Indian Supreme Court rules that to demand money and gifts after marriage is not an offence under dowry laws, while the government is proposing to make those laws harsher.
In India demanding money and gifts from the parents of a girl doesn't stop with marriage. Any occasion, like some auspicious day or festival or the birth of a child, just anything is an excuse to fleece the parents-in-law. Such are the Indian customs.
Only in such a backdrop, the Dowry Prohibition Act came into being way back in 1961. As the practice continued unhindered, grew ever more outrageous and in many cases girls were beginning to be burnt, amendments were introduced to the Act in the eighties, providing for stiff punishments.
Though customs have not changed too very much, prosecutions across the country have had some sobering effect. In some cases, demands made after marriage have also been treated by courts as an offence under the 1961 Act.
But the Supreme Court now says the practice of demanding gifts or money after marriage may be deprecable but cannot be categorised as dowry to make it a punishable offence.
Other penal provisions may be provoked in such cases, but surely the Dowry Prohibition Act will not come into play.
Acquitting the parents-in-law of a woman who had accused them of harassing her for dowry, a Bench comprising Justices Arijit Pasayat and S Sathasivam cited a 2001 judgment to say that not all demands from the parents-in-law could be categorised as 'dowry' under the Dowry Prohibition Act.
It said though the Act covered payment of money or articles during, before or after marriage by the girl's parent to her in-laws, the cash and presents given had to have a link with the marriage to become objectionable in law.
'Other payments which are customary payments, for example given at the time of birth of a child or other ceremonies as are prevalent in different societies, are not covered by the expression 'dowry,'' said Justice Pasayat, writing the judgment for the Bench.
A Haryana trial court had ruled that the dowry harassment charges could be pressed against the woman's husband, but acquitted the parents-in-law, the married sister and brother of the husband.
Though the High Court allowed quashing of charges against the sister and brother, it said the parents-in-law were liable to be proceeded against.
The apex court said that when the trial court had held that an attempt had been made by the woman to rope in as many relatives of her husband as possible, the HC should have given some reasons while reversing a well-reasoned order.
Significantly the judgement comes at a time when the federal government is considering a proposal to make the dowry laws harsher.
The amendments contemplated will do away with the current seven-year window for registration of a 'dowry death' case altogether this means that an offence against the husband or in-laws can be made out at any point after marriage, reports Times of India.
As of now, an 'unnatural death' involving burns or bodily injuries is mandatorily investigated for dowry harassment only if it occurs within seven years of marriage.
'The seven year limit clause should be immediately removed as the dowry cases have been reported even after 22 years of marriage,' said Girija Vyas, chairperson of the National Council for Women (NCW).
She noted that around 6,707 cases of dowry death and harassment for dowry came to light in 2005.
The Women and Child Development Ministry is considering raising the punishment for suspected dowry deaths to a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life term or death. At present, the minimum punishment is a seven-year term.
By another provision, civil servants, at the time of joining service, will be required to submit a list of gifts and 'streedhan' they receive in marriage, signed by the wife and the father-in-law.
The proposal also suggests introduction of a provision making it mandatory for all government employees to declare at the time of marriage that they are not receiving any dowry.