In a landmark precedent paving way for effective legal redressal of dowry death cases in India, the Supreme Court has fixed a much exploited legal loophole that has hitherto been used in the favour of the accused.
A three-judge Bench comprising Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Justice Aniruddha Bose on Friday stated in a judgment that the phrase “soon before”, as appearing in Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), could not be construed to mean ‘immediately before’. The prosecution must establish the existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.
The apex court was hearing a case of a man and the death of his wife after thirteen months of their marriage. Reportedly, The accused took the defence that the prosecution had failed to prove there was any demand for dowry, and even if assuming there was such a demand, the state had not proved that it was made “soon before” or proximate to the death of the woman.
CJI Ramana authored the judgment and said courts should interpret Section 304-B liberally while bearing in mind the intention of the law to punish dowry and bride-burning.
Speaking to NewsClick, lawyer Som Dutt Sharma said, “The expression ‘soon before her death’ denotes the victim should have been harassed by the husband or his relatives before death. In setting the precedent, the bench has extended the scope by saying that ‘soon before' does not necessarily mean immediately; it is in line with the chain of events. Approximate and live relationship with the death, so the bench has issued certain guidelines as to how the court must decide on these cases. There are two questions--one being abatement and the other being death.”
The court’s comments come 35 years after the Parliament enacted Section 304 B of the IPC in 1986 to bring justice to the victims of dowry related deaths. It defines ‘dowry death’ as the death of a woman “caused by burning or bodily injuries 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…”
In such a case, the husband or relative is deemed to have caused the woman’s death. The law punishes convicts with minimum seven years of imprisonment, extendable to life term.
Dowry deaths in India account for 40-50% of homicidal deaths of women in the country. On an average, the figures could mean 20 women are killed every day on accounts of dowry related harassment. The global study on homicide also states that these figures have remained consistent over the years.
Commenting on the judgment, Annie Raja, the General Secretary of National Federation of Indian Women, said, “This move will help the victims of the atrocity. The basic problem is that the act has been in place for so long, however, there is visible lack of political will in spirit of the law. There are serious discrepancies in the implementation of the law. The difference in technicality will make a huge difference. We, as people of the country, need to be raising questions about the rampant prevalence of dowry despite existing mechanisms.”
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