Since the emergence of patriarchal civilizations, women have always been subject to systemic inequality, and perceived as an inferior section of the society. Their role has been traditionally restricted to childbearing and home chores only. This patriarchal culture has limited women's independence and liberty in all aspects of life. A negative manifestation of this structural oppression is a global misfortune with no geographical or cultural boundaries – dowry killings.
The Grieve Practice of Dowry in India
Attempts by a groom’s family to extract the costs incurred on their son's upbringing and education from the bride's family, is referred to as dowry. In a patriarchal society like ours, this system is typical. Marriage in India is entrenched in tradition, with deep-rooted cultural beliefs and norms passed down intergenerationally.
However, this custom of dowry in marriages is a haunting curse. Nowadays, we are familiar to read news articles about dowry fatalities and women's anguish, due to their inability to pay their dowry, which bring the atrocities of this sin to the forefront. The vision of our country progressing in bride burning, from Sati to Dowry Death, over the years is extremely shameful. In India, according to the Indian National Crime Record Bureau, a bride was burned every 90 minutes as a result of dowry exploitation in 2012.
The root cause of this evil is the age-old gender bias mandated by orthodox customs, traditions, and beliefs, such as a preconceived notion of paying dowry in order to have a good societal reputation. Other major causes include illiteracy, inheritance disadvantage and greed. Over the past decades, this issue has taken a bad shape to an extent that people do not wish to raise daughters as they consider them to be a ‘financial burden’.
The Progression of Dowry Death Law
To combat this social scourge, the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 was passed, outlawing and criminalizing the practice of paying and receiving dowry. Furthermore, as this measure was deemed insufficient due to the lack of widespread implementation, the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983 was passed, introducing Chapter XX-A into the IPC, which contains Section 498A.The Law Commission took up the necessity for creating a strong law to prevent dowry killings in its 91st Law Commission Report. Further, by enacting the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986, the Parliament amended both the Dowry Prohibition Act and the IPC (Act 43 of 1986).This change gave birth to Section 304B of IPC which was introduced as a stringent provision to control the scourge of dowry killings in India.
Description of Section 304B of the IPC
The goal of Section 304B of the IPC is to put an end to dowry killings. It deals with both substantial and procedural aspects of the matter. The offence is cognizable, non-bailable, non-compoundable and triable in a Sessions Court. A person under Section 304B will be proved guilty only when all the essential elements of this Section are included. Under it, two sorts of punishment apply to two distinct degrees of culpable murder .Firstly, it is based on purpose to cause death or physical harm likely to cause death, and secondly, knowledge that the act is likely to cause death. The provisions of Section 304B of the IPC are more stringent than those of Section 498A of the Penal Code.
Has the Government succeeded in curbing the menace of 'dowry killing’?
The answer to the question is a strong “NO”. The tragic affair of dowry killing is still ongoing. According to the Indian National Crime Record Bureau, India has the world’s highest percentage of dowry-related killings. As per the research issued by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime titled “Global research on Homicide: Gender-related killing of women and girls”, in 2018, female dowry killings accounted for 40 to 50 percent of all female homicides filed in India. The unfortunate reality is that, these figures have remained steady from 1999 to 2016. Adding to its barbarity according to the most recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 7115 cases were reported under Section 304B of the IPC in 2019.
Legal Problems and Decisions
Despite the legal effort, there has been no major improvement in the status of women or reduction in the rates of dowry deaths. This is because the courts have been heavily mystified by the terminology used in Section 304B.
Over the years, courts have misinterpreted the phrase "soon before" in Section 304B as "immediately before". According to this misinterpretation, it becomes necessary for a woman to have been harassed just before her death. This confusion has made it difficult to condemn or punish the accused on time. Just because there is no evidence of torture prior to the woman's death, of all the pain and abuse she endured after her marriage, are considered immaterial; there can be nothing more unfair than this .According to the Telangana High Court, the accused is freed on this basis in several cases. Further, the definition of cruelty or harassment varies from case to case. Cruelty itself has a wide range, as it can be physical, verbal, or even emotional. As a result, no straitjacket formulae can be imposed by courts to define what exactly the phrase "soon before" entails. So, in order to avoid such absurd interpretation, the Chief Justice of India -N. V. Ramana- stated that the prosecution needs to show only a “proximate and live link” between the harassment and death.
Another point of concern is the statement "other than under regular circumstances". Under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code, death is not categorised as homicidal, suicidal, or accidental. Due to this lack of a specific differentiation between different possibilities as to how the death occurred, all dowry death cases are closed by imposing the same punishment on the deceased regardless of the offence. This calls for a liberal interpretation by the court which is important for a fair trial. The court should investigate the situation thoroughly and seek the possible causes of dowry death before awarding the appropriate punishment to ensure that justice is served.
These inconsistencies about interpretations of the penal provision on dowry killing have hampered the fight against this "long-standing social sin. "As stated by the Chief Justice of India, due to the unstable nature of Section 304B, it is necessary for the judges, prosecution, and defense to exercise caution during trials. To put a stop to the practice of dowry death, harsh punitive and preventive measures are urgently needed. Simultaneously, the police must be more vigilant in dealing with these offences.
The barbaric problem of dowry killings is extending its tentacles in every possible direction which must be halted immediately.
Firstly, the penalty for dowry killings should be increased from life imprisonment to even death sentences. Murders are committed in a fit of anger or for monetary benefit, but dowry murders are societal crimes as well. It offends the modern conscience and makes the society revert to feudal barbarism. By any stretch of the imagination, this is not a less heinous crime than murder, and as a result, it becomes important to impose death penalties too.
Secondly, the statutory phrasing of the article is too vague to effectively prohibit the practice of demanding or offering dowries. It is an issue of under inclusiveness. This needs to be amended in terms of defining and clarifying the nature of the offence, so that its definition is broadened and more acts can be charged as offences. Measures should be taken to ensure other possibilities for how the death occurred and whether it is necessarily categorised as a dowry death or not. This is a vital fact that has a substantial impact over the case and the appropriate penalty.
In some cases, the facts may not satisfy the required legal ingredients of the Article and thus the case may not fall into pigeon-holes of the dowry killing offence. Requirement of proof for certain offences causes a burden on the victim, and lack of evidence should not be the reason for denial of justice.
Furthermore, there should be no unreasonable delays in the resolution of dowry killings. Special courts may also be constituted for this purpose. According to studies, out of the total number of cases filed, 93% of the accused were charged, but only one-third were convicted. This is despite the fact that there are special regulations against the crime of dowry killing. This raises important considerations about the execution of existing laws and the wisdom of looking for legal answers to social problems without first addressing them on the underground. The system needs to be more attentive and responsive towards the necessities of the situation. To reduce the threat of dowry killing, it is vital to address this at multiple levels, rather than just the legal redressal level.
The irony of fate that the bride, who should be dearest to her husband and her in-laws, becomes the victim of the dowry offence is astonishing. Her own husband or near relatives become the culprit due to social, economic and psychological factors. Article 304B of the IPC is a an apt but insufficient strategy to eradicate this misogyny. It has been 35 years since it came into effect, but there is still little to none advancement in eliminating dowry killings and penalising culprits. It is important that the government must look after the enforcement of laws along with its framing. The sooner it is eradicated effectively by policy measures, the better it is our society.