State of Madhya Pradesh vs Jogendra, SC 2022
FACTS – The deceased was 18 years old when she got married to the respondent No. 1 in a social marriage organisation function conducted on 7th May, 1998. In less than four years of her marriage, Geeta Bai committed suicide at her matrimonial home by pouring kerosene oil and setting herself on fire. She was admitted in a burnt condition in the Community Health Centre, Baroda on 20th April, 2002 and breathed her last on the same day. At that time, she was five months pregnant.
On receiving information from the attending doctor, an FIR was lodged. On completion of the investigation, the charge- sheet was filed and the case was committed for trial in the Sessions Court.
After examining the evidence produced by the prosecution and the defence, the trial Court acquitted Sushila – mother-in-law and Jitender – brother-in-law of the deceased, but convicted both the respondents [husband and father-in-law of the deceased] under Sections 304-B, 306 and 498-A IPC and imposed a sentence of rigorous imprisonment for life for the first offence, RI for a period of seven years with fine for the second offence and RI for three years with fine for the third offence. The conviction and sentence imposed on the respondents was primarily based on the evidence of Bansi Lal, Shyam Bihari and Amrit Lal, maternal uncles of the deceased who stated that the respondents had been demanding money from the deceased for constructing a house which her family members were unable to give. As a result, she was constantly harassed and subjected to cruelty, finally leading to her committing suicide.
Dr. V.K. Garg, who had conducted the post-mortem examination on the dead body of the deceased, had deposed that on examining the uterus, there was a foetus of five months in a dead condition and, in his opinion, the death of Geeta Bai had taken place due to burning.
On the respondents preferring an appeal against the judgment of conviction passed by the Sessions Court, the High Court gave a clean chit to the respondent No. 2 (father-in-law) , while setting aside the order of conviction in respect of the respondent No.1 under Sections 304B and 306 IPC. However, the conviction of the respondent No.1 was sustained under Section 498-A IPC, but the sentence of RI for three years imposed on him was reduced to the period already undergone by him. The High court held that the demand of money for construction of a house cannot be treated as a demand for dowry. The High Court agreed with the submission made by the learned counsel for A-1 and A-2, respondents herein that the offence under Section 304-B was not established against them as the demand allegedly made on the deceased was for money to construct a house, which cannot be treated as a dowry demand for connecting her death to the said cause.
CAUSE – Aggrieved by the judgment of the High Court, the present appeal was filed by the State of Madhya Pradesh in the Supreme Court.
ARGUMENTS – Mr. Prashant Singh, learned Advocate General for the appellant- State has contended that the High Court has failed to appreciate the harassment caused to the deceased at the hands of the respondents who had been constantly demanding money from her to construct a house and purchase a plot of land; that the High Court did not consider the testimonies of Bansi Lal, Shyam Bihari, Amrit Lal and Rajesh Bhai, who had unanimously stated that whenever the deceased used to visit her parental home, she would complain that she was being subjected to assault by the respondents for bringing a sum of ₹50,000/- for constructing a house and that it was due to this harassment caused by them that the deceased got fed up and was forced to commit suicide.
Learned counsel argued that contribution of money to construct a house, as demanded by the respondents from the deceased ought to be treated as a dowry demand and it is quite apparently a case where the offence under Section 304-B was made out.
It was also submitted that this was a clear-cut case of abetment to commit suicide and both the respondents had rightly been convicted for the said offence by the trial Court, which order has been erroneously overturned in appeal.
ISSUE – Whether the demand for money raised by the respondents on the deceased for construction of a house as falling within the definition of the word “dowry”.
DECISION – The most fundamental constituent for attracting the provisions of Section 304-B IPC is that the death of the woman must be a dowry death. The ingredients for making out an offence under Section 304-B have been reiterated in several rulings of this Court.
The most fundamental constituent for attracting the provisions of Section 304-B IPC is that the death of the woman must be a dowry death. The ingredients for making out an offence under Section 304-B have been reiterated in several rulings of the Supreme Court. Four pre-requisites for convicting an accused for the offence punishable under Section 304-B are as follows:
(i) that the death of a woman must have been caused by burns or bodily injury or occurred otherwise than under normal circumstance;
(ii) that such a death must have occurred within a period of seven years of her marriage;
(iii) that the woman must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment at the hands of her husband, soon before her death; and
(iv) that such a cruelty or harassment must have been for or related to any demand for dowry.
