According to Black’s Law Dictionary, term dowry can be defined as the property which a woman brings to her husband in marriage, or the effects which the wife brings to the husband to support the expenses of marriage. Webster dictionary defines “Dowry” as the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage. Section 2 of The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 defines “Dowry” as any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly between the concerned parties before or after the marriage as a consideration for the same.
The tradition of dowry was originated in ancient India, and it was generally provided to enable a woman to support her in crisis, and also to support her husband and children if needed. But, the purpose for which it was created lost its significance over a period of time and now it has become a tradition followed in many parts of the country. A large number of cases are witnessed by various courts throughout the country daily, and many of them have “Dowry death” as its subject matter. Section 304-B of Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines “Dowry Death” and it states that if the death of a woman is caused under 7 years of her marriage under normal circumstances, and if there is enough evidence to prove that woman was subjected to some kind of cruelty or harassment by her husband or any of his relatives while demanding dowry, such death would come under the category of “Dowry Death”. But, it becomes important to understand the role of evidence in such cases. Section 498-A of the same act relates to the cruelty on a woman by her husband or nay of his relatives. These two sections play a very important role while deciding the case pertaining to the issue of dowry death, along with Section 300 and 299 which are related to the issue of “Culpable Homicide” and “Murder”. Murder and Culpable homicide become important to consider because in cases pertaining to the issue of “Dowry Death”, death of a woman is caused and it is very important to relate that death with these provision so as to decide whether the deceased was murdered or not.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, term “evidence” can be defined as any species of proof, or probative matter, legally presented at the trial of an issue, by the act of the parties and through the medium of witnesses, records, documents, concrete objects, etc., for the purpose of including belief in the minds of the court or jury as to their contention. The same has to be distinguished from proof and testimony. Evidence is such kind of proofs which can be presented in front of the court when are where needed to be presented. Testimony means only such evidence as is delivered by a witness on the trial of a cause, either orally or in the form of affidavits or depositions.
Offences committed under Section 304-B and 498-A are non-bailable offence which makes difficult for the accused person to get bail, and courts remain careful while granting bail in cases relating to dowry death. Schedule 1 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 provides a list of non-bailable offences and there are approximately 222 offences which come under the category of “non-bailable offence”. Death because of dowry is a very serious crime, but court are also careful while examining such cases because the punishment prescribed for dowry death is very severe and it would be highly unjustifiable to punish the person who is not involved in such crime. And, also it is a principle under criminal law that an accused should be convicted only if the offence could be proven beyond reasonable doubt. And, for this purpose evidence becomes very crucial. In cases relating to the issue of dowry death, there can be various forms of evidences for e.g., Letter by woman to her parents explaining her plight or communicating with them by any other means, torture by the family members of the husband for dowry etc. But, it has also been seen over a period of time that the story portrayed by the parent’s of the deceased woman, and also there are various cases where a man or his family members get punishment for the crime which they have not committed. Sometimes, a woman dies naturally but a case is registered under the provision mentioned under Indian Penal Code for “Dowry Death”. It is for this purpose that the relevance of evidence in such cases becomes more important.
Interpretation of certain expressions present in various act become more important in these case. One such point was decided by the Supreme Court in Baldev Singh v State of Punjab AIR 2009 SC 913, where the meaning of the term “agreement” as mentioned in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 was interpreted by the court. It was held by the court that just because there was no expressed agreement of dowry between the parties doesn’t mean that no conviction can be made for dowry, whether there was any demand for dowry or not would depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. Moreover, it was held by the court that the expression “soon before her death” present in Section 304-B of Indian Penal Code, 1860 is present with the ides of proximity test. It was opined by the court that “soon before death” is not interval between cruelty and harassment and death of the woman, but it denotes the existence of a proximate and live-link between the effects of cruelty based on dowry demand and the death concerned.
In Vijay v State of Maharashtra AIR 2009 SC 1217, it was alleged by the counsel of the state that a ring and money was demanded by the deceased, and that she informed this to her parents through a letter but there was no mention of money in the letter. Trial court acquitted the accused, but trial court’s order was reversed by the Bombay High Court. Supreme reversed High Court’s order and acquitted the accused on the ground that evidence present by the counsel didn’t mention money.
Necessary existence of proximate and live-link between effect of cruelty based on dowry demand and concerned death of the victim was again opined by the Supreme Court in Prem Kanwar v State of Rajasthan AIR 2009 SC 1242. Moreover, it was alleged in this case that deceased woman died because of the burn injuries, but the same was not reported in the Post-mortem report submitted by the doctor, which showed that death was caused as a result of broken skull bones. It forced Supreme Court to conclude that the death was not a suicide as had been alleged by the accused, instead it was a murder. It is clear that evidence not only protects the accused if wrongly charged, but also it acts as a weapon for courts to convict the accused persons. The view of proximate and live-link was again reiterated by this court in Raja Lal Singh v State of Jharkhand 2007 AIR SCW 3690:AIR 2007 SC 2154
In case of Dharam Chand v State of Punjab AIR 2009 SC 1304, brother-in-law and sister-in-law of the accused were made included in the list of accused persons in the trial. But, it was later found that both them were not living in the same house as that of deceased woman. She was allegedly killed by her husband and his family in the bathroom. Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of bother-in-law and sister-in-law of deceased woman as they were living separate. It is another case where persons have been accused of “dowry death” without any ground and evidence.
