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Report No. 202

3.6 Dowry Death vis-à-vis Murder:

3.6.1 Dowry death may or may not be a case of murder. Where it is a case of murder, death sentence can be awarded in appropriate cases. But when it is not so, imposition of death sentence may not be in symmetry with the cardinal principle underlying the capital offences in the Indian Penal Code. It may be noted that even before insertion of Section 304B on dowry death in 1984, there have been cases of dowry deaths which were prosecuted for murder under Section 300, IPC.

Thus, State (Delhi Administration) v. Laxman Kumar and others, (AIR 1986 SC 250) was a case of bride burning wherein the trial court accepted the prosecution case and considering it to be one of the atrocious dowry deaths, had sentenced each of the respondents to death, namely, the husband, the mother-inlaw and brother-in-law. The High Court, however, acquitted the respondents of the charge of murder of one Sudha by setting fire to her. On appeal, the Supreme Court partly allowed the appeal. In para 47 of the Judgment, the Court made the following observations.

"47. The next relevant aspect for consideration is what should be the proper punishment to be imposed. The learned trial Judge had thought it proper to impose the punishment of death. Acquittal intervened and almost two yeas have elapsed since the respondents were acquitted and set at liberty by the High Court. In a suitable case of bride burning, death sentence may not be improper (emphasis supplied).

But in the facts the case and particularly on account of the situation following the acquittal at the hands of the High Court and the time lag, we do not think it would be proper to restore the death sentence as a necessary corollary to the finding of guilt. We accordingly allow both the appeals partly and direct that the two respondents, Smt. Shakuntala and Laxman kumar shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life. Both the appeals against Subhash stand dismissed and his acquittal is upheld. Steps shall be taken by the trial Judge to give effect to this Judgement as promptly as feasible (at p.266)."

3.6.2 Smt. Lichhamadevi v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1988 SC 1785 was another case of dowry death that arose before the insertion of Section 304B in the Indian Penal Code. In this case, the trial Court acquitted the accused but High Court, reversing her acquittal, awarded death sentence. On appeal, the Supreme Court modified the death sentence to life imprisonment in view of the two opinions of the Courts below as to the guilt of the accused. It will be expedient to refer to the following observations made by the Court in this regard;

"15. The case before us is not an accidental fire causing the death. This is certainly a case "being put on fire by someone". The deceased having been burnt is not in dispute. It is a case of bride burning. The Court in State (Delhi Admn.) v. Lakshman Kumar, 1985 Supp (2) SCR 898 at p.931 : (AIR 1986 SC 250 at p. 266) has observed that in the case of bride burning, death sentence may not be improper. We agree. The persons who perpetrate such barbaric crime, without any human consideration must be given the extreme penalty.

But in the present case, we do not think that the High Court was justified in awarding death sentence on the accused-appellant. In 1977 she was acquitted by the trial court. In 1985 the High Court reversed her acquittal and gave the extreme penalty. It was after a gap of eight yeas. When there are two opinions as to the guilt of the accused by the two Courts, ordinarily the proper sentence would be not death but imprisonment for life. Apart from that, there is no direct evidence that the appellant had sprinkled kerosene on Pushpa and lighted fire on her.

There must have been other persons also who have combined and conspired together and committed the murder. It is unfortunate that they are not before the Court. From the Judgment of the High Court, it is apparent that the decision to award death sentence is more out of anger than on reasons. The Judicial discretion should not be allowed to be swayed by emotions and indignation."

3.6.3 State of Punjab v. Amarjit Singh, AIR 1988 SC 2013 is another pre-Section 304B case of dowry death where the accused was convicted and sentenced for life imprisonment for his wife being put in fire for not satisfying his dowry demands.

3.6.4 Subedar Tiwari v. State of U.P. and others, AIR 1989 SC 737 is another case of bride burning where a highly educated wife died on unnatural death by burning within a short span of nine months of her marriage. Although it was not a dowry death, yet the case is relevant for the reason that the husband could be prosecuted and sentenced to suffer imprisonment for life for such an unnatural death under Section 302 if both accident and suicide could be excluded on facts.

3.6.5 Panakanti Sampath Rao v. State of A.P., (2006) 9 SCC 658 is a case where the accused was charged with commission of offences under Sections 498A, 302 and 304B IPC and Sections 3 and 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act. The trial court acquitted him of the offence of murder under Section 302 but convicted him on the remaining counts. He was sentenced to life imprisonment under Section 304B besides the punishment awarded under other charges. On appeal, the High Court found the accused guilty of the offence under Section 302 IPC. This was affirmed by the Supreme Court also.

3.6.6 Wazir Chand and another v. State of Haryana, AIR 1989 SC 378 is another case of dowry death wherein the accused persons, the husband and the father-in-law were proceeded against under Ss. 306 r/w 107 for abetting commission of suicide but were acquitted of the charge as suicide could not be proved. Yet they were convicted under Section 498A in view of the fact the harassment for dowry was proved.

3.6.7 State of U.P. v. Ashok Kumar Srivastava, AIR 1992 SC 840 is another case of bride burning for dowry wherein a young woman aged about 25 years died of burns within less than a year of her marriage. The three accused were charged and convicted under Section 302/34 IPC by the trial court and were sentenced to imprisonment for life. However, the High Court acquitted the accused as the trustworthiness of some of the prosecution witnesses was suspected.

Though ordinarily the Supreme Court is slow to interfere in an acquittal while exercising power under article 136 but in this case the apex court found that the approach of the High Court had resulted in gross miscarriage of justice. The court, therefore, did not find it possible to refuse to interfere in such a case where gruesome crime was committed which resulted in the extinction of young mother to be. Accordingly, the Supreme Court allowed the appeal restored the order of conviction and sentence passed by the trial court.

3.6.8 The curse of dowry claimed another victim in Kundula Bale Subrahmanyam v. State of A.P., (1993) 2 SCC 684 wherein the husband and mother-in-law of the deceased Kundula Koti Nagbani were convicted under Sections 302/34 IPC and sentenced to suffer imprisonment for life. It will be expedient to refer the following observations made by the Supreme Court in this case.

"25. Of late there has been an alarming increase in cases relating to harassment, torture, abetted suicides and dowry deaths of young innocent brides. This growing cult of violence and exploitation of the young brides, though keeps on sending shock waves to the civilized society whenever it happens, continues unabated. There is a constant erosion of the basic human values of tolerance and the spirit of "live and let live". Lack of education and economic dependence of women have encouraged the greedy perpetrators of the crime.

It is more disturbing and sad that in most of such reported cases it is the woman who plays pivotal role in this crime against the younger woman, as in this case with the husband either acting as a mute spectator or even an active participant in the crime, in utter disregard of his matrimonial obligations. In many cases, it has been noticed that husband, even after marriage continues to be 'Mamma's baby' and the umbilical cord appears not to have been cut even at that stage."

3.6.9 Kailash Kaur v. State of Punjab, (1987) 2 SCC 631 is yet another case of unfortunate instance of gruesome murder of a young wife by the barbaric process of pouring kerosene oil all over the body and setting her on fire as the culmination of a long process of physical and mental harassment for extraction of more dowry. The prosecution case was that the sister-in-law caught hold of the deceased and the mother-in-law poured kerosene oil on her and set her on fire.

The Supreme Court observed that "whenever such cases come before the court and offence is brought home to the accused beyond reasonable doubt, it is the duty of the court to deal with it in most severe and strict manner and award the maximum penalty prescribed by the law in order that it may operate as a deterrent to other persons from committing such antisocial crimes."

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