Looking no less than a beautiful princess in her designer zari lehenga and heavy gold jewellery, she stepped on the stage decorated with flowers and lightings with the background of peacocks, to get married to her prince charming, but she never knew that she stepped on that stage only to enter into a hell wherein she was tortured and ill treated every day by her husband and her in-laws for bringing in less dowry, and soon her life came to an end as she was burnt alive by her in-laws, and in this way, one more case of bride burning added up to the ever increasing pile of dowry death cases.
What is Dowry (Dahej)?
According to Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, dowry means “any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person, at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties.”
For a layman, dowry is custom that is being followed from time immemorial in which the bride brings in property and money with her at the time of her marriage for the bridegroom, or the same is being given by the parents of the bride to the bridegroom or to his parents. It is a misconception that only the demands for money or property that are made at the time of marriage are termed as dowry. ‘Dowry, dowry and dowry’- in a landmark case decided by the Supreme Court of India, the word dowry has been used thrice because the demand for dowry is made on three occasions:
(i) before marriage,
(ii) at the time of marriage, and
(iii) after the marriage.
The demand for dowry continues even after the marriage has taken place because the greed and lust for money is limitless and it cannot come to an end on any occasion for the people who demand for it once.
What is Dowry Death?
Can we just call the death of a bride as a normal death that occurred in connection with the demand for dowry? The answer is NO. Such a death is known as a Dowry Death. The term dowry death has been defined under Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code. For a death to be called as a dowry death, the following conditions must be fulfilled:
(i) Where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage.
(ii) It should be shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband.
(iii) Such cruelty or harassment shall be in connection with any demand for dowry.
When the above conditions are fulfilled, it is presumed by the law that such a death is caused by the husband of the bride or the relatives of the husband. The burden lies on the husband and his relatives to prove that they have not caused the death of the bride. The law has given recognition to such a presumption because it is a well established fact that such crimes against the bride are generally committed in privacy of residential houses and in secrecy, and therefore, it is very difficult to obtain direct evidence in such cases. Crimes like bride burning or dowry deaths are committed within the four walls of the house where outsiders have no easy access to witness such a crime. While deciding as to whether the bride was harassed or ill treated by her husband or in-laws, various factors have to be taken into consideration, such as the time, place and intention of the husband and his family members. Motive of the husband and the in-laws in such cases is, generally, to get rid of the wife. Greedy husband and his relatives may find it convenient to cause the death of the bride so that the bridegroom may be once more available in the marriage market for sale and some other woman could become the victim of their lust for money. Dowry death has many forms, out of which bride burning, being the most barbaric one, is the most common. Kitchen being the place where Indian women spend majority of their time, the in-laws find it more convenient to kill the bride in the kitchen itself by pouring kerosene oil on her which is found in the kitchens of almost all the households, either for cooking purpose or for some other purpose, and then give the incident the name of an accident. However, it should be necessarily shown that soon before her death, the woman was being subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or her in-laws. Therefore, it becomes essential to understand the meaning of the term cruelty. Cruelty has been defined under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code and encompasses any of the following elements:
(i) Any ‘willful’ conduct which is of such nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide; or
(ii) Any ‘willful’ conduct which is likely to cause injury to the woman; or
(iii) Any ‘willful’ conduct which is likely to cause danger to life, limb or health, whether physical or mental, to the woman.
No hard and fast rules can be laid down as to what acts or conduct will amount to cruelty in any given case. Various factors have to be taken into consideration for deciding the same like the social status of the concerned parties, the environment, their education, their mental and physical condition etc. In general in matrimonial relations, accusations and taunts may also amount to mental cruelty. In many cases, the woman is forced to commit suicide due to the prevailing circumstances wherein she is not able to bear anymore the torture and ill treatment by her husband and in-laws. After facing the harassment by the husband and his relatives in connection with the demand of dowry, the mindset of the woman becomes such that she finds it more convenient to end her life herself instead of going through the physical and mental cruelty every day.
Who should be held responsible?
The tradition of giving and taking of dowry is prevalent in our society from time immemorial. In the primitive times, it was given as a security to the bride by her parents, but slowly with the advancement in time it was given as a wedding gift. In the year 1961 dowry was legally prohibited but its existence can be traced even today. Should the legislature be held responsible for this which is not able to implement the laws relating to dowry successfully or should we blame the parties involved in giving and taking of the dowry? The general opinion is such that our society blames the bridegroom and his family members for demanding dowry. But should not the parents of the bride and the bride herself be held responsible for encouraging this menace of ‘dowry’? Playing the role of a ‘security’ for the bride in the ancient times, dowry in the present times is playing the role of a status symbol. The parents of the bride are under the pressure of the society which believes in giving every possible material thing to the bride at the time of her marriage, from designer dresses to luxurious car. But are society fails to appreciate that we need to get rid of such a social pressure which disables the parents of the bride from understanding the evils of giving dowry. People need to understand that the practice, being encouraged by the rich class, of treating dowry as a status symbol has added up to the already existing burden on the middle and lower classes of the society and the latter’s incapacity to fulfill the demand for dowry of the bridegroom and his family ultimately results in cases of dowry deaths.
Student, B.A. L.L.B., School of Law, Christ University, Bangalore.
[Submitted as an entry for the MightyLaws.in Blog Post Writing Competition, 2011]