Demand of money for construction of house amounts to dowry, holds Supreme Court

ON Tuesday, the Supreme Court, in its judgment in the case of State of Madhya Pradesh vs. Jogendra & Anr., decided to expand the scope of “dowry”. The court was hearing the case of a five-month-pregnant woman who committed suicide by immolating herself after her in-laws constantly harassed her to obtain money from her parents to pay for the construction of their house. It held that demanding any property or valuable security of any nature, including money for constructing a house, comes within the ambit of dowry.

The Supreme Court set aside a verdict by the Madhya Pradesh High Court which had acquitted the respondents for a dowry death on the ground that the victim willingly offered to contribute money for the construction of the house, and hence, it couldn’t be treated as a dowry demand.

Under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, “dowry” is defined as “any property or valuable security” that parties to a marriage exchange between each other.

The bench of Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli stated:

“When dealing with [dowry] cases—  a provision legislated to act as a deterrent in society and curb the heinous crime of dowry demands, the shift in the approach of the courts ought to be from strict to liberal, from constricted to dilated— Any rigid meaning would tend to bring to naught the real object of the provision. Therefore, a push in the right direction is required to accomplish the task of eradicating this social evil, which has become deeply entrenched in our society.”

In this particular case, the trial court convicted the respondents, that is, the husband and the father-in-law of the deceased, under Sections 304B (dowry death), 306 (abetment of suicide) and 498A (Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

It was found by the trial court that the accused persons were constantly demanding money for the construction of a house which the victim’s family wasn’t able to give — she was constantly harassed and subjected to cruelty, eventually leading to her suicide. The respondents appealed before the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which reversed the ruling on the basis that demand of money for construction of a house cannot be treated as a demand for dowry, hence dismissing any connection between the demand for dowry and her suicide.

In its judgement, the Supreme Court listed the following four prerequisites for convicting an accused under Section 304B of the IPC: (i) that the death of a woman must have been caused by burns or bodily injury or occurred otherwise than under normal circumstance; (ii) that such a death must have occurred within a period of seven years of her marriage; (iii) that the woman must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment at the hands of her husband, soon before her death; and (iv) that such cruelty or harassment must be in connection with the demand for dowry.

The judgment, authored by Justice Kohli, noted: “[T]he trial court has correctly interpreted the demand for money raised by the respondents on the deceased for construction of a house as falling within the definition of the word dowry. It cannot be lost sight of that the respondents have been constantly tormenting the deceased and asking her to approach her family members for money to build a house and it was only on their persistence and insistence that she was compelled to ask them to contribute some amount for constructing a house.”

The court added that the evidence provided shows that the deceased was pressurized to request for money from her family, and that hers was “a case of sheer helplessness”.

Disagreeing with the Madhya Pradesh high court, the Supreme Court ruled: “The Latin maxim “Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat” i.e, a liberal construction should be put up on written instruments, so as to uphold them, if possible, and carry into effect, the intention of the parties, sums it up. Interpretation of a provision of law that will defeat the very intention of the legislature must be shunned in favour of an interpretation that will promote the object sought to be achieved through the legislation meant to uproot a social evil like dowry demand. In this context the word “Dowry” ought to be ascribed an expansive meaning so as to encompass any demand made on a woman, whether in respect of a property or a valuable security of any nature.”

The Supreme Court restored the conviction of the accused under section 304B and 498A of the IPC, while upholding the high court’s acquittal of the respondents for the offence of section 306 due to lack of conclusive evidence on the part of the high court to make out the offence. It also reduced the sentence imposed by the trial court from rigorous imprisonment for life, to seven years’ rigorous imprisonment.

(Ninad Parikh is a final year journalism student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and an intern with The Leaflet.)

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