Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code covers the offences affecting the human body. Section 304B under the said Chapter deals with ‘Dowry Death’. The Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986 under section 10 amended the Indian Penal Code and inserted the provision of dowry death under section 304B.
Therefore, to that effect, the Act further inserted certain entries in the First Schedule of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and section 113B was introduced in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. In the case of Shanti v. State of Haryana[i], the Supreme Court observed that the introduction of section 304B in the Indian Penal Code is done with a view to combat the increasing menace of dowry deaths.
Section 304B is a provision which is peculiar in its scope and applicability. The provision is given wider scope as to cover all deaths of wives who are dead within seven years of marriage, the presumption of offence provides this scope. Further, the provision is applicable if the following essentials are present in the offence committed-
1. The death of a woman should have been caused by burns or bodily injury or it should occur that the death is not caused under normal circumstances
2. Death should have occurred within 7 years of marriage
3. It should be established that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty and harassment by her husband or his relatives
4. The cruelty or harassment should have been in connection with any demand for dowry.
In the case of Shamnsaheb M Multtani v. State of Karnataka[ii], the Supreme Court held that, the peculiar situation in respect of an offence under section 304B is that the Court has a statutory compulsion on establishing that the death of wife has not occurred under normal circumstances and the wife was subjected to cruelty and harassment by her husband or his relatives soon before her death, to presume that the offence under this provision is committed by husband or his relatives. The Court shall act upon the presumption of commission of offence unless and until it is disproved by the accused.
Death Under Unnatural Circumstances-
The significant aspect in establishing the dowry death is that death should be an unnatural death. In the case of Akula Ravinder v. State of Andhra Pradesh[iii], the Supreme Court held that where it is emphasised that death must be proved to be one out of the course of nature and the mere fact that the deceased was young and death was not an accident is not sufficient to establish that death must have occurred otherwise than under normal circumstances. Therefore, the fact of unnatural death must be established beyond a reasonable doubt.
Further, in the case of Shanti v. State of Haryana[iv], the Supreme Court held that if the actions of husband or his relatives at the time of death of the wife is doubtful, then the Court shall act in accordance with the presumption that the offence under Section 304B is committed. In the instant case, where husband and his relatives upon the death of the wife did not allow wife’s father and brother to see her and cremated the body in a hurry, the Court presumed the commission of offence under section 304B by the husband and his relatives.
The Court refuses to consider the plea of accident by the accused in cases under this provision if there is sufficient proof to establish the unnatural circumstances of death in the post-mortem report. In the case of Ashok Kumar v. State of Rajasthan[v], the accused person’s sister deposed before the Court stating that the death of the victim was caused due to an accident that occurred while she was making tea. But the post-mortem report indicated that the smell of kerosene was there in the body and even the burnt hair was smelling kerosene. This fact established the unnatural circumstances of death as opposed to the depositions of the accused person’s sister and hence the Court convicted the accused of an offence under section 304B of IPC.
Cruelty and Harassment soon before the death’-
Along with the afore-mentioned aspect of unnatural death, the provision also requires proof of cruelty and harassment soon before the death occurred by the husband or his relatives in connection with any demand for dowry. In the case of Bansi Lal v. State of Haryana[vi], the Apex Court ruled that the Court has to analyse the facts and circumstances as leading to death of the victim and decide if there is any proximate connection between the demand for dowry and the act of cruelty or harassment and the death.
Another important aspect to be considered in establishing the offence under this provision is that the act of cruelty or harassment by the husband or his relatives should have been occurred ‘soon before the death’. This expression ‘soon before the death’ has been clarified by the Courts in many cases as the interval between the act of cruelty and death should not be much.
In the case of Mustafa Shahdal Shaikh v. State of Maharashtra[vii], the Supreme Court held that if the alleged incident of cruelty is remote in time and has become state enough not to disturb mental equilibrium of the woman concerned, then such cruelty cannot be considered while tracing the reasons for death of the victim.
Demand for Dowry as the reason for cruelty or harassment-
The fact of cruelty and harassment should be established in connection with the demand for dowry. In the case of Patil Paresh Kumar Jayanti Lal v. State of Gujarat[viii], the Court considering the facts of the case where husband had caused the death of his wife and it was revealed that he had killed his wife for not satisfying his dowry demand but there was no evidence to establish the involvement of the co-accused in-laws with respect to dowry demand. Hence, the court convicted only the husband under Section 304B and the co-accused in-laws were held not guilty under section 304B.
The statutory time frame for the application of the rule of presumption-
The presumption by the Court shall be raised as to the commission of offence by the husband or his relatives only upon the proof that the above-mentioned essentials of the offence. It is also necessary that all the essentials have to be present within seven years of marriage, as the rule of presumption under this provision will not be enforced beyond the statutory time period.
In the case of Ratan Lal v. State of Madhya Pradesh[ix], the Court held that if the prosecution fails to prove that the death did not occur within the prescribed period of seven years of marriage, the provision under section 304B will not be applied.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the punishment prescribed for the offence of dowry death?
Punishment- Sub-section (2) of Section 304B prescribes punishment for the offence of dowry death. The punishment is imprisonment which shall not be less than a term of seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.
Edited by Sakshi Agarwal
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje
[i] AIR 1991 SC 1226.
[ii] AIR 2001 SC 921.
[iii] AIR 1991 SC 1142.
[iv] AIR 1991 SC 1229.
[v] AIR 1990 SC 2134.
[vi] AIR 2011 SC 691.
[vii] AIR 2013 SC 851.
[viii] 2000 Cr LJ 223 (Guj)
[ix] 1994 Cr LJ 1684