Dowry deaths are a type of gender-based violence that persists in many regions of the world, including India and many South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. They are a serious issue in India, where the practice of giving dowry to the groom’s family, despite being illegal since 1961, is still prevalent in many communities. The practice is rooted in patriarchal attitudes and patterns that view women as economic burdens on their families and prioritize the interests and materialistic demands of men over those of women and their lives.
In retaliation to this, the Indian government enacted Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code in 1986, making dowry killing a crime. In this blog, we assess how dowry death is defined and articulated as a detriment in this provision. The death of a woman caused by exposure to cruelty, harassment, burns, or physical harm during seven years of marriage can be demonstrated that the death was caused by cruelty or harassment by her husband or his family in connection with dowry demands. Punishment for dowry death is a minimum sentence of imprisonment for seven years or a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life by the court of law in our country.
Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code recognizes the gravity of dowry deaths and imposes severe penalties on those found guilty. If a woman dies within seven years of her marriage due to burns, any bodily injury, or mental and physical harassment inflicted on by her husband or his relatives in connection to any dowry demands: The accused then faces a minimum of seven years of imprisonment and a maximum of life in prison if convicted under grave guilty grounds. In such circumstances, the accused bears the burden of demonstrating real-life evidence that the death was not caused by cruelty or dowry harassment.
On September 27, 2023, The Supreme Court of India (SC) emphasized the critical importance of ensuring that a dying declaration is trustworthy and reliable and inspires confidence when it is considered the sole basis for a criminal conviction in the matter of Phulel Singh v. State of Haryana, which sparked on as a landmark case and judgment throwing light on dowry deaths under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code.
The marriage between the deceased and the appellant was legally officiated in 1987.
* It was contended on behalf of the prosecution that the appellant used to harass the deceased since soon after their marriage on account of giving him insufficient dowry.
* Yielding to the demands of the appellant, the parents of the deceased paid the appellant in cash and 1990, gave him a scooter and gold ornaments.
* Further, the demands for dowry continued again which were brought to the notice of the father and brother of the deceased by her as she felt helplessly at no choice.
* Eventually the deceased was burnt at her in-laws’ household and was taken to the hospital where she was admitted and was unconscious.
* Medical examinations revealed that the deceased had 91% burns on her body.
* When the deceased regained consciousness, she told her brother that it was the appellant who had burnt her.
* The Executive Magistrate applied to obtain the opinion of the medical expert regarding her fit state of mind to record the statement, it was recorded at about 4:40 P.M. the same day and her thumb impression was also obtained.
* A First Information Report (FIR) was recorded based on the said statement of the deceased against her father-in-law, mother-in-law, and the appellant for the offenses punishable under Sections 498- A, 307, 406, and 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC).
* Later, soon after the death of the victim upon completion of investigation charges were constructed and framed for the offences punishable under Section 302 read with Section 34 of IPC and Section 304-B of IPC.
* The Sessions judge convicted them under Section 304-B but gave the benefit of the doubt to absolve them under Section 302 of IPC.
* The High Court discharged the father-in-law under Section 304-B IPC but confirmed the sentence given to the appellant.
* Dissatisfied with this, the appellant turned to the SC.
* The three-judge bench of SC comprising Justice BR Gavai, Justice PS Narsimha, and Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra Court highlighted the significant disparity in how the death declaration was handled by the HC.
* While the declaration was admitted as evidence against the appellant, it was met with skeptical views in the case of the deceased’s father-in-law.
* SC observed that the doctor testified that the Executive Magistrate had recorded the dying declaration at 04:40 P.M. on the given day but he had issued an outlook regarding the deceased’s fitness at 06:00 P.M. This raised doubts about the authenticity of the examination.
* Considering the entirety of the circumstances, the SC determined that the Dying Declaration (words said before death) could not be deemed untainted.
* SC further stated that considering the above observations and doubts surrounding the evidence, it could be said that the prosecution had not established the case under Section 304-B of IPC beyond a reasonable doubt. The SC therefore opined “So far as harassment concerning non-fulfilment of demand of dowry is concerned, except the vague allegation, there is nothing in their evidence to support the prosecution case” thereby setting aside the conviction of the appellant.
In the eventuality of the incident concerning PHULEL SINGH V/S STATE OF HARYANA, the court overserved and stated that there was no evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the deceased was harassed on account of non-fulfilments of demand of dowry and stated that no case was made out by the prosecution under Section 304-B of IPC. Therefore, the Court allowed the instant appeal, quashed the matter, and set aside the impugned judgment and order of conviction, acquitting the appellant of all charges leveled against him. In conclusion, the practice of dowry and the resulting dowry deaths are still prevalent as a major issue in India, and they reflect a broader problem of gender inequality and violence against women. While there have been efforts to address these issues, much more needs to be done to effectively eradicate dowry and to prevent dowry deaths and inhuman inequality towards women as a whole.
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