Dowry Deaths, Aiding and Abetting Suicide

Last updated May, 2010

Dowry Deaths 

Dowry deaths should be punished by criminal laws governing murder. Drafters should consider whether to punish dowry deaths as a specific offense or make the presence of dowry demands and dowry-related violence an aggravating factor in sentencing. Should drafters choose to punish dowry deaths as a specific offense, legislation should impose penalties that are commensurate with other first-degree murders.

Promising practice: Minnesota criminal laws punish a homicide committed through domestic violence as first degree murder. Minnesota Statute 609.185(6) states that whoever “causes the death of a human being while committing domestic abuse, when the perpetrator has engaged in a past pattern of domestic abuse upon the victim or upon another family or household member and the death occurs under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life” shall be punished by life imprisonment (emphasis added). See infra Statute of Limitations in this section. Legislation should punish a homicide committed through dowry-related violence or as a result of unmet dowry demands as first-degree murder. Legislation governing dowry deaths should not require that the dowry-related violence occur soon before her death, but require a “past pattern of dowry-related violence.”  

CASE STUDY: Laws should reflect that demands for dowry may persist well beyond seven years of marriage and not impose limitations as to when the death must occur. Instead, laws should focus on the presence of a past pattern of domestic violence or dowry demands. Article 304B of India’s Penal Code governs dowry deaths. It states:

“(1) Where 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 any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called "dowry death", and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death. Explanation- For the purpose of this sub-section, "dowry" shall have the same meaning. as in section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (28 of 1961). (2) Whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.]

Where there is a specific offense for dowry murder, legislation should also include a provision for attempted dowry murder. The Supreme Court of India found in Satvir Singh v. State of Punjab, AIR 2001 SC 2828:2001 (7) Supreme 267: 2001 (6) SLT 803: 2001 VIII AD (SC) 221 that Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code governing cruelty to a woman by her husband or in-laws supplanted Section 511 governing an attempt to commit an offense. In this case, the offender drove the woman to the railway station to compel her to commit suicide and throw herself before the train. Instead of applying Section 511, the court found Section 498A sufficiently encompassed the offender’s failed attempt, because it addresses any willful conduct that is likely to compel the woman to commit suicide. Commentators have suggested that drafters amend Section 304B to include attempt to cause dowry death to reflect those instances where the offender does not succeed in compelling the woman to commit suicide. See: Ish Kumar Magoo & Shyam Sunder Geol, An Eagle Eye on Dowry Demand Cruelty and Dowry Death, at 282-83 (2004).] 

See also: Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, a framework for model legislation on domestic violence, 1996, E/CN.4/1996/53/Add.2, at,  II 3, which urges States to adopt a broad view of the relationships in which domestic violence might occur, in compatibility with international standards.

Legislation should criminalize negligent homicide, in which a person causes the death of another through negligent conduct. 

Aiding and Abetting Suicide

Legislation should criminalize any act of and attempts to intentionally advise, encourage, abet or assist another in committing suicide.

CASE STUDY: India’s Penal Code punishes the abetment of suicide. Article 306 states:

“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.”

CASE STUDY: In the Indian case, Gopalan Nair Krishna Pillai v. State of Kerala, 1988 (3) Crimes 489, the husband-defendant abused his wife for failing to meet his dowry demands. Although the victim earned a wage which paid the household expenses and she gave birth to a son as he desired, the defendant continued to demand that she obtain more money from her parents’ home. Following separation, the husband’s lawyer negotiated a compromise and assured her she was safe. The husband continued to demand more money, which the victim requested from her mother. When her husband did not receive immediate payment, he continued to abuse her, and she committed suicide. The husband was convicted of abetment of suicide. 

Drafters should take into account that dowry-related murders may be disguised as suicides. Drafters should enact legislation to punish perpetrators who commit perjury, conspire, use bribery, violence, intimidation, threats or deception, destroy or tamper with evidence or the body, to obstruct justice. See: Section on Obstruction of Justice; Charles Doyle, Obstruction of Justice: An Abridged Overview of Related Federal Criminal Laws, 2007. Also, drafters should consider enacting an offense that focuses on the death of a woman under unnatural circumstances when there is a history of domestic violence. For example, in Shanti v. State of Haryana, AIR 1991 SC 1226, the court ruled that whether the death was by suicide or murder was irrelevant providing the death was unnatural. A death by suicide is in itself an unnatural death and would trigger Article 304B “Dowry Deaths” providing the other elements—cruelty or harassment by her husband or in-laws soon before her death and death within seven years of marriage—are met.

Legislation should not impose a time limitation on when the death must occur, but instead focus on a history of domestic violence and unnatural circumstances surrounding the death.