Dowry Death and Legal Protection for Women

“Any young man, who makes dowry a condition to marriage, discredits his education and his country and dishonours womanhood.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Marriage is a basic unit of society, a source of bliss and merriment. However, one of the longest standing shades of malice related to marriage, especially from a woman’s perspective is the dowry culture in the Indian Society. Dowry is property or valuable security given or agreed to be given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family, either directly or indirectly, before or after the marriage of the said parties. Though dowry system has been illegal for 59 years, it is still rampant in the country.

Historical background

Dowry is an ancient custom practiced in many parts of the world, particularly in parts of Asia and North Africa. In India, the concept of Kanyadaan (giving daughter in marriage), followed by Varadakshina (giving gift to the bridegroom at the time of marriage) was unveiled for the first time in the Rig Veda.[1] Varadakshina was purely voluntary and initiated as a token of love and regard for the bridegroom. Over time it was moulded into a means to extract material gains from the bride’s family. It became a matter to be tackled by reformers and law-makers and efforts for its eradication go back to even more than a century. Women’s dignity is oppressed and questioned by draconian practices like dowry. The prevalence of ‘Dowry Deaths’ even in the present times corroborate that dowry system was never related to education, class, and caste differences. Recent trend analyses reveal that education was availed as a medium to increase their bargaining power in dowry negotiations. It was a determinant of status in the Hindu marriage.

Accountability of Government to curb Dowry Culture

The dowry system in India puts a great financial burden on the bride’s family. The unnatural deaths of newly married young women due to dowry is the new normal of the local as well as the national dailies. Cases detailing the horrors like cruelty over young brides to the extent of burning them alive, intimidating them to bring valuables from their natal homes, compelling them to commit suicide due to torture over them and their families, by their husbands or in-laws or both, portrays the subjugation of the females in the stereotypical Indian patriarchal setup. The duty to ensure termination of dowry system lies over the Indian government. The principle of gender equality is not a mere demand but an enshrined right in the Constitution of India which also empowers the State to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of women. India has ratified various human rights instruments committing to secure equal rights of women. Among all, ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by India in 1993 is the indispensable one, which ensures accountability of the Indian Government.[2]

A bane to these efforts is the misuse of dowry related provisions. In Preeti Gupta & anr. V. State of Jharkhand & anr.,[3]Section 498-A of IPC was challenged and the Supreme Court pointed out the tendency of brides to implicate their husbands and all his immediate relations, and  recommended consideration of amendment of the law accordingly. Also, in Kans Raj vs. State of Punjab[4], court held that in-laws or the other relations cannot be roped in unnecessarily under the section. Though there might be some misuse, the massive issue of rampant dowry deaths cannot be overlooked. Thus, the Government of India enacted legislations and made amendments to the existing law, to eliminate the dowry system.

Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961

The first national legislation that was enacted related to dowry was, the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961(“Act”). This legislation prohibited giving & taking and even demanding dowry. The act contained several preventive and punitive provisions but it lacked enforcement by the government officials. It did not curb the dowry practice since no action was taken on registered cases and people were not aware of the legislation. The term dowry was originally defined in the Act as anything given as consideration for the marriage. It excluded wedding presents given to either party at the time of performance of customary rituals, provided the value does not exceed Rs. 2000.[5] Due to several loopholes the Act was amended in 1984 and 1986, to dilate the meaning of the term ‘Dowry’ and to enhance the punishments for the violations of the provisions under the act.

After the amendment in 1984, the term “as consideration for the marriage of the said parties” was substituted with “in connection with the marriage of the said parties” to give the definition of dowry a wider meaning. This made any payment before, at or after the marriage, either in cash or kind, inclusive under the expression ‘dowry’. In Yogendra Kumar Bansal v. Smt Anju[6], Allahabad High Court held that demanding any valuables or property some days after the marriage is also demand of dowry. Also, the government made it mandatory to maintain a list of gifts in the form of a sworn affidavit as per The Dowry Prohibition (Maintenance of List of present to the Bride and Bridegroom) Rules, introduced in 1985.

After the amendment in 1986, punishments were also made more stringent. Though, the courts have the discretion to reduce the punishments after recording adequate and special reasons. Under Section 3, the act of giving or taking of dowry or its abetment makes the offenders liable for a punishment with a mandatory minimum of five years of imprisonment along with fine, not less than Rs. 15,000 or the amount of the value of dowry, whichever is more. Under Section 4, the offenders guilty of dowry demand are punishable with imprisonment for a period of six months to two years, and fine up to Rs 10,000. By the virtue of Section 8 every offence under the act is non-bailable and non-compoundable. As per Section 8-A,[7] the burden of proof lies on a person who denies offence.

Indian Penal Code, 1860

The aim of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was to limit the Dowry cases and its related violence which the Dowry legislation failed to do. With the rise in the dowry cases, The Indian Penal Code (IPC), Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC), and Indian Evidence Act (IEA) were amended as per the Criminal law (Amendment) Act, 1983 and 1986 by adding Section 304-B and Section 498-A.

