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The finer points of dowry death

By Rakesh Shukla

In Baldev Singh versus State of Punjab 2008 (11) SCALE 120, although a demand by the husband for a fair share for his wife in her father’s property did not constitute a demand for dowry there were other circumstances and evidence to prove that the wife was being harassed by her husband and her in-laws for dowry, and subsequently died, making it a dowry death

Satwant Kaur married Baldev Singh on June, 8, 1991. Within a month of the marriage, her husband and mother-in-law began demanding a fridge and a television set. Satwant’s mother died within days of the marriage and, on her first death anniversary, her brother Rachhpal Singh collected a sum of Rs 12,000 from the sale of paddy, and Rs 8,000 through encashing National Savings Certificates. He gave the money to Satwant’s husband.

The payment of Rs 20,000 appears to have appeased both Baldev Singh and his mother for around two months during which Satwant was not harassed for money. Soon, however, Baldev, his mother Surjit Kaur and his sister Narinder Kaur continued their harassment of Satwant, complaining that enough jewellery had not been given at the time of marriage. Rachhpal encashed a fixed deposit and again gave Baldev Rs 20,000.

As Satwant and Rachhpal Singh’s father had died earlier, Baldev “started asking for his share in his father-in-law’s estate,” according to the judgment. Rachhpal Singh and his brothers Nirmal and Avtar Singh tried to persuade their sister’s husband and members of his family not to harass Satwant. They assured them that their demands would be met. Baldev and his family stated at this time that no specific piece of land was being demanded and that a sum of Rs 100,000 would satisfy them. Rachhpal assured Baldev that the money would be paid to him on the anniversary of his father’s death, which was September 13, 1992. 

Satwant communicated the details regarding the demands made and the treatment meted out to her by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and husband through a number of letters to her brother. She also complained about the harassment whenever she met her brothers. On September 2, Rachhpal got a letter from his sister. After going through it he rushed to Amritsar, arriving there at around 7-8 pm. The next morning he went to Satwant’s house along with his second sister’s husband Narinder Singh. When he reached he saw Satwant lying on a bed, with her husband, sister-in-law and mother-in-law standing nearby. When she saw her brother, Satwant indicated that she had been beaten and harassed over her inability to hand over more money. Satwant also said that she had consumed poison and would die. She told Rachhpal to make sure the accused did not escape punishment.  

Rachhpal found the attitude of the accused extremely hostile. He told Narinder Singh that they would leave the house and return with more relatives. When they got back, at around 9.30 am, neither Satwant Kaur nor her husband, mother-in-law or sister-in-law was there. The neighbours were not sure whether Satwant was alive or dead. Rachhpal rushed to the cremation ground apprehending that the accused may try to burn the body. He also visited various doctors. At around 6 pm they went to Guru Nanak Dev Hospital and saw ASI Amrik Singh entering the building. The ASI recorded Rachhpal Singh’s statement as to the events. He accompanied the police to the mortuary where he saw Satwant Kaur’s dead body.  

A First Information Report (FIR) was recorded at the police station. The post-mortem report gave the cause of death as poisoning by an organo-phosphorous group of insecticide. A chargesheet was filed under Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for dowry death. The trial court convicted and sentenced Baldev Singh and his mother Surjit Kaur to 10 years’ imprisonment. The sister-in-law, Narinder Kaur, was acquitted.

In an appeal to the high court, it was submitted on behalf of the accused husband and the mother-in-law that Satwant Kaur had been deprived of her legitimate share in the ancestral property and that this had led to depression and, finally, suicide. It was contended that Baldev’s requests for a legitimate share for his wife in the ancestral property could not be termed demand for dowry. The high court upheld the conviction of the husband and mother-in-law and the accused went in appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court examined Section 304-B dealing with dowry death and noted that such a death should have occurred within seven years of marriage, due to burns or other bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances. Secondly, the woman must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or/and his relatives in connection with the demand for dowry. The court noted that in the present case, the marriage took place on June 8, 1991, and Satwant had died on September 3, 1992, that is, within seven years of marriage. And that it was otherwise than under normal circumstances.

It was submitted on behalf of the accused that an agreement between the parties at the time of marriage was necessary for the case to fall within the ambit of dowry. The judgment observes that the definition of dowry had been amended to include not only the period before and at the time of marriage, but also the period subsequent to the marriage, as emphasised in Pawan Kumar’s case (see ‘Urmil’s Story’ on http://www.infochangeindia.org/).

The judgment, reported as Baldev Singh versus State of Punjab 2008 (11) SCALE 120, notes that Section 304-B talks of cruelty or harassment in connection with the “demand for dowry”, and observes that “demand neither conceives nor would conceive of any agreement”. It held that the agreement between parties to a marriage, in the definition of dowry, has to be seen in the context of the amended Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act under which it is an offence to demand dowry, directly or indirectly, from the parents or relatives of the bride. That, when even a demand for dowry is punishable, it is not necessary that there should be an agreement for dowry.

The court then referred to Section 113-B of the Evidence Act which states that if it is shown that a woman, just before her death, was subjected to cruelty by anyone, then there is a presumption that the dowry death was caused by the same individual. The judgment notes that Section 304-B of the IPC and Section 113-B of the Evidence Act were inserted in 1986 keeping in mind the problem of securing evidence to prove a dowry death. The presumption of dowry death comes into play if the woman has been subjected to cruelty or harassment for dowry “soon before” her death. The judgment declares that no straight-jacket formula can be laid down, or fixed period specified as constituting “soon before her death”. The determination of the period constituting “soon before” is to be arrived at by the facts and circumstances of each individual case. However, the expression implies that there must a proximate and live-link between cruelty inflicted in connection with the demand for dowry and the death of the woman. If the incident of cruelty is so remote in time as to not disturb the mental equilibrium of the woman, then it would not fall within the ambit of the phrase “soon before her death”.

Coming to the facts of the present case, the court observed that it is true that the demand for the wife’s share of the ancestral property would not amount to demand for dowry. However, it declared that the evidence of witnesses and letters, in the present case, clearly show that there were other demands in addition to the demand for the wife’s share in the ancestral property. That the demand for dowry by the husband and mother-in-law stood firmly established in the circumstances. Similarly, the infliction of cruelty and harassment on Satwant Kaur in connection with the demand for dowry “soon before her death” was also held to have been proved in the circumstances. The Supreme Court reduced the sentence of 10 years to seven years’ imprisonment and upheld the conviction of the husband and mother-in-law for dowry death.  

(Rakesh Shukla is a Supreme Court lawyer) 

InfoChange News & Features, September 2008