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Cruelty to wife for dark complexion punishable under section 498A of IPC - Mia v/s State Of West Bengal

The Black Lives Matter protest which began in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012, once again gained momentum following Floyd's death by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota which resulted in brands across the world, including India, either stopping sale of skin whitening products or rebranding their products so as to not belittle dark skin. Amidst this, the Calcutta High Court on 25th June 2020, in the case of Mazidul Miah @ Mia & Ors vs. State Of West Bengal[1] held that cruelty to wife for dark complexion attracts section 498 A of IPC.

Facts of the Case:
The victim was given in marriage to accused no.1 Mazidul Miah on 16.10.1997, according to mohammedan rites and customs satisfying the demand of accused persons, like by paying cash of Rs.11,000/- (Rupees Eleven Thousand), silver ornaments of three descriptions along with one Hero cycle and other valuables.

However, at her in-law's house the victim was put to suffer cruelty, oppression and ill-treatment by her in-law's members, including her accused husband for her black complexion. She was not loved by family members of in-law's house, and frequently abused her with a threat that accused husband would be given marriage shortly after repealing her marriage and driving her out of the matrimonial home. The accused expressed dissatisfaction towards her black complexion and forced the victim to stay in a cow shed.

The victim had reported the ill-treatment she suffered at her in-law's house to her parents however due to their weak financial condition, the victim's father persuaded her to withstand the torture and ill-treatment inflicted on her for her future benefit. However, after a few days they received the news that their daughter had been put to suffer death with the use of rope.

Police investigation was conducted and the autopsy report of the deceased victim suggested that the death was ante-mortem and homicidal in nature. On completion of investigation, the police submitted charge against the accused persons. The Trial was conducted framing charge against five accused persons under Section 498A/302/34 I.P.C., and collecting evidence of as many as eleven (11) witnesses.

The Trial Court convicted 3 accused persons under Section 498A/302/34 I.P.C., and sentenced them thereunder to suffer rigorous imprisonment for three (3) years with fine of Rs. 5,000/-(Rupees Five Thousand) each, with default stipulation to undergo rigorous imprisonment for six (6) months each under Section 498A I.P.C., and to suffer imprisonment for life with fine of Rs.5,000/- (Rupees Five Thousand) each, and in default to pay fine further rigorous imprisonment for six (6) months each under Section 302/34 I.P.C. Out of five (5) persons put up for trial, two (2) accused persons were favoured with acquittal for want of evidence by the Trial Court.

Aggrieved by the decision of the Trial Court, the convicts appealed in the Calcutta High Court against the conviction and sentence by the Trial Court.
  • Contentions by the Appellants (accused
    1. There was no supportive evidence to make out a clear case of strangulation as opposed to suicidal death except the Autopsy Surgeon's report.
    2. The Trial Judge did not take into account the testimony of PW-5 who was a neighbour of the accused and when he heard the cries of the mother-in-law of the deceased he came to the house of the accused persons and saw the deceased victim hanging by a rope which would suggest that the death was suicidal.
    3. The reaction of mother-in-law as specified in the testimony of PW-5 suggested that the death was suicidal and not homicidal.
    4. The marriage between the accused husband and deceased victim was mutual and negotiated so the accusation that the cruelty and ill-treatment to the victim was due to her dark complexion is not a believable version.
    5. The deceased victim had a love affair prior to her marriage but ignoring that affair she was given in marriage to the accused so the deceased victim voluntarily committed suicide in her in-law's house.
    6. There were discrepancies in evidence which raised a reasonable doubt over the death of the deceased victim and so the benefit of doubt should be given to the accused.
    7. Delay of 2 days in lodging FIR.
       
  • Contentions by Respondent (State):
    1. The report of the Autopsy Surgeon which suggested homicidal death of the deceased victim remains unshaken to doubt.
    2. The prosecution case simpliciter is that deceased victim was put to suffer death by hanging in her matrimonial home, the reason being the dissatisfaction of the accused persons for the dark complexion of deceased victim.
       
  • Issues before the Court:
    1. Evidence of cruelty upon victim in her marital home by appellants for their dissatisfaction over the black complexion of victim:
      1. The evidence adduced by Prosecution Witness-1 (father of the deceased victim) revealed that 4 days after marriage the victim visited her paternal home and told her parents about the ill-treatment done to her by her in-laws due to her dark complexion and many times later whenever she visited her paternal house she complained about the cruelty and ill-treatment suffered by her at her in-law's house due to her dark complexion to her father but each time her father (PW-1) persuaded her to o withstand the torture and ill-treatment inflicted on her for her future benefit.
         
      2. It was also given to understand that victim received threat from in-law's members for her husband's second marriage after driving her out from matrimonial home.
         
