Interpret law to curb menace; be cautious: SC to courts on dowry death cases

Tracing the history of the Dowry Prohibition Act and amendments to it, particularly the 1096 amendments by which Section 304B was specifically introduced in the IPC, as a stringent provision to curb the menace of dowry death in the country.

Stating that the “menace of dowry death is increasing day by day”, the Supreme Court Friday called upon courts to interpret the law on the topic keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the “social evil of bride burning and dowry demand” while also being cautious against attempts to rope in family members of the accused husband, though they may have no active role in the commission of the offence and may be residing at distant places.

Tracing the history of the Dowry Prohibition Act and amendments to it, particularly the 1096 amendments by which Section 304B was specifically introduced in the IPC, as a stringent provision to curb the menace of dowry death in the country, a bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justice Aniruddha Bose said “considering the significance of such a legislation, a strict interpretation would defeat the very object for which it was enacted”.

Section 304B (1) defines ‘dowry death’ as the death of a woman caused by burning or bodily injuries or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances, within seven years of marriage, and it is shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband, in connection with demand for dowry.

The court was hearing an appeal against an order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court upholding the conviction of a man in the case of the death of his wife in the 13th month of their marriage. The accused argued that prosecution had failed to prove there was any demand for dowry and even if assuming there was such a demand, the state had not proved that it was made “soon before” or proximate to the death of the woman.

CJI Ramana said that though generally the section is to be interpreted strictly, however, “where strict interpretation leads to absurdity… the courts may, in appropriate cases, place reliance upon the genuine import of the words, taken in their usual sense to resolve such ambiguities”.

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