Dowry is related to the ancient Hindu customs of kanyadan and stridhan. In kanyadan, the father of the bride offers the father of the groom money, property or other gifts, whereas for stridhan, the bride herself gets jewellery and clothes at the time of her marriage, usually from her parents and relatives. It is provided in the Dharmashstra that the meritorious act of kanyadan is not complete until the bridegroom is given a dakshina.
Several unsatisfactory explanations have been advanced to explain this practice. It is said that, in the olden days, dowry served as a form of protection for the wife against the possibility of her ill-treatment by the husband and his family. Even today, it is sometimes contended that dowry facilitates the groom and his family in taking up the onerous responsibility of supporting the bride for the rest of her life.
Others argue that dowry is meant to help the newly-weds to set up their own home. Still others justify it by saying that dowry is given as compensation to the groom’s parents for the amount they have spent in educating and upbringing their son. Most such explanations, however, make little or no sense.
The dowry system, aptly described as ‘a social evil’, is unfortunately deeply rooted in Indian culture. Even among the educated sections of society, dowry continues to form an essential part of the negotiation process that takes place in an arranged marriage.
Sadly, dowry is still considered a status symbol in the Indian society. A number of marriage negotiations break down if there is no consensus between the bride’s and the groom’s families regarding the quantum of dowry. Dowry deaths of newly married brides are regularly in the news and even today, newspapers often carry horrific details of such deaths in various parts of India.
As the evils of the dowry system began to assume enormous proportions, in an attempt to combat this social evil, the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1961. It came into force on July 1, 1961 and extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Important amendments were also made in the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Evidence Act. Thus, S. 498-A of the Indian Penal Code deals with punishment for cruelty to the wife by the husband and his relatives and S. 304-B provides stringent punishments for ‘dowry deaths’.
It is now provided that if the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage, and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his relatives for or in connection with any demand for dowry, such husband or relative shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of not less than seven years but which may extend to life imprisonment.
It is interesting to see that even before Parliament enacted this piece of central legislation, some State Governments had taken the initiative and passed dowry laws applicable within such states. Thus, the Bihar Dowry Restraint Act was passed in 1950 and the Andhra Pradesh Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1958. Interestingly, even before independence, the provincial government of Sind had passed an anti-dowry Act, aptly called the Sind Deti Leti Act, 1939, with a view to curb this social menace. Unfortunately, these Acts had very little impact on the prevailing social evil.
Under S. 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 said parties.
The following are, however, not covered under the umbrella of the term ‘dowry’:
i. Dower or mahr in case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) applies;
ii. Presents which are given at the time of marriage to the bride or bridegroom without any demand having been made in that behalf, provided such presents are entered in a list in accordance with Rule 2 of the Dowry Prohibition (Maintenance of Lists of Presents to the Bride and Bridegroom) Rules, 1985.
It is also clarified that where such presents are made by or on behalf of the bride or any person related to the bride, such presents should be of a customary nature and the value thereof should not be excessive, having regard to the financial status of the person by whom, or on whose behalf, such presents are given.
Under S. 5 of the Act, any agreement for the giving or taking of dowry has been declared to be void.
Under S. 3 of the Act, if any person gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years and with the fine of not less than Rs. 15,000 or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more? However, the Court may, for adequate and special reasons to be recorded in the judgment, impose a sentence of imprisonment for a term of less than five years in a fit case.
Under S. 4 of the Act, if any person demands, directly or indirectly, from the parents or other relatives or guardian of a bride or bridegroom as the case may be, any dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than six months but which may extend to two years and with fine which may extend to Rs. 10,000. Here also, the Court may, for adequate and special reasons to be recorded in the judgment, impose a sentence of imprisonment for a term of less than six months in a fit case.
