Cruelty: Meaning, Offence and Comparison with 304B

By | October 13, 2019

Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code makes an act of administering cruelty by husband or his relatives on wife an offence. It prohibits torture by the husband or by his relatives on the wife by punishing them for causing harassment or torturing the wife to force her or her relatives to accept the unlawful demands related to dowry.[1]

Prosecuting the accused in a case of cruelty becomes very tedious within the institution of marriage as not many women speak up against such sufferings and secondly, generally since cruelty is inflicted upon the wife in the confinements of a house obtaining witnesses to prove the prosecution becomes difficult. At times there is no existence of direct assault and instead, due to mental torture, the woman is driven to an extent where she commits suicide. The Parliament in order to control such a situation introduced Section 498A and 304B, Section 113B and Section 174 in IPC, IEA and CrPC respectively.

Section 113B of Indian Evidence Act provides that if it is indicated that immediately before the death of the married woman she was inflicted with cruelty or harassment by a person in relation to dowry demands, then it must be automatically presumed that the death of the woman has been caused by the person who had harassed her.

The executive magistrates are mandated under Section 174, CrPC to make inquests in case a woman dies due to suicide or suspicious death within a span of 7 years of her marriage.

Cruelty by Husband or Relatives of Husband

Section 498A only restricts the conviction of cruelty if it has been inflicted upon the wife by her husband or his relatives. The definition of the term ‘relative’ has not been provided anywhere in IPC, yet following the case laws, it can be construed that the word ‘relatives’ would include parents, brothers and sisters of the husband. A friend even if he is close to the family will not be covered under the purview of this Section.[2]

In the case of Reema Agarwal v. Anupam,[3] a second wife cannot be protected under the Section 498A of IPC as the husband of such second wife cannot be covered within the meaning of ‘husband’ used in the Section during the subsistence of the first legal marriage. And thus any cruelty meted out to the second wife by the husband cannot be punished in the courts of justice.

Reema Agarwal committed suicide after consuming poison post the mental torture which was inflicted upon her by her husband and his relatives for not meeting their dowry demands. The trial court exonerated him and observed that Section 498A can be applied when the condition of a valid marriage is sufficed. The High court was also supportive of this view. However, the Apex court rejected the contention of the trial court and the High court and overruled their decisions by citing the following:

There could be no impediment in law to liberally construe he words or expressions relating to the persons committing the offence so as to rope in not only those validly married but also anyone who has undergone some or other form of marriage and thereby assumed by himself the position of husband to live, cohabitate and exercise the authority as such husband over another  woman.”

In another case of John Idiculla v. State of Kerala,[4] the High court of Kerala was posed with three very important issues relating to the interpretation of the terms ‘the husband or the relative of the relative of the husband’ mentioned in the Section 498A. Hereunder those three issues:

  • For the purpose of Section 498A, can the second wife be construed to be a relative of the husband if the second marriage takes place during the subsistence of the first marriage
  • If yes, then under what circumstances
  • Can the first wife avail protection under Section 498A implicating the second wife for meting out cruelty on her

The High court was of the view that a second wife has to be considered to be a relative for the purpose of Section 498A and hence any cruelty meted out to the first wife by her can make her guilty of the offence of cruelty. The court justified its observation by saying that:

“Non-existence of a strictly legal marriage cannot be made a ground for an offending second wife to run away. The invalidity of the marriage can under no circumstances be granted as a license to her to harass none other than a legally wedded wife.”

Further, another landmark judgment rendered by the High Court Jharkhand in the case of Sunita Jha v. State of Jharkhand,[5] held that a woman in a live-in relationship with the husband of the wife can also be guilty of an offence committed under Section 498A.


The term cruelty has not been defined as the legislature keeping in mind the societal changes and mores. An act of cruelty is determined by considering factors like economic situation, social standing and background of the parties. The explanation affixed to Section 498A elaborates on what cruelty actually is from the viewpoint of law. Any conduct on the part of the husband or his relatives which may drive a wife to the extent that she would want to take her life or cause any grievous injury to her life is cruelty. Further coercing a woman or her relatives with an intention to extract property or valuable security is called cruelty.

Both mental and physical cruelty will amount to the act of ‘cruelty for the purpose of this section.[6] Continuously teasing and taunting, showing abnormal behaviour, forcing her to give her consent for a second marriage, keeping a concubine, depriving children and wife of basic amenities and incurring expenses on gambling, attacking her chastity, etc. all amount to cruelty. ‘Cruelty’ is principled on such a treatment by the husband which makes the wife reasonably apprehensive with regard to her staying with her husband might be injurious or harmful to her life.[7]

The Rajasthan High Court has ruled that it is not mandated by law that the husband and his relative be near or present when cruelty is inflicted upon the wife. Since repeated demands of dowry can lead to administering mental torture on a woman driving her to suffer the harassment caused to her thereafter, Section 498A can still be attracted even when she is at her matrimonial place.[8]

The term ‘coerce’ means forcing or threatening a person to do something. This Section purports that such an ‘act’ which is compelled must be regarding fulfilment of the demands of dowry by the wife and her family.


