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One of the longest standing shades of malice present in the institution of marriage from a women’s perspective is the dowry system. The unnatural death of married women because of dowry is a routine headline of every newspaper. This article highlights the role played by law, Culture and family in perpetuation of dowry death in India, historical perspective of dowry system and several other aspects of dowry system in India. Although the hearing about killing one’s own wife or daughter in law should shock the conscience, but unfortunately dowry death have become so common in India that eyebrows rarely raise when it is revealed that a women was killed by her husband or in laws . This article attempts to show that despite of efforts on the part of Indian government, social activists, and judiciary, not much has changed , in fact the situation is more critical now, resulting in unprecedented amount of morbidity and mortality among married women in India.
“Her father protects [her] in childhood, [her] husband protects her in youth, and [her] son protects her in old age a woman is never fit for independence.”
– The laws of Manu (200 A.D)
Ayesha, twenty three year old women ended her life by jumping into the Sabarmati River in Ahmadabad because her in-laws and husband were not satisfied with the amount of dowry provided by her father. In a call recording of Ayesha and her husband, Ayesha’s husband can be heard telling her “go die and send, a video of your death”. Ayesha’s father reported that she got married to Arif khan, in July 2018 from the very day of her marriage her husband and in laws demanded dowry from her. He reported that he gave them some money but their greed increased with each passing day. Few months after the payment, Ayesha was back to her father’s after a fight with her husband. He also stopped talking her over a phone. Unable to bear the pain, she decided to commit suicide. Ayesha’s physical and emotional suffering at the hand of her in laws and her husband is typical of many young married women experience in India when their husband or in laws are not satisfied with the amount of dowry given by the family of the bride at the time of marriage.
Frequently, the violence grows and results in either the bride’s murder by her in-laws or husband or in her suicide. Rajwati’s case is a typical, Dolly’s mother Rajwati, had said that her daughter had an arrange marriage with Brajesh in 2015. “Soon after the marriage, her in-laws started demanding dowry. They harassed and tortured my daughter for not meeting dowry demands”. She reported that two families held meeting and sorted out the issue one year ago. However, on April 24, “dolly’s neighbor called us over phone and said she was dead”.
When brides are murdered because of dowry, the society and government do little to address the murder and abuse of the victim. “The harassment, beating and in some case murder of a women over dowry is both common or commonly ignored or even tacitly condoned in official circles – by the police, the courts, politicians, and media”. The acceptance of domestic violence is so deeply embedded in India that it has contributed to the inability or disinclination of the government and the law makers to effectively implement the law against bride burning.
- THE CONCEPT OF DOWRY
Dowry means any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly: by one party to the other party to the marriage ;or by the parents of either to a marriage or by any other person ; at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of said parties .In last few decades, dowry has become a means to attain quick money and goods that provide luxuries. The bridegroom’s families expect a large amount of money which has no relation with women’s father income or wealth.
Sometimes, parents of the bride are financially unable to pay the amount of money or property that bridegroom’s family demands. Insufficient amount of dowries result in physical as well as emotional abuse of the women by the husband and in-laws, parents attempts to preserve marriage by finding ways and means of raising money to please husband and in-laws.
Dowry deaths accounted for 40% to 50% homicides in country for almost a decade from 1999 to 2018. India has alarming trend that sees 21 women die every day as a result of dowry. The conviction rate, however, is less than 35 percent. According to Indian National crime record Bureau (NCRB), India has highest number of dowry deaths in the world. The NCRB 2019 report presented a clear picture of how common crimes against women are in country. News reports reveal that in every 4 minutes women faces cruelty by her husband or in laws, a woman becomes victim of acid attack in every 2.3 days and how a woman is killed in every 1 hour 13 minutes by her husband in demand of dowry. According to the NCRB report, Uttar Pradesh recorded highest number of 2,444 dowry death in 2018. The number of cases filed under dowry prohibition has shown and increase from 690 in 2018 to 739 in 2019. The number of cases had stood at 727 in 2017. These are the cases which are reported, thousands of cases remain unreported ever year because the bride’s family does not publicize the death because they consider it dishonourable.
There are many factors which contribute to dowry death; the primary cause of such death is the marital conflicts motivated by the baseless demands of the husband and in-laws for a huge amount of dowry.This motive is further strengthened by the fact that Indian families use dowry as a rapid way of gathering wealth and raising their social standard. Dowry is perceived as the method to have large economic benefit , the husband and his family can do everything what it takes to acquire dowry, even if that means killing your own wife or daughter in law .
