Apex Court held that:
“5. …Reading Sections 306 and 307 (sic107) together it is clear that if any person instigates any other person to commit suicide and as a result of such instigation the other person commits suicide, the person causing the instigation is liable to be punished under Section 306 of the Penal Code, 1860 for abetting the commission of suicide. A plain reading of this provision shows that before a person can be convicted of abetting the suicide of any other person, it must be established that such other person committed suicide.”
The bench after perusing the relevant material and the evidence available, we find that the High Court and Trial Court have not committed any error in convicting the appellants under Section 304¬B, IPC as the appellants failed to discharge the burden under Section 113-B, Evidence Act. However, upon appreciation of facts and circumstances we are of the opinion that the offence under Section 306, IPC is not made out. We therefore set aside the conviction and sentence under Section 306, IPC.
The Bare reading of Section 304B in The Indian Penal Code is as follows-
Section 304B. Dowry death.—
(1) 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 har¬assment 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. Explanation.—For the purpose of this sub-section, “dowry” shall have the same meaning as in section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (28 of 1961).
(2) Whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprison¬ment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.
-By Abhinav Verma