Interpretation of Phrase “Soon before” under Section 304-B of IPC A need for a liberal approach
Written By:- Shreem Thite
For many years, dowry death has been a fundamental issue in Indian society. The vexing nature of dowry death, in which married women are subjected to abuse as a result of the husband’s and his family’s covetous demands, has not gone ignored. As a first step toward eradicating this social evil, Parliament passed the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Furthermore, because the measures were deemed insufficient, the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983 (Act 46 of 1983) was passed, introducing Chapter XXA of the IPC, which contains Section 498A. Despite the aforesaid laws, however, dowry harassment continued to be a problem. In addition, there was an increasing tendency of young brides dying in questionable circumstances as a result of dowry demands. Apart from that, Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code was added as a strict measure to combat the scourge of dowry death in India.
There is no doubt that such social evil still exists today. Female dowry fatalities account for 40 to 50 percent of all female killings documented annually in India, according to a research issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime titled “Global Study on Homicide: Gender-related killing of women and girls.”
The Apex Court in its recent judgment in the case of Satbir Singh & Another vs State of Haryana LL 2021 SC 260, where a woman was burned to death for dowry after only a year of marriage, finds the defendant guilty and critically analyzed section 304-B, specifically a phrase “Soon before” mentioned in the said provision, with the view of liberally interpreting the said phrase. In this article, we will analyze what the court had stated and what is its view regarding the interpretation of Section 304-B of IPC.
Dowry Death Under Section 304-B
The term “dowry death” is defined in Section 304B (1). It states that ‘dowry death’ takes place when a woman dies within seven years of marriage as a result of burning or bodily injuries, or otherwise than under normal circumstances, and it is proven that she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband in connection with dowry demand. Those who commit dowry death will be punished under sub-clause (2).
The IPC’s Section 304B is one of many legislative actions adopted by Parliament to address a longstanding social ill.
Interpretation Of Phrase “Soon Before”
The court while interpreting the phrase “Soon before” in the Section 304-B, IPC stated that though it is a criminal statute, it must be read strictly in most cases however, when rigid interpretation leads to absurdity or goes against the spirit of the law, the courts may, in suitable situations, rely on the true text. To clarify such uncertainties, the meaning of the words should be understood in their ordinary sense.
Given the importance of such a law, a stringent reading would undermine the very purpose for which it was passed. As a result, it’s safe to assume that the phrases “soon before” did not imply “immediately before” when the legislature introduced them. They instead entrusted it to the courts to decide. Cruelty or harassment is defined differently in each circumstance. Cruelty can be physical, verbal, or even emotional in nature. This is by no means an exhaustive list. As a result, no straitjacket formulas can be established by this Court to define exactly what the expression “soon before” signifies.
As a result, courts should exercise their discretion in determining whether the time between the cruelty or harassment and the victim’s death falls within the term of “soon before.” The establishment of a “proximate and live link” between the cruelty and the victim’s death is critical to the aforesaid determination.
When the prosecution establishes that “soon before her death such woman was exposed to cruelty or harassment by such person for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry,” a presumption of causation against the accused emerges under Section 113B of the Evidence Act which deals with “Presumption as to Dowry Death”. Following that, the accused must refute the statutory presumption. The Court must provide the accused with incriminating circumstances and inquire for his response. The accused’s lawyer is also obligated to prepare his case with caution from the start of the trial, taking into account the peculiarities of Section 304B of the IPC and Section 113B of the Evidence Act.
In Kans Raj v. the State of Punjab, (2000) 5 SCC 207, this Court took a similar stance and stated: “Soon before is a relative term which is required to be considered under specific circumstances of each case and no straitjacket formula can be laid down by fixing any time limit. In relation to dowry deaths, the circumstances showing the existence of cruelty or harassment to the deceased are not restricted to a particular instance but normally refer to a course of conduct. Such conduct may be spread over a period of time. The proximate and live link between the effect of cruelty based on dowry demand and the consequential death is required to be proved by the prosecution.
The demand of dowry, cruelty or harassment based on such demand and the date of death should not be too remote in time which, under the circumstances, be treated as having become stale enough”.
In the case of Rajinder Singh v. State of Punjab, (2015) 6 SCC 477, the same view has been reiterated.
The legislative intention of Section 304B of the IPC must be taken into account while interpreting it. The prosecution must first prove the existence of the elements that make up an offense under Section 304B of the IPC. Once these conditions are met, the rebuttable presumption of causality established by Section 113B of the Evidence Act works against the accused.
The wording “soon before” in Section 304B of the IPC cannot be interpreted to indicate “immediately before.” The prosecution must show that there is a “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and the husband’s or relatives’ abuse or harassment for dowry demand.
Contemplating the views given by Apex Court, it can rightly be concluded that a liberal approach in interpreting the laws would make the aim of law prevail for which it is made when applying such law literally would lead to absurdity.
About the Author
Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur, C.G.