      3. About 4 days prior to the incident when the mother of the deceased victim visited the victim's in-law's house, the victim was put to suffer cruelty even in front of her mother.
      4. PW-2 being the eldest son-in-law of PW-1 corroborated the testimony of PW-1, as regards the cruelty perpetrated upon the victim, and the cause of cruelty inflicted upon the victim. PW-2 supporting the prosecution story gave out that he had the occasion to know about torture and cruelty inflicted upon victim whenever she visited his house.
         
      5. PW-3 and PW-4 are the relatives and neighbouring people of PW-1. Both PW-3 and PW-4 supported prosecution case offering corroboration to the testimony of PW-1 that the accused persons put the victim to cruelty in several ways, expressing their dissatisfaction for her black complexion. They knew about the torture either from deceased victim, whenever she visited her father's house, or from victim's father.
         
    2. Whether the victim suffered homicidal or suicidal death:
      1. The report of the Autopsy Surgeon stated that the death of the deceased victim was caused by strangulation and not by suicide.
         
      2. The established fact is that there was an unnatural death of deceased held within seven months of her marriage. Such unnatural death was admittedly held in the in-law's house of deceased victim. There was sufficient evidence to show that the victim received oppression, ill- treatment, torture, cruelty in her in-law's house by her in-law's members for her black complexion. Victim was further threatened to be driven out from her matrimonial home for giving second marriage of her husband. Prosecution is thus in an extremely difficult situation to adduce foundational evidence in respect of facts, which are known exclusively to the knowledge of the in-law's members, as to how the deceased victim suffered her death in her in-law's house.
         
      3. The Court applied section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act which states that when any fact is specially within the knowledge of any person, the burden of proving that fact is upon him. When the victim suffered death by hanging in a room commonly shared by the deceased herself and her husband after marriage, the accused husband having failed to offer any explanation for the injuries caused to his wife, the failure would lead to the conclusion that the death of the deceased had occurred in the custody of accused husband.
         
    3. Whether non-production of offending weapon in court would weaken the prosecution case?
      True it is that there was no explanation for the non-production of offending weapon in court, and there was no explanation offered to that effect by the prosecuting agency, but at any rate the offending weapon cannot be said to have been lost for want of explanation being offered. Non-production of offending weapon in the absence of any explanation may be an error or latches on the part of prosecuting agency, but such error or omission would not itself discard the testimony of Autopsy Surgeon.

      When the homicidal death of the deceased held in her matrimonial home caused with use of chord, as already seized and produced before the Autopsy Surgeon at the time of post-mortem examination, remained unchallenged in the cross-examination of witnesses, particularly, the Autopsy Surgeon, mere non production of offending weapon in the court, and mere non-showing of the same to Autopsy Surgeon at the time of his deposition in court would be inconsequential , and in no manner it would weaken the prosecution case.
       
  • Observations by the Court:
    1. The facts and circumstances would thus unerringly point to the guilt of accused husband/appellant for causing homicidal death to deceased/wife by strangulation for his non-satisfaction over the black complexion of his wife, which led to give birth to his motive to cause death of his wife.
       
    2. The father-in-law of deceased (Hasaruddin Miah @ Mia @ Hachheruddin Mia) having already suffered death during the pendency of this case, the instant appeal be taken to have dropped against him.
       
    3. The post conduct of the mother-in-law revealed from the testimony of PW-5 and 6, who found mother-in-law crying taking the dead body of deceased victim, according to appellant, would not necessarily leave materials against her for commission of a homicidal death, though it might be suggestive of suicidal death.

      The cause of death of the deceased victim being pre-eminently and exceptionally within the knowledge of her accused husband, which remained unexplained by accused husband himself, recording an order of conviction under Section 302/34 I.P.C. as against appellant mother- in-law even after taking note of such facts, referred above, would be without any reasons and not justified accordingly. The commission of cruelty upon the deceased is proved against the mother-in-law under Section 498A read with Section 34 I.P.C.
       
  • Decision by Court:
    1. Causing cruelty to deceased victim for her black complexion even after her marriage by the in-law's members would definitely attract Section 498A/34 I.P.C. against the in-law's members, including accused husband.
       
    2. The conviction reached by the Trial Court under Section 498A/34 I.P.C., as against the accused appellant husband and mother-in-law appellant would remain undisturbed.
       
    3. The appeal by the appellant husband is dismissed maintaining his conviction and sentence under Section 498A/302/34 I.P.C.
       
    4. he appeal by the appellant mother-in-law is partly allowed and she is acquitted for offence under Section 302/34 I.P.C. However the conviction and sentence of the appellant mother-in-law under Section 498A/34 I.P.C is upheld.
This decision by the Calcutta High Court is praiseworthy looking at the current scenario and is a step towards changing the mind-set of the people who show preference towards light skin and it protects the interest of those wives who suffer cruelty by their husband and in-laws due to their dark complexion.

End-Notes:
  1. CRA No. 247 of 2006 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/172343456/

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