As the word “dowry” has been defined in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, the said provision gains significance and is extracted below:
“2. Definition of ‘dowry’ – In this Act, “dowry” means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly –
(a) by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or
(b) by the parents of either party to a marriage by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person; at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties, but does not include dower or mahr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal law
Explanation I.— xxx xxx xxx
Explanation II.— The expression “valuable security” has the same meaning as in section 30 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).”
In a three Judge Bench decision of this Court in Rajinder Singh v. State of Punjab, (2015) 6 SCC 477, Section 2 of the Dowry Act has been split into six distinct parts for a better understanding of the said provision, which are as follows:
“8. A perusal of Section 2 shows that this definition can be broken into six distinct parts:
(1) Dowry must first consist of any property or valuable security— the word “any” is a word of width and would, therefore, include within it property and valuable security of any kind whatsoever.
(2) Such property or security can be given or even agreed to be given. The actual giving of such property or security is, therefore, not necessary.
(3) Such property or security can be given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly.
(4) Such giving or agreeing to give can again be not only by one party to a marriage to the other but also by the parents of either party or by any other person to either party to the marriage or to any other person. It will be noticed that this clause again widens the reach of the Act insofar as those guilty of committing the offence of giving or receiving dowry is concerned.
(5) Such giving or agreeing to give can be at any time. It can be at, before, or at any time after the marriage. Thus, it can be many years after a marriage is solemnised.
(6) Such giving or receiving must be in connection with the marriage of the parties. Obviously, the expression “in connection with” would in the context of the social evil sought to be tackled by the Dowry Prohibition Act mean “in relation with” or “relating to”.”
In the light of the above provision that defines the word “dowry” and takes in its ambit any kind of property or valuable security, in our opinion, the High Court fell into an error by holding that the demand of money for construction of a house cannot be treated as a dowry demand.
The Court in the above judgement leaned in favour of assigning an expansive meaning to the expression “dowry” and held thus :-
“20. ………… We, therefore, declare that any money or property or valuable security demanded by any of the persons mentioned in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, at or before or at any time after the marriage which is reasonably connected to the death of a married woman, would necessarily be in connection with or in relation to the marriage unless, the facts of a given case clearly and unequivocally point otherwise.”
The Supreme Court held that when dealing with cases under Section 304-B IPC, a provision legislated to act as a deterrent in the society and curb the heinous crime of dowry demands, the shift in the approach of the courts ought to be from strict to liberal, from constricted to dilated. Any rigid meaning would tend to bring to naught, the real object of the provision. Therefore, a push in the right direction is required to accomplish the task of eradicating this evil which has become deeply entrenched in our society.
In the facts of the instant case,the Supreme Court was of the opinion that the trial Court had correctly interpreted the demand for money raised by the respondents on the deceased for construction of a house as falling within the definition of the word “dowry”.
In this background, the High Court fell in an error in drawing an inference that since the deceased had herself joined her husband and father-in-law, respondents herein and asked her mother or uncle to contribute money to construct a house, such demand cannot be treated as a “dowry demand”. On the contrary, the evidence brought on record shows that the deceased was pressurized to make such a request for money to her mother and uncle. It was not a case of complicity but a case of sheer helplessness faced by the deceased in such adverse circumstances.
Now, coming to the second point urged by learned counsel for the State that the High Court has overlooked the fact that Geeta Bai had been subjected to cruelty/harassment at the hands of the respondents soon before her death, which submission is strictly contested by learned counsel for the respondents, we may note that the meaning of the expression “soon before her death” has been discussed threadbare in several judgements.
In Surinder Singh v. State of Haryana, (2014) 4 SCC 129 the Supreme Court held that there must be a nexus between the demand of dowry, cruelty or harassment, based upon such demand and the date of death. The test of proximity will have to be applied. But, it is not a rigid test. It depends on the facts and circumstances of each case and calls for a pragmatic and sensitive approach of the court within the confines of law.
Taking into account the evidence brought on record by the prosecution, particularly, the testimony of P.W.-1, the Supreme Court held that it had no hesitation in holding that the analysis of the trial Court was correct and the respondents deserved to be convicted under Sections 304-B and 498-A IPC.
However, it did not propose to disturb the findings returned by the High Court that has acquitted the respondents for the offence of abetment to commit suicide under Section 306 IPC, as the prosecution could not bring any conclusive evidence on record to satisfactorily demonstrate that it was due to the abetment on the part of the respondents that the deceased had committed suicide by immolating herself.
Accordingly, the judgment of conviction and sentence passed by the trial Court in respect of both the respondents under Section 304-B and Section 498-A IPC, was restored. However, the sentence imposed on them by the trial Court of RI for life was reduced to RI for seven years, which is the minimum sentence prescribed for an offence under Section 304-B IPC.