Section 304 – B of IPC states that the death of a woman is dowry death when:

  • It is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs in abnormal circumstances,
  • Within seven years of her marriage,
  • Soon before death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relatives, and
  • Such cruelty was in connection to dowry demand.

A person who commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term minimum of seven years which may extend to imprisonment for life. In the case of State of Punjab v. Iqbal Singh,[8] Supreme Court explained that a period of seven years is sufficient for the assumption by the legislature that a couple has attained stability and has settled down in life.

In Rajbir’s case,[9] Petitioner was found guilty of murdering his pregnant wife for demanding a cash amount, only six months after marriage.  He was given punishment of life imprisonment and Supreme Court directed all trial courts to ordinarily add Section 302 to Section 304-B, IPC, so death sentences could be given for all barbaric crimes against women. This precedent was rectified in the case of Jasvinder Saini, when Supreme Court held that a charge of Section 302, IPC, cannot be ordinarily framed in every dowry death case if no material evidence supports it.

In case of Mustafa Shahadal Shaikh v. State of Maharashtra,[10] the court explained that the term “Soon before death” means that the time interval should not be ample between the harassment or cruelty concerned and the death of the bride. Its interpretation varies according to facts & circumstances of each case.

Section 498A of IPC deals with a married woman subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his family. Punishment for cruelty is imprisonment for a term up to three years and also a fine. The cruelty can be either mental or physical torture. It consists of any wilful conduct which drives the women to commit suicide or to cause serious injury, or danger to life or health, due to dowry demands.

In case of Inder Raj Malik v. Sunita Malik,[11] the Delhi High Court held that a person convicted under Section 498A, IPC, and Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 does not attract double jeopardy under Article 20(2) of Indian Constitution. In the Act, demand of dowry is punishable but there might not be an act of cruelty whereas in IPC, presence of cruelty is a necessary element for Section 498A. Thus, both can be differentiated.

Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

Section 174 and Section 176 of Cr.PC deals with inquest of unnatural deaths by police and executive magistrate respectively. If there is death of a woman within seven years of her marriage and any relative of the woman requests for examination or the death of the woman involves suspicion or suicide, the police officer will forward the body for post-mortem examination. Magistrates are also empowered to hold an inquiry in addition to investigation held by the police in similar circumstances.

Indian Evidence Act, 1872

According to Section 113– A of IEA, when a woman commits suicide within the seven years of her marriage and was prior subjected to cruelty by her husband or any relative of her husband, the court may presume that such a suicide has been abetted by her husband or by such relative of her husband.

According to Section 113– B of IEA, when there is death of a woman and it is shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection to dowry demand, by a person; the court shall presume that such person has caused the dowry death. Given the nature of the dowry offences that are generally committed in the privacy of residential homes and in secrecy, insertion of section 113B in IEA will strengthen the position of prosecution by permitting a certain presumption to be raised if certain fundamental facts are established.

Conclusion

Dowry system is like a curse to the Indian society. Its termination cannot be achieved by mere enactment of the law against dowry. Social boycott by people, activism by women welfare organizations, and retribution by police and judiciary, are essentials for awarding deterrent punishment to all offenders. Nevertheless, an improvement in the educational status of the females and the availability of job opportunities and self- employment opportunities will help in women empowerment. Further, educational cum awareness programs should be designed to make people aware of the stringent legislations as well as the consequences of their violation. The ultimate aim should be of the evolution of the society in a unit where equality is established in totality and marriage is looked as a sacred tie and not a deal to accumulate materialistic gains.


[1] Keerthan M . Murali & Arya.R, “A Study On Presumption of dowry in Indian Evidence Law”, 2018, available at https://acadpubl.eu/hub/2018-120-5/1/32.pdf (last visited on May 20, 2020).

[2] Gurdev Singh, Dr. Ashwani Kumar and Dr. Neeraj Singh, “Dowry death and legal protection of women in India” 3(8) International Journal of Applied Research 100-104 (2017).

[3] (2010) 7 SCC 667.

[4] AIR 2000 SC 2324.

[5] Richa Gupta, “The evil of dowry in India: A legal insight” 3(4) International Journal of Law 57-64 (2017).

[6] 1989 All.L.J.914.

[7] Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986 (Act 43 of 1986), s. 8-A.

[8] (1991) 3 SCC 1.

[9] Rajbir @ Raju v. State of Haryana AIR 2011 SC 568.

[10] Mustafa Shahadal Shaikh v. State of Maharashtra 2008 (110) Bom L R 48.

[11] Inder Raj Malik v. Sunita Malik (1986) Cr LJ 1510.

Mansi Mathpal from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi

“Uncertainity in certain things is the fascinating space scoping for magic”

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