Presumption as to whether the death has been caused of the dowry demand can be made only if certain conditions are fulfilled. Unless these conditions are fulfilled, death of a woman cannot be presumed as a “dowry death”. The same condition were laid down by the Supreme Court in Tarsem Singh v State of Punjab AIR 2009 SC 1454, referring to Section 113-B of Indian Evidence Act, 1872 where following conditions were laid by the court stating that the presumption as to dowry death can be raised only on proof of the following essentials:
1. The question before the Court must be whether the accused has committed the dowry death of a woman. This means that the presumption can be raised only if the accused is being tired for the offence under Section 304-B of IPC.
2. The woman was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relatives.
3. Such cruelty or harassment was for, or in connection with any demand for dowry.
4. Such cruelty or harassment was soon before death.
This means that fulfilment of these conditions is necessary before convicting anyone for “dowry death”
In Madan Lal v State of UP AIR 2009 SC 2175, it was alleged by the accused persons that deceased died because of the she was suffering from epilepsy and which became the reason for the fracture of sound box and wind pipe. But, doctor’s report contradicted what was alleged by the accused person. Supreme relying on the report submitted by the doctor upheld the conviction of accused persons by the Allahabad High Court.
Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 states that when any fact is especially within the knowledge of any person, the burden of proving that fact is upon him. Referring to this section, Supreme Court in State of Rajasthan v Jaggu Ram AIR 2008 SC 982, opined that it was the duty of the accused person to explain why they cremated the deceased without waiting for the police investigation to be done. Supreme Court convicted the accused because he was not able to explain the above mentioned fact which clearly indicated that accused had cremated the deceased without waiting for anyone with sole objective of concealing the real cause of the death. A similar view was taken by this court in Ram Badan Sharma v State of Bihar 2006 AIR SCW 4068 : AIR 2006 SC 2855, where the news of victim’s death was not sent to her parents who were living few miles away from the place where death occurred. Also, there was nothing to prove that death was caused naturally.
Referring to Section 113-B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 which states that when the question is whether a person has committed the dowry death of a woman and it is shown that soon before her death such woman had been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, the Court shall presume that such person had caused the dowry death, court upheld the conviction of the accused persons because it was not difficult to presume that death caused was a “dowry death”.
It was held by the Supreme Court in Kailash v State of M.P. AIR 2007 SC 107, that the determination of the period which can come within the term “soon before” is left to be determined by the courts depending on the facts and circumstances of each case. It was further held by the Supreme Court that “mere lapse of some time by itself would not provide to an accused a defence, if the course of the conduct relating to the cruelty and harassment in connection with the dowry demand is shown to have existed earlier in time not too late and not too stale before the death of the death of the victim.” It can be clearly understood that if the death of the victim has been caused after the she was subjected to cruelty and punishment, then it would not be easy for the accused persons to get exonerated even if they had stopped such acts of cruelty soon before the death. It would wholly depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case, and court would be the sole authority to determine such situations.
The importance of a “dying declaration” by the victim was emphasised by the Supreme Court in Balbir Singh v State of Punjab 2006 AIR SCW 4950: AIR 2009 SC 3221, where it was held by the court that just because the dying declaration was not recorded by a magistrate cannot be a ground to disbelieve the entire prosecution case. It was further held by the court that “when a statement of an injured is recorded, in the event of her death, the same may also be treated to be a First Information Report.” Section 32 (1) of the Indian Evidence Act states that a state made by a person explaining the cause of his death should be considered as relevant and important in the cases where his death comes into questions. In such circumstances, dying declaration made by the victim would become important so as to arrive at a correct decision. It should not be necessarily made in front of a magistrate.
These were some of the case laws related to the issue of “Dowry Death” But, the issue doesn’t end here itself. In the year 2007, 202nd report was submitted by the then Chairman of Law Commission of India, Justice A.R. Lakshmanan on the issue “whether death sentence should be provided for dowry death or not?” He was of the opinion that murder and dowry death are two different crimes and two cannot be the same. Although, he recommended minimum 10 year imprisonment for the crime related to “dowry death”. This was the second time when Law commission made recommendation on this matter after 1983 when first recommendation was made the commission for amending IPC and Evidence Act in relation to “Dowry Death”. Evidence always play a crucial role in determining the guilt of the person under criminal law, and his guilt should be proven beyond reasonable doubt to punish a person. Sometimes, this dowry tradition subjects a woman to creulty by her husband and his family. But, it is also true that there have been various instances when provisions related to dowry have been misued.
In other words, “dowry death” has become a very crucial matter to be looked into. Courts are very careful while examnining the evidences provided by each of the sides to avoid unjustice.