Dowry death: The phrase ‘soon before her death’ in Section 304B IPC does not mean ‘immediately prior to her death’, reiterates Supreme Court

ON Thursday, a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli, in the case of Devender Singh & Ors. vs. The State of Uttarakhand, discerned the principles that account for the offence of a ‘dowry death’ by analysing the factors provided under Section 304B (dowry death) of the Indian Penal Code [IPC], and under Section 113B (presumption of dowry death) of the Indian Evidence Act.

The Court, in this case, was hearing a Criminal Appeal against the Uttarakhand High Court’s judgment that convicted the three appellants under Sections 498A (husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty), 304B and 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) of the IPC, on account of the death of the victim (wife of the first appellant) under unnatural circumstances. While it upheld the High Court’s conviction of the first appellant (husband of the deceased), that is, a sentence of rigorous imprisonment for a period of seven years and a fine of ten thousand rupees, it set aside the conviction of the second and third appellants (brother and mother of the first appellant, respectively) and ordered their acquittal.

Perusing section 304B of IPC on ‘dowry death’ with regard to the commission of the offence and the role of each of the appellants in such commission, the Supreme Court laid the main characteristics of the section in paragraph 9 of the judgment, authored by Justice Kohli:

“(i) that soon before the death, the deceased was subjected to cruelty and harassment in connection with the demand of dowry;

(ii) the death of the deceased was caused by any burn or bodily injury or some other circumstance which was not normal;

(iii) such a death has occurred within 7 years from the date of her marriage;

(iv) that the victim was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband;

(v) such a cruelty or harassment should be for, or in connection with the demand of dowry; and

(vi) it should be established that such cruelty and harassment were made soon before her death.”

While highlighting section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 on ‘presumption as to dowry death’, the court emphasized in paragraph 11, “this presumption can be rebutted by the accused on demonstrating during the trial that all the ingredients of Section 304 IPC have not been satisfied”. The judgment, further, observed, “the question, therefore, is as to whether the evidence tendered by the prosecution would be sufficient to establish the remaining ingredients of Section 304B IPC with regard to the demand for dowry and preparation of cruelty and harassment in connection with such demand”.

Interpreting the phrase ‘soon before her death’ in section 304B of IPC, the Court observed that it should not mean ‘immediately prior to her death’. In paragraph 18, dismissing the importance of the absence of demand for dowry during the time of finalizing the marriage, the Court held, “what is relevant is the demand which was made subsequent to the marriage and soon before the incident…

The Court criticized the Trial Court’s acquittal of all three appellants and observed in paragraph 20, “the trial court was appreciating evidence from the prism of assessing the charge under Section 302 IPC (punishment for murder), when the evidence on record ought to have been analyzed and appreciated keeping in mind the requirements of Section 304B and 498A IPC and the ingredients thereof”.

Thus, on analyzing the evidence before it, the Court concluded in paragraph 22, “we have no hesitation in observing that the appellants have miserably failed to rebut the presumption drawn against them under Section 113B of the Evidence Act, in a matter relating to the offence under Section 304B IPC”.

Setting aside the conviction of the second and third appellants, the Court remarked, “there is no specific role with regard to the demand of dowry and nor has any specific instance of cruelty or harassment been ascribed to the appellants No. 2 and 3 except for general assertion. Moreover, in a circumstance where the charge was also under Section 120B IPC, there is no specific evidence led by the prosecution relating the conspiracy allegedly hatched by the appellants”. Consequently, the second and third appellants, who were released on bail, were ordered to be set free, and the first appellant was ordered to surrender within two weeks to serve the remaining sentence of imprisonment.

Click here to view the court’s full judgment.