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Supreme Court widens scope of Section 304-B

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  • Published
    1st Jun, 2021


The Supreme Court has indicated in a judgment that a straitjacket and literal interpretation of a penal provision on dowry death may have blunted the battle against the “long-standing social evil”.

 Section 304-B (Dowry death) of IPC

  • According to Section 304-B, to make out a case of dowry death,
    • A woman should have died of burns or other bodily injuries or “otherwise than under normal circumstances” within seven years of her marriage.
    • She should have suffered cruelty or harassment from her husband or in-laws “soon before her death” in connection with demand for dowry.
  • Whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.

 Supreme Court’s observation

  • The phrase "soon before" as appearing in Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code cannot be construed to mean 'immediately before'.
  • Rather, they left its determination in the hands of the courts. The factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case. No straitjacket formulae can therefore be laid down by this court to define what exact the phrase ‘soon before’ entails.
  • Instead, the prosecution is needed to 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 phrase “otherwise than under normal circumstances” in the Section also calls for a liberal interpretation.
  • Section 304­B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental.
  • The judgment also raised concern about the casual way in which trial courts examined accused persons in dowry death cases under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Dowry deaths in India

  • It has accounted for 40% to 50% homicides in the country from 1999 to 2018.
  • In 2019 alone, 7,115 cases of dowry death were registered under Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code.
  • That’s why, the judgment pronounced by a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India called dowry harassment a “pestiferous” crime where women are subjected to cruelty by “covetous” husbands and in-laws.