The Act also bans dowry advertisements and makes them punishable. S. 4-A of the Act lays down that if any person –
(a) Offers, through any advertisement in any newspaper, periodical, journal or through any other media, any share in his property or of any money or both or a share in any business or other interest as consideration for the marriage of his son or daughter or any other relative, or
(b) Prints or publishes or circulates any such advertisement, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than six months, but which may extend to five years, or with fine which may extend to Rs. 15,000. In the case of this offence also, the Court may, for adequate and special reasons to be recorded in the judgment, impose a sentence of imprisonment for a term of less than six months in a fit case.
A further provision is made by S. 6 of the Act which provides that where any dowry is received by any person other than the woman in connection with whose marriage it is given, that person shall transfer it to the woman –
(a) If the dowry was received before marriage, within three months after the date of marriage; or
(b) If the dowry was received at the time of or after the marriage, within three months after the date of its receipt; or
(c) If the dowry was received when the woman was a minor, within three months after she has attained the age of eighteen years.
Pending such transfer, the concerned person holds it in trust for the benefit of the woman.
If any person fails to transfer any property as required above within the specified time limits, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than six months, but which may extend two years or with fine of not less than Rs. 5,000, but which may extend to Rs. 10,000, or with both.
Where the woman entitled to any such property dies before receiving it, the heirs of the woman are entitled to claim it from the person holding it for the time being. However, if such a woman dies within seven years of her marriage, otherwise than due to natural causes, such property shall:
i. If she has no children be transferred to her parents, or
ii. If she has children be transferred to such children and pending such transfer, be held in trust for such children.
Where any person is prosecuted for demanding or for taking or abetting the taking of any dowry under the Act, the burden of proving that he had not committed any such offence is on him. Likewise, under the relevant provisions of the Indian Evidence Act, there is a presumption that a death caused within seven years of marriage is a ‘dowry death’.
All offences under the Act are declared to be non-bailable and non- compoundable. Additionally, the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, apply to such offences as if they were cognizable offences. (S. 8)
S. 8-B of the Act also envisages the appointment of Dowry Prohibition Officers:
i. To ensure that the provisions of the Act are complied with;
ii. To prevent, as far as possible, the taking or abetting the taking of, or the demanding of dowry;
iii. To collect necessary evidence for prosecuting persons committing offences under the Act; and
iv. To perform such additional functions as may be assigned to them by the State Government or by Rules made under the Act.
1. The Allahabad High Court has held that S. 4 of the Act (which prescribes a punishment for demanding dowry) is not unconstitutional, as it does not violate Arts. 14, 19, 21 and 22 of the Constitution of India. (Indrawati v. Union of India, (1991) DMC, 117)
2. The Supreme Court has observed that the furnishing of a list of ornaments and other household articles like furniture, refrigerator and electrical appliances at the time of settlement of the marriage amounts to a demand for dowry under the Act. (Madhu S. Malhotra v. K. C. Bhandari, 1988 BLJR 360)
3. In a case where a demand for money was made when the marriage ceremony was being performed and was repeated after the ceremony got over, it was held that an offence under the Act was committed. (L V. Jadhav v. Shankar Rao, (1983) 2 Crimes 470)
4. In one case, a husband demanded a sum of Rs. 50,000 from his father-in-law a few days after the marriage. On the demand not being fulfilled, he began to torture his wife and threatened her that he would take a second wife. In the circumstances, the Allahabad High Court held that the amount had been demanded “in connection with the marriage” and it amounted to a demand for dowry, although it was made some days after the marriage. (Y. K. Bansal v. Anju, 1989 All L. J. 914)
5. In another case, the deceased wife had, before being set on fire by her in-laws, written a letter to her father that she was being ill- treated, harassed and threatened of dire consequences for not satisfying their demand for dowry. The court held that the offence of demanding dowry under S. 4 of the Act had been committed. (Bhoura Singh v. State of U. P., 1993 Cr. L. J. 2636)
6. In Pawan Kumar & Ors. vs. State of Haryana [(1998) 3 SCC 309], there was a demand for dowry immediately after marriage. On the demand not being fulfilled, the bride was constantly ill-treated and harassed. The bride finally committed suicide. The Court held that section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act makes the mere demand for dowry punishable. It is not necessary that there should also be any agreement for payment of dowry.