- Ancient Custom Of Affectionate And Voluntary Gift Giving To Bride, Bridegroom’s Family, And Bridegroom
Dowry is often misconstrued as a concept rooted in Hindu tradition and as a tradition in ancient times through practices of kanyadan ( gift or token by the bride’s father to the bridegroom)and vardakshina (gift or token given by the family of the bride to the family of the bridegroom ) . These two were presents given and received in the context of marriage but not as consideration of marriage .In addition to this relatives and friends of the bride also have gifts to the bride.
Historically,dowry was a wedding gift given voluntarily at the time of marriage to a bride as a form of economic protection. The dowry served as a women’s share to the start of new marriage and to fulfill the social expectation that women should not work outside the household. Kanyadan that bride brought gave her both status and power within a marriage.These gifts constituted Stridhan which according to the Dharmshastras is the exclusive property of the bride.However, Stridhan is distinguishable from dowry, if bride’s receives a property as a personal gift as her stridhan it gives her certain degree of economic protection but when transfer is made to the husband or family of bridegroom in the form of dowry then it restricts the bride’s access to it.
- Emergence Of Dowry
The customary practice of Stridhan has somehow given way to the practice of dowry. Although the bride brings ornaments, gold, cash with her to the marriage, most of the dowry payments are not under the control and name of the bride. Instead, they are given to bridegroom or his family. Many brides assert that they are not allowed to touch their own clothing, their husbands and in -laws provide them with a set each morning.
One explanation for the emergence of dowry system in India is invasions of muslins and Muslims rule in 13th or 14th century that threatened and worsened economic conditions of the Hindus. To protect themselves and their religion, Hindus became more stiff in their religious observances and caste and sought to marry their daughters within their sub-caste and caste. This downturn in economic condition brought a difficulty in finding a bridegroom of sound social and economic status, and that is why parents of the bride found themselves bidding on bridegroom to avoid any risk.In medieval period, dowry was prevalent only among upper castes, especially among rajput kings, but by eighteenth century, lower castes began to practice dowry as well.. Marriage began to lose its sanctity and became commercially contractual. As a result of growing commercialization of marriage the dowry tradition in India experienced a drastic transformation.
In twentieth century, dowry has spread in all communities now. Earlier there were some communities and classes which traditionally did not accept dowry but nowadays nearly all the communities and classes accept dowry, as a means to achieve upward social mobility. The family of the bride as well as of bridegroom consider dowry as a symbol of social status. The family of bridegroom usually fixes dowry rates and this rate depends upon bridegroom education and his earning potential. They may also change the amount of dowry after the bride is married. The women become continuous source of unearned surplus to extract more goods and money over the course of many years of marriage by beating her, abusing her and threatening to leave her if her family is unable to comply with their demands.
The giving and taking dowry reflects and subjugates women and show patriarchal values. These patriarchal values are deeply embedded in Indian society and are passed down through generations in various forms.
- ROLE OF BOTH FAMILIES AS PERPETRATORS
A women’s ability to escape the abuse is largely dependent on the resources and support system available to her. This is especially true for the victims of dowry death because before the ultimate decision to kill her is made she is subjected to years of abuse .this section explores role played by both the families in perpetuation of violence.
- The Husband And The In-Laws
The joint family system dominant in India, all the family members of the husband live in same household. The choice of the spouse also remains in the hands of family elders. Because of lack of love and family’s influence, the husband is not a source of protection for his wife against the abuses of in-laws. Even the husband is expected to participate in the abuse. In Meera srivastava’s case, the husband was forced to participate in the murder even after he left the room. Meera’s in-laws were not satisfied with the amount of dowry. In between the argument that ensued between Meera and her in laws, Meera’s husband left the room. After Meera went to her husband’s room, her in-laws followed her and forced her husband to join in so that they can kill her. There with the in-laws urging husband joined the act of killing his own wife.
The role played by mother in law in both in instigating and exacerbating cannot be underestimated. In majority of cases mother-in-laws are the main instigators of violence against women’s in marital homes.
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- The Wife’s Own Family
Most disheartening role in played by women’s own family in enabling the abuse until the women is burned to death. Once a woman is married, societal notions of shame and honor dictate that she cannot return to her parents home.In majority of cases she is often told that her father’s home is forever closed for her once she is married. Social stigma attached to married women and divorced women is so strong that most parents would rather see their daughters dead than to have them get a divorce.
