Supreme Court clarifies on abuse linked to dowry deaths

Evidence needed of harassment close to death

Dowry death can be presumed if the wife was harassed, mentally and physically close before her death in the marital home, the Supreme Court has held.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana was interpreting Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (dowry death).

The provision mandates that the death of a married woman could be linked to the crime if she had been harassed for dowry “soon before her death”.

“The cruelty has to be proved during the close proximity of time of death. It should be continuous. Such continuous harassment, physical or mental, by the accused should make life of the deceased miserable which may force her to commit suicide,” Justice Hima Kohli, who authored the judgment for the Bench, recorded.

The court said the expression “soon before her death” would normally imply that the interval should not be much between the cruelty or harassment concerned and the death in question.

“In other words, there must be an existence of a proximate and live link between the effect of cruelty based on dowry demand and the death concerned. If the alleged incident of cruelty is remote in time and has become stale enough not to disturb the mental equilibrium of the women concerned, it would be of no consequence,” the Bench, also comprising Justice Surya Kant, noted.

“Section 304B IPC read in conjunction with Section 113B of the Evidence Act leaves no manner of doubt that once the prosecution has been able to demonstrate that a woman has been subjected to cruelty or harassment for or in connection with any demand for dowry, soon before her death, the court shall proceed on a presumption that the persons who have subjected her to cruelty or harassment in connection with the demand for dowry, have caused a dowry death within the meaning of Section 304B IPC,” Justice Kohli underscored.

However, the presumption of dowry death was also rebuttable, Justice Kohli observed.

“The presumption is, however, rebuttable and can be dispelled on the accused being able to demonstrate through cogent evidence that the ingredients of Section 304B IPC have not been satisfied,” the judgment said.

The judgment was delivered in the death of a woman in 1997 in Bihar only a few months after her marriage. The few months of her marital life was marred by constant harassment for dowry. Her body was found on the banks of a river several days after she was reported missing from her marital home. The apex court concluded that she was pushed into the river by her husband, and confirmed his conviction by the lower courts.

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