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Bride and prejudice

Manure, demand and Thimet. All three are odd bedfellows in a 15-year-old dowry case that leapt to limelight this January following a controversial judgment by a Supreme Court bench.

In September 1991, Bhimabai died in Palshi village in Maharashtra. She had been married 30 months and a post-mortem report found she had been felled by insecticide poisoning, Thimet, to be precise.

Bhimabai made it to rather more prominent headlines when the Supreme Court this year delivered a verdict that overturned a guilty verdict by the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court against Appasaheb Palaskar, Bhimabai’s husband, of abetment to suicide in a dowry death case and a mandatory sentence of seven years’ rigorous imprisonment. Appasaheb who was in jail was acquitted and released and his mother who was on bail was discharged. Bhimabai’s parents had taken Appasaheb to court alleging their daughter’s death was related to demands (including money for manure) made by the husband’s family after the marriage and their ill-treatment of her.

It was the wording of a part of the judgement that created a stir in legal circles and social organisations. Judges G.P. Mathur and R.V. Raveendran noted: “A demand for money on account of some financial stringency or for meeting some urgent domestic expenses or for purchasing manure cannot be termed a demand for dowry as the said word is normally understood. The evidence adduced by the prosecution does not, therefore, show that any demand for “dowry” as defined in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act was made by the appellants as what was allegedly asked for was some money for meeting domestic expenses and for purchasing manure.”

Since the judgment, critics have argued that dowry seekers have been given the loophole they were seeking. Brinda Karat, MP, and vice-president of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), called the judgment “appalling”. “It is shocking that in this day and age, when dowry is spreading like an epidemic, judges can be so divorced from reality,” Karat told The Telegraph.

The reality Karat was talking about had been documented by AIDWA in a survey of 17 states on dowry. Among other things, Expanding Dimensions of Dowry (2003) revealed that the practice of dowry had spread from the north to other parts of the country. In 2005, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded a dowry death every 77 minutes.

The Chief Justice of India, who met a delegation led by Karat, reportedly said he could not take suo moto action over the Appasaheb judgement — a legal remedy had to be sought. AIDWA has said it will file a curative petition in the Supreme Court seeking reinterpretation of the apex court’s ruling.

Does this judgment mean there are extenuating circumstances for grooms to consistently make demands for dowry'

Explaining the nuances of the case, Delhi-based advocate Radhika Kolluru says, “Despite the furore and controversy, the interpretation given to ‘dowry’ is more or less in line with that given in previous Supreme Court judgments whereby not all demands for money/ property by the husband/ his family have been considered to be ‘dowry demands’.”

Under the Dowry Prohibition Act, “dowry” is defined as any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly by the girl’s side to the boy’s at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the proposed marriage (excluding mehr).

Kolluru says that here the Supreme Court concluded that the demand for money to meet urgent household expenses or buy manure (which Bhimabai’s parents said Appasaheb had asked their daughter for) was not a demand for property or valuable security “in connection” with the marriage of the two. Nor was it tantamount to demanding dowry as understood in the Indian social and customary context.

Women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes says this was really a dowry prohibition case and not one of dowry death. “It is easy to criticise judges but the fact is that a very narrow view of money transaction is taken in these matters. A big issue is made only of the taking and giving of money at the time of marriage. What about other money demands related to salary, goods and contingency finance' These are not covered by the dowry act.”

Kolluru says it is “unfortunate that the Supreme Court has not changed its position subsequent to 1984 when the Act was amended to substitute ‘in connection with the marriage of the parties’ for ‘in consideration for’.” That would have expanded the definition of dowry to account for changing social practices such as continual demands by the husband’s family even after the marriage and not merely under the threat of ending the marriage. Dowry was customarily demanded as a precondition to the marriage but the statutory definition also includes demands made after the marriage and is therefore much wider than the “social customary practice of dowry” referred to by the Supreme Court.

Lawyers like Agnes and Kolluru feel the present statutory definition of dowry should also include demands made under the threat of continued mental or physical cruelty. Kolluru explains that to satisfy the ingredients of a “dowry death” not only must there be demands for dowry but also cruelty or harassment with a “perceivable nexus” to the death/ suicide of the wife. “Perhaps the most unfortunate thing in the present case was that the sessions judge acquitted the accused for the offence of cruelty and that the State did not bother to appeal against the acquittal on this count,” says Kolluru. The definition of cruelty includes demands for money or property without the precondition that it be connected with marriage. Therefore, a coercive demand from Bhimabai’s family for a sum of Rs 1,000-1200 for household expenses or to buy manure would constitute “cruelty” as defined by the statute, she contends.

“In fact, the Supreme Court, in this case, indicated that there had been cruelty and the death had been caused by such cruelty. From the tenor of its concluding observations, the court hinted that had it been allowed to go into the issue of cruelty it would have in all likelihood convicted the accused under section 498A while acquitting them under Section 304B.”

“The fact remains that a woman died,” says Flavia Agnes. “We must see what drove her to this, the scale and extent of humiliation.”

IPC sections relating to dowry

Section 498A cruelty against woman for dowry

Section 304-B dowry death

Section 306 abetment of suicide

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