Even when the bride is burned , the family of the bride continues to play a prominent role in perpetuation of dowry . fearing harassment and abuse from society and husband’s family , the victim’s family refuse to raise any question about the unnatural circumstances surrounding bride’s death. This reluctance deprives victim of any justice on her behalf. In some cases victim’s own family provide her with another victim.There are many other factors which infkuence family’s decision not to pursue justice such as a long wait before a case can be decided, inadequate representation of their cases by prosecutors and economic hardship .
- LEGISLATIONS RELATED TO DOWRY PRACTICE AND DOWRY RELATED VIOLENCE
India has taken various steps to penalize offences against women and to acknowledge the relationship between violence and property. Dowry prohibition act, the first systematic law was passed in the year 1961.This act was amended two times ,once in 1984 and again in 1986, in order to resolve several loopholes and weaknesses in the act. Still, the ambiguity regarding the definitions of dowry and demand for dowry, along with weak enforcement mechanisms, continue the limit effectiveness of the act.
Amendment act of 1986 introduced the offence of dowry death into the Indian penal code. This offence deems the husband or the relative to have caused the bride’s death in cases where the bride dies of burns or bodily injury under unnatural circumstances within seven years of marriage and where there is evidence that she has suffered harassment and cruelty in connection with dowry.
To resolve the problem of proof , the dowry prohibition (amendment )act 1986 introduced section 113B of Indian Evidence act.Section 113 B creates a presumption that that the in laws and husband committed dowry death if the women was subjected to harassment in connection with dowry before her death.
The criminal law (second amendment) act of 1983 introduced section 113A into the Indian evidence act.Section 113 A creates a presumption of abetting suicide of a married women if suicide occurs with seven years of her marriage and if the husband and relatives had subjected her to cruelty.Furthermore, criminal law (second amendment) act of 1983 addresses dowry violence short of suicide or murder through introduction of section 498A of Indian penal code.The intent of the legislation was to bring domestic violence which was considered as private affair under state action.
In addition to the above legislations, s.205 of Indian penal code enables a woman to make a case of criminal breach of trust. It offers a woman a remedy for misappropriation of their stridhan or personal property. The effectiveness of this provision to protect women is very less as the general nature of the provision and the trust terminology have made lower courts reluctant to apply this provision to marital relationships.
- RECENT JUDICIAL TRENDS
There are plenty of judgments on dowry death cases after the enactment of the dowry prohibition law. In protecting women the judiciary has removed all the shackles and has completely revolutionized constitutional litigations. Court has always opted for a strict and narrow reading of provisions, which was one of the main initiative introduced against dowry. The judiciary has encouraged widest possible coverage of the legislations by interpreting the terms liberally. Judicial trend has been most encouraging as the same is evident from analyzing following cases.
Demand of dowry from bride which was promised by father at the time of marriage is not cruelty. Father of the bride has promised to pay a plot and Rs. 3000. Promise was not fulfilled. Father and mother of husband taunted the deceased to insist her father to keep the promise. They never made demand of dowry at the time of marriage. No offence of cruelty under section 498-A of IPC. In a case it was also held that demand of ornaments for sale will also not amount to dowry .suicide by bride on demand of ornaments will not be punished under section 304-B of IPC.
In a recent case, accused husband and in laws alleged to have subjected cruelty and harassment for not bringing dowry amount leading her to commit suicide. There was a witness that 10,000 was left out of dowry amount promised by the father of deceased. Evidence showing that the accused used to harass deceased for dowry was also present. Death occurred within a period of 7 years. All the essential ingredients of S.304B and 498-A are attracted, accused was convicted by the court.
In a recent case, it was held that demand of money on account of some financial or domestic strigency cannot be termed ass dowry.Supreme Court has held that any demand of money, valuable security or property made from the bride or her family members in connection with the marriage will fall within the ambit of “dowry” under dowry prohibition act.
Recently the court held that, trial court can convict the accused on the basis of the dying declaration of the victim. If the court is satisfied that declaration is true and voluntary the court can base its conviction without any further corroboration. The court stated that what is stated in dying declaration is unalloyed truth and that is absolutely safe to act upon it.
