SC ruling on Akkamahadevi dowry death case raises questions of fairness of law

Glaring gap between legal codes & real life complexities


November 16, 2023

/ By / New Delhi

SC ruling on Akkamahadevi dowry death case raises questions of fairness of law

The case of Akkamahadevi highlights the deep-rooted problems associated with dowry-related harassment and crimes against women in India

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court in the Akkamahadevi case raises questions on the gaps that remain between what the law prescribes and the situation in real life, especially in the case of women facing harassment over dowry.

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Where the confluence of human suffering and the pursuit of justice unfolds as a multifaceted riddle, the recent verdict of the Supreme Court of India in the case of Akkamahadevi, a woman whose life was cut short by burn injuries in 2010, unfurls a captivating tableau for a profound exploration of the intricate interplay between legal statutes and the moral compass of justice.

This case defies conventional wisdom, challenging the traditional interpretations of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 304B, relating to dowry death and 498A that deals with cruelty to woman by husband or his relatives, and invites experts to scrutinise the very essence of fairness in the legal system.

Deep rooted problems with law on dowry

The case of Akkamahadevi highlights the deep-rooted problems associated with dowry-related harassment and crimes against women in India. Her tragic end necessitates a critical examination of the interpretation of evidence and the broader justice system, particularly with regard to the interpretation of Section 304B.

The prosecution’s case pivoted on the consistent demand for dowry and the torture inflicted upon the deceased, culminating in her self-immolation. The core question before the court was whether the dying declaration could be the sole basis for conviction, given the victim’s severe burn injuries.

The court referred to precedents and emphasised that the rule requiring corroboration is a rule of prudence, not an absolute necessity. But this decision raises essential questions about justice and if a victim’s statement, even when severely injured, can be relied upon without corroboration?

In the case of Akkamahadevi, the dying declaration stated that the deceased was unable to tolerate the torture meted out by the accused, which drove her to self-immolation. This declaration serves as the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case, directly linking the accused to the alleged dowry-related harassment that ultimately led to Akkamahadevi’s tragic self-immolation.

Here, the court’s decision hinges on the idea that the physical disability resulting from burn injuries should not disentitle a victim from making a statement, provided it was made consciously, knowing the consequences.

This assertion challenges the traditional interpretation of the rule of corroboration as a mere rule of prudence, suggesting that even in the face of severe injuries, a victim’s statement can be relied upon.

Limitations of dying declarations

The judgement heavily leans on the dying declaration, citing precedents that stress the need to treat it as credible evidence. It asserts that the victim’s extensive burn injuries, covering an alarming 70-80 pc of her body, should not discredit her statement, as long as it was made consciously and knowingly.

However, a critical analysis of this point is warranted. Burn injuries of this magnitude can severely affect a person’s ability to communicate clearly and coherently. The judgement’s apparent oversight of the potential limitations imposed by the victim’s physical state begs the question of whether she was genuinely in a condition to make a statement that should hold up in court?

The verdict also reignites the debate over the interpretation of Section 304B, which requires that the cruelty or harassment leading to death occurred “soon before her death.” This interpretation was solidified in the case of Bansilal vs. State of Haryana (2011).

However, the pivotal issue is the distinction between Section 304B and Section 498A. Section 304B is specific to dowry deaths, demanding that the cruelty or harassment leading to death occurs “soon before” the victim’s demise, while Section 498A casts a broader net, encompassing cruelty and harassment against women without specifying a strict timeframe.

The judgement suggests that the prosecution failed to establish a clear link between the alleged dowry harassment and the victim’s self-immolation, leading to the overturning of Section 304B convictions. This interpretation raises questions about the rigidity of Section 304B and the law’s ability to address the intricate dynamics of real-world situations. Did the prosecution indeed falter in proving the connection between harassment and suicide, or does this case expose a fundamental flaw in Section 304B’s strict timeframe requirement?

Subsequently, the court delved into the question of whether the accused could be held accountable for the offense outlined in Section 306 IPC (Abetment of Suicide), even though this specific charge was not originally levied against them. In this deliberation, the court made reference to the case of Dalbir Singh v. State of U.P (2004). This legal precedent established that, in accordance with Section 464 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, an appellate or revisional court possesses the authority to convict an accused for an offense for which no initial charge was framed, provided such an action does not lead to a miscarriage of justice.

Consequently, while exonerating the accused from the charges under Section 304B, the court discerned that the essential elements of an offense under Section 306 IPC, which encompasses the notion of a suicidal death and abetment, were indeed present in the case at hand. The court’s scrutiny revealed that the evidence substantiated the victim’s endured torment, as evident in her statement and her accepted dying declaration. This cumulative evidence convincingly established a connection between the actions of the accused and the victim’s decision to take her own life. Consequently, the court rendered a verdict to convict the accused under Section 306 IPC (abetment of suicide) and Section 498A, (pertaining to cruelty against a married woman).

The Akkamahadevi case serves as a stark reminder of the convoluted issues surrounding dowry-related harassment and related crimes in India. In the context of this article’s critical analysis, the focus shifts to the phrase “soon before her death” in Section 304B, revealing the glaring gap between legal requirements and the real-life complexities of dowry-related crimes.

It calls for a re-evaluation of these laws, emphasising the importance of reforms that acknowledge the intricate dynamics of such cases, ensuring that justice prevails while upholding the rights of both the accused and the victims. In a legal system that strives to balance the rights of the accused with the pursuit of justice for victims, can we truly achieve fairness without re-evaluating and reforming laws that may not adequately address the complexities of real-life situations, such as dowry-related harassment cases?

(Sonal Gupta is a practicing advocate at the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group.)

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