Despite the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and amendment in 1987 providing for stringent punishment, the menace of dowry and dowry deaths persists unabated. Sections 3 and 4 of the Act not only prohibit actual giving or taking of dowry, but also make the demand of dowry at the time, before or after marriage, an offence punishable with imprisonment which may extend to two years.
The Supreme Court in S. Gopal Reddy v. State of Andhra Pradesh, has ruled that the demand of dowry for the proposed marriage which does not materialise for non-fulfilment of the dowry demand, is also an offence punishable with imprisonment upto two years. These offences are cognizable for the purpose of investigation by the police.
In the case of Shobha Rani v. Madhukar Reddy, the ground of divorce was cruelty caused by incessant demand of dowry. The husband’s version was that there was nothing wrong in his parents asking for few thousand rupees in time of need.
The trial court and the High Court of Andhra Pradesh ruled that a dowry case was not made out because there was nothing wrong and unusual in asking the wife to spare money when needed. But on appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the findings of the Courts below and held the husband guilty of demanding dowry.
The Supreme Court in Narottam Singh v. State of Punjab, commenting on dowry menace and domestic violence against women observed:
“It is distressing that dowry or bride-price should mar married felicity with feudal cruelty in India, largely because the anti-dowry law sleeps on the statute book and social consciousness is not mobilised to ban effectually its vicious survival. Law hanging limp, is a slur on the executive charged with its enforcement and its traumatic consequences… Will the administration be aware to the urgency of a campaign so that the people may become participants in the observance of social welfare legislation.”
In dowry death cases the courts are often confronted with the problem of deciding as to among the husband and relatives or whether all of them were guilty of burning or killing the wife or causing her death. The problem becomes more difficult when husband and wife are alone in the house. In absence of conclusive evidence, the husband or in-laws of the married woman invariably get acquitted on benefit of doubt.
Having regard to the difficulty in establishing cause of death beyond doubt, the legislature passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983 to resolve the problem of growing incidence of crimes against women, particularly, bride burning or dowry deaths. A new Section 498-A making cruelty against woman an offence was added to the IPC and consequential changes were made in Sections 174 and 176 of Cr. P.C. and a new Section 198-A was added in it.
The Amendment Act also added a new Section 113-A to Evidence Act which provides that where a married women commits suicide within seven years of her marriage or dies an unnatural death, presumption will be that she was subjected to cruelty by her husband or in-laws as the case may be, having regard to the circumstances of the case.
It must be stated that Section 304-B of I.P.C. makes dowry death an offence punishable with imprisonment of not less than seven years which may extend to imprisonment for life.