In a recent case, court interpreted the word ‘soon before’ used in section 304-B. Chief justice Ramana explained “it is safe to deuce that when the legislatures used the words soon before they did not mean immediately before. Rather, they left its determination in the hands of the courts. The factum of cruelty and harassment differs from case to case. No straightjacket formula can be laid down by the court to define what exact phrase ‘soon before’ entails”.The court also held that the word ‘otherwise than in normal circumstances ‘should also be liberally interpreted.
In a significant move, Supreme Court has observed that the provisions of cruelty and anti dowry law were being increasingly misused by plaintiffs. Taking cognizance of the fact the court directed that state governments to instruct police not to automatically carry out arrest on mere filing of complaint. Court has directed to police to satisfy them first and then arrest.
- WHY DOES PROBLEM STILL PERSISTS?
The dowry prohibition act of 1961 was a formidable weapon against the practice of dowry but the practices still continues, unchecked, and barely disguised for the number of reasons:
- The existence of loopholes in the act. The act allows exchange of gifts at the time of marriage .thus the families can easily demand dowry in the name of gifts.
- Marriage for Hindus is not only a necessity by a religious sacrament. Traditionally, unmarried daughters are considered as a social and financial burden .families strives to marry off their daughters at any cost. The beliefs that marriage without dowry is not possible, or happiness cannot be obtained without dowry are deeply rooted.
- Feminist movements against the dowry system tend to be limited to be more progressive and aggressive sections of the society. At best, public outcry against the practice is inconsistent, sporadic and not universal.
- Difficulty in identifying and naming suspicious deaths caused by, drowning, burning, or poisoning as dowry deaths.
- Reluctance of the neighbor and police in getting involved. They often name it as “family matters” and get out of that.
- Many sections of the society consider dowry system as valuable and important because it provides a wealthy bride to marry in high social state, increases the family wealth and status of the groom and may also provide a less talented, plain looking, or less educated women with the opportunity to get married.
- Dowry is seen as a way for families to display their wealth in society, the greater ostentation, the higher status. In hierarchical societies where economic status is values above all, such practices have a tendency to thrive.
- Customs, traditions and religious texts describe the status of women lower then that of men in society and the acceptance of that belief is deeply rooted in the culture.
- After marriage women are separated from their parent’s home, they find themselves isolated from their support systems. Economically dependent, socially isolated women are at more risk of dowry related problems.
- An increasing sense of consumerism and materialism continues to fuel the demand of families who seek instant wealth from marriages.
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- WHAT CAN BE DONE?
- The first step that can be taken towards more effective legal response to dowry murders is changing cultural attitudes surrounding the tradition of dowry. Dowry murders are direct consequence of the belief that a woman is burden that can only be relieved through dowry payments.
- Second, every women should have control over their dowry because gift giving at the time of marriage is so deeply rooted that simply restricting dowry will not allow the conclusion that it will not be practiced. 
- For the dowry tradition to be completely eliminated. India’s women must be given a tool to use as leverage against abusive husband. One such tool is “a tort law providing for monetary damages”. Fear of losing money in a lawsuit would deter individuals from making dowry demands.
- A list of men whose wives have died dowry related deaths should be published, this will send a message that these men have failed to protect their partners. Since social status is of great importance in India, the shame associated with failure will force men to ensure that their wives are protected.
- Families should educate their daughters, so that they are capable of being economically independent, leading to the destruction of cultural and traditional norms.
- Social acceptance of love marriages/choice based marriages over arranged marriage. Social acceptance of divorce and legislative changes to expedite divorce.
According to Hindu mythology, marriages are made in heaven, but sister’s in-law, mother’s in-law and other relatives of the husband are involved in breaking of this wedlock in lust of dowry. Dowry is a cultural problem that cannot be effectively removed by simple declaration of its illegality. India needs to strengthen its dowry related legislations to take into account the social acceptance of dowry at all levels of society including the acceptance by the woman herself, her parents, the husband and his family, lower courts and law enforcement agents. This curse must be attacked by a multipronged and arranged approach by women welfare organizations, police, acknowledged public servants, and judiciary by grant of deterrent penalty to all the offenders. There is a need of educational interventions involving getting families to educate their daughters, to make them independent and self reliant. Unfortunately, until the law is strengthened to afford the victim the protection it was meant to provide, Indian brides will continue to victims at their marital homes.
NAME: MUSKAAN YAGASENI
NAME OF INSTITUTION: UNIVERSITY OF LUCKNOW
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Author: Muskaan Yagaseni
Editor: Kanishka Vaish, Senior Editor, LexLife India.