In a significant observation, the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court noted that demand of money for the construction of a house is a “dowry demand” and attracts the offence under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code.
Alleged continuous harassment at the hands of the accused led the victim to commit suicide. The apex court has restored the conviction and sentence of the man and his father under Section 304B.
Three judge bench comprising Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Justice AS Bopanna, and Justice Hima Kohli noted, “The word “Dowry” ought to be ascribed an expansive meaning so as to encompass any demand made on a woman, whether in respect of a property or a valuable security of any nature.”
In the present case, a Trial Court has convicted the husband and father-in-law of the deceased under Section 304B and Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. It was found that the accused had been demanding money from the deceased to construct a house.
The family members of the woman failed to give the money. Consequently, she was subjected to continuous harassment which ultimately triggered her to commit suicide.
The Madhya Pradesh High Court has found that the demand of money for the construction of a house cannot be treated as a dowry demand. The court noted that 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.
Supreme Court listed four prerequisites for convicting an accused for the offence punishable under Section 304- B which include
- that the death of a woman must have been caused by burns or bodily injury or occurred otherwise than under normal circumstance;
- that such a death must have occurred within a period of seven years of her marriage;
- that the woman must have been subjected to cruelty or harassment at the hands of her husband, soon before her death; and
- that such a cruelty or harassment must have been for or related to any demand for dowry
Expressing its disagreement with the High Court order, the apex court bench noted
“13. The Latin maxim “Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat” i.e, a liberal construction should be put up on written instruments, so as to uphold them, if possible, and carry into effect, the intention of the parties, sums it up. Interpretation of a provision of law that will defeat the very intention of the legislature must be shunned in favour of an interpretation that will promote the object sought to be achieved through the legislation meant to uproot a social evil like dowry demand. In this context the word “Dowry” ought to be ascribed an expansive meaning so as to encompass any demand made on a woman, whether in respect of a property or a valuable security of any nature.
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.”
The submission made by learned counsel for the respondents that the deceased was also a party to such a demand as she had on her own asked her mother and maternal uncle to contribute to the construction of the house, must be understood in the correct perspective. It cannot be lost sight of that the respondents had been constantly tormenting the deceased and asking her to approach her family members for money to build a house and it was only on their persistence and insistence that she was compelled to ask them to contribute some amount for constructing a house. The Court must be sensitive to the social milieu from which the parties hail.”
The CJI led bench observed that the Trial court had correctly interpreted the demand for money as a dowry demand.