Section 304B lays down the provision for ‘dowry deaths’ due to any burn or bodily injury within 7 years of the marriage because of the cruelty meted out on her by the husband and his relatives. The explanation about the term ‘cruelty’ as mentioned in Section 498A can be used for the purposes of Section 304B, IPC.[9] The words ‘soon before’ which occur in Section 304B refers to the proximity of time between the actual death and the harassment meted out on the wife by the husband and his relatives. Therefore, the prosecution is required to prove that the woman was treated with cruelty immediately before her death.

The proximity test is important to gather proof of the offence of dowry death and to raise a presumption under Section 113B, IEA, regarding the person who has committed the heinous crime. This period in question is the duty of the courts to determine after analysing all the facts and relevant circumstances which lead to the death of the woman. However, the ‘soon before’ clause implies that the time period between the treatment with cruelty and torture and death should not be much.

This connotes that there must be a proximate a live-link between the effects of cruelty premised on demands for dowry and the death concerned. If the event of torture and cruelty had become remote in time then the effect of it becomes stale and no more disturbs the mental equilibrium of the woman so as to result in any consequences thereafter.[10]

In the case of Rajinder Amar Singh v. State of Haryana,[11] High court of Punjab acquitted an accused who was charged with respect of the unnatural death of his wife which although occurred within a span of 7 years of marriage, took place two years subsequent to the dowry demands. The ‘soon before’ phrase must not be deemed as likewise to ‘immediately before death’.


In the case of Arun Vyas v. Anita Vyas,[12] the Apex court ruled that cruelty is a continuing offence and therefore each act towards the commission of the offence of cruelty is a new starting point with reference to the applicability of Section 472 of CrPC which provides for limitation. However, for the sake of administration of justice, the court may take cognizance of offences which have crossed the limitation bar by relying on the provisions of Section 273, CrPC.


A complaint under Section 498A of the IPC can be established only after a police report has been prepared which would include all the facts of the event. According Section 198A of CrPC mandates that this complaint has to be lodged either by the aggrieved wife or her mother, father, sister, brother, her mother’s or father’s sister or brother or by permission of the court, by any person related by blood, adoption or marriage.

Nonetheless, locus standi has been conferred upon the National Commission for Women for maintaining a curative petition corresponding to cases under Section 498A in the Apex Court.[13]


Section 498A deals with the cruelty which is inflicted by the husband and his relatives upon the wife, driving her to take her life or cause grievous hurt to her limb or health-threatening her life. The torture could be both mental and physical. Further, any coercive demands in relation to dowry are also cruelty.

Section 304B deals with ‘dowry death’ where the death of a woman by bodily injuries or burns or where such death took place under normal circumstances, within a span of 7 years of marriage, where the husband or his relatives inflicted the wife with cruelty or harassment in relation to demands for dowry. Section 304B mainly deals with the ‘actual death’ due to dowry demands, while Section 498A talks about the ‘cruelty’ part which might lead to suicide or threat to life.

It can be presumed that the term ‘cruelty’ mentioned in Section 304B has the same meaning as provided in the explanation affixed to Section 498A, IPC.[14] It must be noted that Section 304B is concerned with the dowry deaths happening within a span of 7 years of marriage, however, any such period has been stipulated in Section 498A.[15] So if an accused is exonerated under Section 304B, then he may be charged and convicted under Section 498A.

[1] BS Joshi v State of Haryana[2003] Cr LJ 2028 [SC]

[2] Anil Kumar v State of Punjab[1997] 2 AI Cri LR 638 [P&H]

[3] AIR 2004 SC 1418

[4] [2005] Cr LJ 2935 [Ker]

[5] [2010] 10 SCC 190

[6] Pawan Kumar v State of Haryana AIR 1998 SC 958

[7] Sarojakshan v State of Maharashtra [1995] Cr LJ 340 [Bom]

[8] Jagdish v State of Rajasthan [1998] 7 SCC 695

[9] Kaliyaperumal v State of Tamil Nadu [2004] 9 SCC 157

[10] Satvir Singh v State of Punjab AIR 2001 SC 2828

[11] [2000] Cr LJ 2492 [P&H]

[12] AIR 1999 SC 2071

[13] National Commission for Women v Bhaskar Lal Sharma [2014] 4 SCC 252

[14] Hira Lal v State (Govt of NCT) Delhi [2003] 8 SCC 80

[15] Gurdip Singh v State of Punjab [2013] 10 SCC 395

  1. Offences relating to Religion(Opens in a new browser tab)
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