On 28 May, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana-led bench of the Supreme Court remedied a loophole in the law on dowry deaths that was working as an escape route for the accused.
The loophole was in Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which penalises dowry deaths. In defining the offence, the provision stipulated that the woman should have been subjected to harassment “soon before” her death. This ambiguous phrase worked as an escape route with the accused arguing that the term “soon before” should mean just moments before the death.
However, the Supreme Court realised the “legal mischief” used to exonerate persons accused of causing dowry deaths. The court said the phrase “soon before” as cannot be construed to mean “immediately before” the death.
“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.”Supreme Court
The Loophole In Law
Thirty five years ago, the Indian Parliament amended Section 304 of the IPC to carve out a specific provision on dowry deaths. The intention was to recognise the difficulty of seeking justice in cases of dowry deaths within the existing penal framework. The law wanted to address problems associated with evidence to prove why the offence is an aggravated crime by the virtue of being linked to the social evil of dowry.
The law on dowry deaths was an attempt to both recognise and heavily penalise the practice of dowry. The State, through a specific criminal provision, wanted to express both the moral and legal condemnation for those who push women towards death by incessant harassment for dowry.
Dowry death is defined as:
“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 harassment 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”.
However, the word “soon before” in the definition became just the ambiguity that defence counsel needed to seek acquittals. Even in the present criminal appeal, the accused argued that the prosecution failed to prove that the harm caused to the deceased woman was “proximate to the death”, hence acquittal is warranted.
The Supreme Court rejected the “proximity” approach as argued by the accused, and noted that Section 304B does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorising death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental.
“Being a criminal statute, generally it is to be interpreted strictly. However, where strict interpretation leads to absurdity or goes against the spirit of legislation, the courts may in appropriate cases place reliance upon the genuine import of the words, taken in their usual sense to resolve such ambiguities.”Supreme Court
Cruelty Has Many Forms
The court was of the opinion that the legislature used an ambiguous term in Section 304B because it wanted the courts to decide what would qualify as “soon before” in each case.
This was done, according to the court, to respect the fact that there can be no one way of looking at cruelty. The act of cruelty can be manifested in various ways.
The factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case. Even the spectrum of cruelty is quite varied as it can range from physical, verbal or or even emotional. This list is certainly not exhaustive. No straitjacket formulae can therefore be laid down by this court to define what exacts the phrase “soon before”.Supreme Court
The court further went on to clarify that as soon as the prosecution shows that the woman was subjected to cruelty or harassment soon before her death for the purpose of dowry, the presumption of causation arises. Thus, the burden then shifts on the accused under Section 113B of the Indian Evidence Act to rebut this presumption.