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Case Analysis: Satbir Singh v State of Haryana

Satbir Singh v. State of Haryana (2021 SCC Online SC 404)

The evil of dowry is unshakeable in the society. The evil of dowry also give rise to more vicious evil of dowry death. The parliament in order to curbed the menace of dowry death, inserted section 304B that deals with dowry death and but the phrase 'soon before her death' in this section creates a loophole. Nevertheless the burden of proof lies on the accused. Since burden of proof in on accused thus it creates more responsibility on courts to confirm that the principle of Audi Alteram Partem is followed by courts. The court in this case clarify the term' soon before' and also gave guidelines to be followed by the trial courts while recording the statement of accused.

Facts
The facts of the case are that on 01.07.1994 the accused (appellant 01) married to the deceased. On 31.07.1995 at around 1600 hrs the father of the deceased received news that his daughter was admitted to hospital. When he and his son reached hospital they found that deceased passed away due to burn injuries.

The doctor found traces of Kerosene on the body of the deceased. The body of deceased was 85% damaged due to burn injuries. According to witnesses there were many instances of harassment and cruelty related to dowry.

On 11 December 1997, the trial court convicted the accused under section 304B and 306 of the Penal Code. The accused appeals to the High Court which was dismissed on 06.11.2008 and the conviction by the trial court was upheld by Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Issues
The court held that basically only two questions arises before this court.
  • Whether the Trial Court, and the High Court, was correct in convicting the accused on the charge under Section 304B, IPC?
  • Whether the Trial Court, and the High Court, was correct in convicting the accused on the charge under Section 306, IPC?

Contention by Parties
The appellant contended that accident as cause of death is still not out of question. It was also contended that the prosecution counsel had failed to prove that there is any demand of dowry by the accused or his relatives. Also if there is any dowry demand, the prosecution failed to prove its relation with the death of victim.

The prosecution contended that the death of the victim was almost within one year of marriage by burning. The witnesses had also stated the instances of demand of dowry. Lastly the appellant was not able to show any material which would interference of this court in the concurrent finds of high court and trial court.

Judgment and reasoning
The court referred to case of Major Singh v State of Punjab in which essential ingredients for conviction under section 304 B were stated. The main requirements are death of women due burn, bodily injury or otherwise than normal condition with in 7 years of marriage. She must be subjected to cruelty for demand of dowry by her husband or relatives of husband.

The cruelty or harassment must be meted out to women soon before her death. If strict interpretation of phrase 'soon before' is done then it will lead to total absurdity and failure of spirit of legislation.

There are no straightjacket formulae that can be laid down before this court. It is the court to determine if the period between the cruelty or harassment and the death of the victim would come within the term soon before. Establishment of a proximate and live link between the cruelty and the consequential death of the victim is pivotal for its determination.

The court referred to the case of Bansi Lal v State of Haryana to emphasized that it is mandatory for court to presume a death as a dowry death if it is shown that soon before her death such woman has been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry. The mandatory presumption against accused creates greater responsibility on judges, defense and prosecution. Thus the examination of an accused under Section 313 of CrPC cannot be treated as a mere procedural formality.

Therefore, it imposes an obligation on the part of the Court to question the accused fairly, with care and caution. The Court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. A duty is also cast on the counsel of the accused to prepare his defense, since the inception of the trial, with due caution, keeping in consideration the peculiarities of Section 304B of IPC read with Section 113B of Evidence Act.

The court also holds the importance of section 232 CrPC that if the court found that the accused is not eligible to be acquitted as per the provisions of Section 232 CrPC, it must move on and fix hearings specifically for defense evidence.

Also section 304B does not differentiate between accident, suicide or homicide. It states any death otherwise than under normal condition is dowry death. It even includes those circumstances where murders are painted as accident.

Issue 02 deals with conviction under IPC 306. This section is only attracted only when the factum of suicide is proved by the prosecution. The court referred to the case of Wazir Chand v State of Haryana in which, the essential ingredients for conviction under section 306 were stated by court.

The court held in Wazir Chand case that: "..A plain reading of this provision (Section 306 IPC) shows that before a person can be convicted of abetting the suicide of any other person, it must be established that such other person committed suicide".

Although the presumption of abetment of suicide was against accused as per section 113 A of Evidence act but to attract such presumption the prosecution counsel needs to prove the deceased had committed suicide.

Conclusion
Supreme Court held that the prosecution was able to prove that the death was due burn injuries, which occurred approximately one year of completion of marriage, with regard to dowry demand, there were many instances where deceased disclosed the physical harassment that were faced by her for dowry. The court explains the true import of soon before under section 304B and held that it is on discretion of court. Thus the court upheld the conviction of accused under section 304B of IPC.

With regard to conviction under section 306 of IPC the prosecution must prove that the deceased committed suicide. The prosecution was not able to adduce sufficient evidence that the deceased committed suicide. Thus the conviction of accused under section 306 was set aside.

Therefore the court held them convicted for offence under section 304B of IPC but not for 306 of IPC.

Analysis
The supreme court considered section 304B IPC that deals with the offence of dowry death and case of Major Singh v State of Punjab in which the court gave the essential ingredients for conviction under dowry death. The term 'soon before' was the focal of a loophole. The court viewed that strict interpretation of this term will lead to absurdity.

The court after considering the significance of this section interpreted the term 'soon before' in liberal sense as strict interpretation would lead to failure of the object for which it was enacted. The court correctly held that 'soon before' does not mean 'immediately before' the death but instead it will include the period between harassment and death if proximate link can be established between death and cruelty.

The court also gave guidelines to subordinate courts to record the statement of accused carefully with more responsibility since presumption of causation of offence is against the accused once the prosecution proves that the offence is of dowry death. The trial courts should also need to balance between the right to hear the other party as well as right to speedy trial. The court correctly held that section 304 B mentions death 'other than natural circumstances' as dowry death whether homicidal, suicidal or even murders or suicide are masqueraded as accidents.

The Supreme Court rejected the conviction of appellant under section 306 IPC. The court referred to the case of Wazir Chand v. State of Haryana with respect to the conviction under section 306 IPC and held that only after prosecution is able to prove that the deceased committed suicide then only husband and/or his relative abetted for suicide to deceased be presumed. The Supreme Court precisely gave its judgment and contemplated on every aspect of law and how it was interpreted in earlier cases in deciding their decision.

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