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The rumpus over the dowry death law

All that Urmila Devi wanted was a happy married life. She left her paternal home with dreams of lifelong companionship with her husband Pritam. Hailing from a society that often refers to a girl as Lakshmi (the harbinger of wealth), she was expected to do exactly that — Urmila’s parents were asked to give a certain amount of cash and a motorbike as dowry. When they failed to amass the money, both her in-laws and her husband began torturing her physically and mentally. Eventually, within a year-and-a-half, the young bride was burnt to death.

Urmila’s is not the only dowry case in India. Every day sees at least 18 dowry deaths in the country. Nevertheless, this case is of immense importance as it highlights the fact that the existing law on dowry death — Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — needs amendment.

According to Section 304-B, a death can be categorised as a “dowry death” and a woman’s husband and in-laws deemed to have caused her death only if certain conditions are met. First, if the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs unnaturally. Secondly, if the death occurs within seven years of her marriage. Thirdly, the woman is subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or in-laws just before her death. And fourthly, cruelty or harassment has been for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry. The section further states that the offence is a non-bailable one and that the guilty would get not less than seven years of rigorous imprisonment, which could be extended to life imprisonment or death penalty, depending on the nature of the case.

Noting the brutality of Urmila’s murder, Allahabad High Court judge M. Katju J. sent a copy of his statement along with the case details to the law minister and the home minister of India, seeking an amendment to the law. He said in his forwarding letter, “In my opinion dowry death is worse than murder but surprisingly there is no death penalty for it whereas death penalty can be given for murder. In my opinion the time has come to amend the law and death sentences should also be permitted in cases of dowry deaths.” The National Commission for Women (NCW), too, backed this demand. Following this, in 2003, the Law Commission of India was assigned the task of drafting a recommendation to initiate an amendment.

The commission had two options before it. First, to examine the subject of dowry death and frame new laws related to it. Second, to confine its consideration only to the point that was referred to it — the amendment of Section 304-B of the IPC.

“We chose the second as the issue was of making death penalty compulsory. Had we chosen the first, the issue would have lost its importance,” explains D.P. Sharma, member secretary, Law Commission of India, New Delhi. The commission finally concluded that Section 304-B of the IPC didn’t need to be amended. However, it raised the tenure of punishment from seven to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. This judgement has left the legal fraternity divided and sparked off a debate.

“Section 304-B was created to deal with cases where a bride met an unnatural death within seven years of marriage. It’s an exhaustive section taking all details into account and offers apt punishment, with proper consideration being given to the facts available,” says Sharma. However, if a case of dowry death falls in the ambit of murder, the death penalty is legally permissible, as per the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court, he explains.

Calcutta High Court advocate Joymalya Bagchi is of the same opinion. “If the Law Commission says no to the amendment, it must have valid reasons for saying so. The existing section (304-B) is good enough to tackle the menace and requires no amendment,” he says.

Asha Gaurisaria, advocate, Calcutta High Court, also seems content with the report. She says, “I am relieved that no amendment has been made to Section 304-B of the IPC.” However, she didn’t seem to be pleased with the report in totality. “The tenure of punishment shouldn’t have been raised. We shouldn’t forget the fact that these laws are often misused to harass in-laws,” she complained. But has Section 304-B of the IPC ever been misused? “As a law enforcer, I have never come across a single case where Section 304-B of IPC has been misused,” confirms a senior police official.

The Law Commission has also been criticised for its conclusion. Some prosecutors seem a bit ruffled by it. “Section 304-B of the IPC is a comprehensive law and many would say that it need not be amended. But I, as a prosecutor, would have definitely liked it had the punishment been extended to life imprisonment,” says Taj Mohammad, deputy director, public prosecution, South 24-Parganas.

“If the death penalty or life imprisonment is the punishment for murder cases, why not the same for a dowry death? How can a person get away with only 10 years of punishment for a dowry death,” asks a senior police official.

But people like Gaurisaria beg to differ. “Section 304-B is a dangerous law, because one doesn’t need to prove one’s crime. It’s presumed that the accused is guilty. So if an innocent is framed, any extension of imprisonment would mean more injustice,” she argues.

A number of laws like the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 (often touted as toothless) and Section 113-A and Section 113-B in the Evidence Act exist to tackle the problem of dowry. But none of them is good enough. For proof, look at National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) statistics. According to the NCRB’s annual report, there were 6,787 dowry death cases in 2005, a number large enough to make any civilised society hang its head in shame. While Bihar and Madhya Pradesh topped the list, the State Crimes Record Bureau, West Bengal, recorded at least 445 dowry deaths in 2006.

“Yes, it’s true that the accused has to prove his innocence. One needs to remember that these crimes are generally committed in the privacy of residential homes. So getting independent or direct evidence is not an easy task. Often this lack of evidence is used by the defence to bail out the accused with less punishment,” explains Taj. “Don’t you think that the lack of any direct link between the husband and the woman’s death indicates that the act is a more planned and calculated one? Even the motive is clear — demand for dowry. So why not a more rigorous punishment,” he asks.

So does this mean that 10 years of imprisonment isn’t fine? “Perhaps not,” argues Amitava Ganguly, special prosecutor, Government of India. He says, “Only stringent implementation of the existing laws can restrain people from committing such crimes. I agree that there are parents who seek financial compensation to withdraw a case, but for the sake of those seeking justice I guess the punishment needs to be increased to a life sentence.”

Whatever the debate may be — in favour or against the decision of the commission — perhaps it’s only fair that the state shouldn’t be entrusted with taking the life of an accused, though the law of the land approves of it in certain cases. Nevertheless, those found guilty need to be punished in such a way that others learn a lesson and are forced to think a thousand times before striking a matchstick to set ablaze another Urmila.

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