Satvir Singh v. State of Punjab [2001 SC]

A young mother of two kids ran into the rail in front of a running train to end her life as well as her miseries once and for all. She was driven to that action on account of the cruel treatment suffered by her at her nuptial home. But the locomotive instead of snuffing her life out in a trice, converted her into a veritable vegetable.

Her husband, father-in-law and mother-in-law were convicted by the Sessions Court under Section 116 IPC read with Section 306 IPC, besides Section 498-A. The High Court made an alteration by substituting Section 306 with Section 304-B to be read with Section 116.

Tajinder Pal Kaur daughter of Narender Singh obtained B.A. degree and B.Ed. degree before her marriage. On 5.1.1992, she was given in marriage to Satvir Singh (A-1), a businessman, and thenceforth she was living in her husband’s house. Devinder Singh (A-2) and Paramjit Kaur (A-3) who are the parents of Satvir Singh were also living in the same house. Though dowry was given at the time of marriage the appellants started harassing the bride after about 4 or 5 months of the wedding for not giving a car and a house as part of the dowry. After about a year, a male child was born to her and about one and a half years thereafter, she gave birth to another male child.

In the month of November 1995, her father Narender Singh paid Rs. 20,000 to her husband Satvir Singh presumably for appeasing him so that he would desist from causing any harassment to Tejinder Pal Kaur.

The immediate cause for the tragic episode happened on the night of 16-6-1996. When food was served to Satvir Singh in the night, it was noticed that one of the items in the meals (salad) contained excessive salt. (According to PW 5 the salt was added to the salad by her mother-in-law). After tasting the salad, Satvir Singh became furious and he unleashed abuses on his wife and then he was profusely supported by his mother and later they were reinforced by his father. They went to the extent of suggesting to her “why not end your life in front of one of the trains as many such trains are running nearby”

At the outset, we may point out that on the aforesaid facts no offence linked with Section 306 IPC can be found against any of the appellants. The said section penalises abetment of suicide. It is worded thus:

If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

It is the only act, the attempt to which alone will become an offence. The person who attempts to commit suicide is guilty of the offence under Section 309 IPC whereas the person who committed suicide cannot be reached at all. Section 306 renders the person who abets the commission of suicide punishable for which the condition precedent is that suicide should necessarily have been committed. It is possible to abet the commission of suicide. But nobody would abet a mere attempt to commit suicide. It would be preposterous if law could afford to penalise an abetment to the offence of mere attempt to commit suicide.

Learned Sessions Judge went wrong in convicting the appellants under Section 116 linked with Section 306 IPC. The former is “abetment of offence punishable with imprisonment- if offence be not committed”. But the crux of the offence under Section 306 itself is abetment. In other words, if there is no abetment, there is no question of the offence under Section 306 coming into play. It is inconceivable to have abetment of an abetment. Hence there cannot be an offence under Section 116 read with Section 306 IPC.

The essential components of Section 304-B are:

(i) Death of a woman occurring otherwise than under normal circumstances, within 7 years of marriage (ii) Soon before her death she should have been subjected to cruelty and harassment in connection with any demand for dowry. When the above ingredients are fulfilled, the husband or his relative, who subjected her to such cruelty or harassment, can be presumed to be guilty of an offence under Section 304-B. To be within the province of the first ingredient the provision stipulates that “where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances”. It may appear that the former limb which is described by the words “death caused by burns or bodily injury” is a redundancy because such death would also fall within the wider province of “death caused otherwise than under normal circumstances”. The former limb was inserted for highlighting that by no means death caused by burns or bodily injury should be treated as falling outside the ambit of the offence.

113A. Presumption as to abetment of suicide by a married woman-When the question is whether the commission of suicide by a woman had been abetted by her husband or any relative of her husband and it is shown that she had committed suicide within a period of seven years from the date of her marriage and that her husband or such relative other husband had subjected her to cruelty, the court may presume, having regard to all the other circumstances of the case, that such suicide had been abetted by her husband or by such relative of her husband.

Section 306 IPC when read with Section 113-A of the Evidence Act has only enabled the court to punish a husband or his relative who subjected a woman to cruelty (as envisaged in Section 498-A IPC) if such woman committed suicide within 7 years of her marriage. It is immaterial for Section 306 IPC whether the cruelty or harassment was caused “soon before her death” or earlier. If it was caused “soon before her death” the special provision in Section 304-B IPC would be invocable, otherwise resort can be made to Section 306 IPC.

