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Dowry In India

by Priyanka Sharma, 27th August 2015

Contrary to popular belief, dowry in India is not an ancient tradition. There is no record of dowry in Hindu scriptures. In our early history, there existed a fair system that distributed parental wealthy equally between all children, both male and female. Daughters were given movable assets like money and jewels at the time of their wedding while sons were given immovable assets like land upon death of senior family members. It speaks volumes about the maturity prevalent in society in those ages, with women being given equal rights as men.

The difference between the traditions of those times and today is that during marriage, wealth was once given to the bride. In the days when no established communication channels existed, the young brides had no easy way to reach back to the parents. Carrying their inheritance with them to their new home gave them a degree of financial freedom and established equal status in the new family.

Dowry In India

Change In Practices During The British Rule

In "Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime", historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg stated that the British revenue system, which put land exclusively in the hands of males, weakened the social and economic position of Indian women and encouraged practices such as dowry and female infanticide. She goes on to explain that what was earlier a safety net of the women became a noose around their neck. Gifts soon gave way to demands.

Tradition of Dowry in the Modern Indian Society

In the current day and age, the word dowry is a taboo. The word is not spoken, only practiced. Some call it blessings of the parents while others call it investment in the girl's future. The bride's parents consider this the price of a well educated and settled boy. The groom's parents consider this as the return of investment on their boy's education. Even if one were to treat the entire affair as a business with people seeking a handsome return on investment, the bride's parents will always post a loss because the money spent on her education is never compensated.

Wedding Negotiations

Although the word dowry is never used, gifts are often discussed openly during arranged marriage negotiations. Everything from gifts to the groom's relatives to lavish wedding expenditure is agreed before the liaison is fixed. In some communities, the bride's parents are required to fulfill the unspoken expectations of the groom's family. This is where the problems come in. Dowry places the bride's family under an immense financial burden and the groom's parents are sometimes dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction manifests itself in the form of misbehavior toward the bride and her family.

Dowry Related Crimes

Newspapers published with headlines such as "One Woman Is Killed Every Hour For Dowry In India" are routinely dismissed as being sensationalist however during 2014 there were 8,455 cases registered under section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (Dowry Death). In 2013 and 2012 the numbers were similar with 8,083 and 8,233 cases respectively. Given that there are approximately 8,765 hours in a year, the headline is not far from the truth.

Most alarming is that these figures represent deaths only and do not include acts of violence where the victim survives. They also do not include acts of non violence including threats or extortion. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, India has recorded 3.48 lakh cases of cruelty.

The Dowry Prohibition Act

Enacted by Parliament in 1961, The Dowry Prohibition Act states the following:

"If any person, after the commencement of this Act, gives or takes or abets the giving or taking of dowry, he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years, and with the fine which shall not be less than fifteen thousand rupees or the amount of the value of such dowry, whichever is more."

The exception (and loophole) to this law are gifts given to the bride or groom at the time of marriage.

The Hypocritical Mindset

The educated Indian writes essays about the malpractices of dowry in school, attends debates on this topic in college and shakes their head every time media reports news of a dowry death. The very same Indian does not oppose the exchange of expensive gifts at their own wedding. In the urban upper class, the current dowry mindset is that if it is not demanded, it is not dowry. They look down upon those who demand dowry and yet drive the car gifted to them by the bride's parents every morning to work. This paradox needs working on. A collective effort by every Indian to understand the impact of the dowry mindset and an attempt to break it. Practice what you preach needs to be the new mantra. If not, then we will continue to hear of new and vile ways in which women have been harassed for dowry.

Real Cases Of Dowry Crimes

In 2013, Barsa Swony Choudhury, the then daughter in law of Minister Raghunath Mohanty, had filed a complaint against her in-laws alleging torture and dowry demands. The Mohanty family was arrested in March 2013. It took almost a year for the police to file a charge sheet on the Mohanty family. A mere five days after it was filed though, Barsa was threatened with acid attacks. Before his resignation, Minister Mohanty was holding the portfolios of housing and urban development, law and information technology.

Dowry demands are rampant in India irrespective of the social and educational background of the groom. In fact, the social stigma associated with demands of dowry has given rise to threats and acid attacks against the women who gather enough courage to report the incidents. In May 2015, in Mathura, a woman and her brother were subjected to an acid attack. They had just filed a dowry complaint against the woman's in-aslaws. In the same month, a rickshaw puller from Meerut attacked his wife and seven other members of her family with acid over a dowry dispute. The youngest victim of this attack was a six month child. In August 2015, a woman was reportedly fed acid by her in-laws over demands of dowry. Outwardly unheard, she battled for life as doctors struggled to gauge the extent of her injuries. Her husband and mother in law went into hiding to avoid arrest.

These examples cite that not every case of dowry harassment leads to a dowry death. Mental torture, abuse and physical attacks like these compound the problem to an even bigger proportion. The practice of dowry is the biggest reason of female infanticide in India. Parents look at the girl child as a financial burden and do not desire them. It continues to convince future generations too that being borne a woman automatically makes them a liability.

What Is Dowry?

Dowry is not a tradition, it is simply greed. All Indians need to be aware of this. The Indian youth of the 21st century are fighting for the freedom to make their own decision. If they make the collective decision to fight against dowry then this evil would surely be weeded out of our society for good.

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