No doubt, Section 306 IPC read with Section 113-A of the Evidence Act is wide enough to take care of an offence under Section 304-B also. But the latter is made a more serious offence by providing a much higher sentence and also by imposing a minimum period of imprisonment as the sentence. In other words, if death occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within 7 years of the marriage, as a sequel to cruelty or harassment inflicted on a woman with demand of dowry, soon before her death, Parliament intended such a case to be treated as a very serious offence punishable even up to imprisonment for life in appropriate cases. It is for the said purpose that such cases are separated from the general category provided under Section 306 IPC and made a separate offence.

We are therefore, unable to concur with the contention that if the dowry-related death is a case of suicide it would not fall within the purview of Section 304-B IPC at all.

Now we have to consider whether the appellants are liable to be punished under Section 116 linked with Section 304-B IPC. In the present case, death did not occur. we may delve into the question whether Tejinder Pal Kaur (PW 5) was subjected to cruelty or harassment in connection with the demand for dowry “soon before her death”, on a hypothetical assumption that her attempt to commit suicide had succeeded.

Prosecution, in a case of offence under Section 304-B IPC cannot escape from the burden of proof that the harassment or cruelty was related to the demand for dowry and also that such cruelty or harassment was caused “soon before her death”. “Dowry” is defined in 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-

(a) by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or

(b) 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, but does not include dower or mahr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) applies.”

Thus, there are three occasions related to dowry. One is before the marriage, second is at the time of marriage and the third is “at any time” after the marriage. The third occasion may appear to be an unending period. But the crucial words are “in connection with the marriage of the said parties”. This means that giving or agreeing to give any property or valuable security on any of the above three stages should have been in connection with the marriage of the parties. There can be many other instances for payment of money or giving property as between the spouses. For example, some customary payments in connection with birth of a child or other ceremonies are prevalent in different societies. Such payments are not enveloped within the ambit of “dowry”. Hence the dowry mentioned in Section 304-B should be any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given in connection with the marriage.

It is not enough that harassment or cruelty was caused to the woman with a demand for dowry at some time, if Section 304-B is to be invoked. But it should have happened “soon before her death”. The said phrase, no doubt, is an elastic expression and can refer to a period either immediately before her death or within a few days or even a few weeks before it. But the proximity to her death is the pivot indicated by that expression. The legislative object in providing such a radius of time by employing the words “soon before her death” is to emphasise the idea that her death should, in all probabilities, have been the aftermath of such cruelty or harassment. In other words, there should be a perceptible nexus between her death and the dowry-related harassment or cruelty inflicted on her. If the interval elapsed between the infliction of such harassment or cruelty and her death is wide the court would be in a position to gauge that in all probabilities the harassment or cruelty would not have been the immediate causes of her death. It is hence for the court to decide, on the facts and circumstances of each case, whether the said interval in the particular case was sufficient to snuff its cord from the concept “soon before her death”.

Tejinder Kaur in her evidence said that 4 or 5 months after her marriage, she was ill-treated on the ground of insufficiency of dowry and then she reported the matter to her father. But she did not say one word about her evidence regarding any other ill-treatment relating to dowry thereafter. It is true, she said in her evidence that in November 1995, a sum of Rs. 20,000 was paid by her father. But neither Tejinder Kaur nor Narender Singh testified that the said amount was paid as part of the dowry or connection with the marriage. We cannot overlook two important events which had happened in the family during the three years. One is the birth of the elder son on 12-11-1993 at the other is the birth of the second son on 10-6-1995. The payment of R 20,000 was made five months after the birth of the second son. Even PW 6 had no case that his daughter was subjected to any ill-treatment in connection with the demand for dowry on any day after she reported to him about the demand for further dowry way back in the early 1993 months. All amounts paid by the in-laws of the husband of a woman cannot become dowry.

It was contended that payment Rs. 20,000 in November 1995 should be presumed as part of the three-year-old demand for further dowry When the very participants in the deliberations have no such case it is not proper for the court to make an incriminating presumption against the accused on a very crucial ingredient of the offence, more when it is quite possible to draw a presumption the other way round as well.

Thus, there is dearth of evidence to show that Tejinder Kaur was subjected to cruelty or harassment connected with the demand for dowry, soon before the attempt to commit suicide. When the position is such, it is an unnecessary exercise on our part to consider whether Section 116 IPC can ever be linked with the offence under Section 304-B.

We, therefore, conclude that the appellants cannot be convicted under Section 116 either by linking it with Section 306 or with Section 304-B. We have no reason to interfere with the conviction passed on the appellants under Section 498-A IPC.