Dowry is the money or property brought by a woman to her husband at the time of marriage. But there is much more to it. Dowry is pervasive, destructive, demanding and damning. The practice demeans the woman and devalues her to a mere piece of commodity.
Dowry is the root cause of endless incidents of domestic violence. There are innumerable reports of women being abused, committing suicide and also brutally murdered due to the greed of the in-laws. Sometimes women are tortured to squeeze more money out of their families and in extreme cases they’re killed. Then the husband is free to remarry and get another dowry. This type of murder is often called “bride burning” in India.
Banaja Raol, who immolated herself outside the residence of the speaker of the Orissa state assembly, has come to symbolize the changing face of dowry in this eastern Indian state. Raol, in her late-20s, was a teacher at a non-formal, state-sponsored education center. Engaged to be married to an unemployed youth, her in-laws were willing to accept a smaller dowry only because she had a government job. The government's decision to retrench the education center’s staff saw Raol lose her job. Once she lost her job, her in-laws refused to go ahead with the marriage. Heartbroken, in her suicide note she wrote, “I have neither a job, nor can I get married; my future stretches before me as an area of darkness. What will I gain by living?”
One major reason why this practice is still rampant even after the anti-dowry act passed long ago in 1961 is that the judiciary has not come down heavily on this practice. There was a case of a young woman who had died of asphyxia due to extensive burns. The Supreme Court actually held that dowry death was not a heinous crime and therefore reduced the sentence. The judiciary, which had earlier awarded her husband a life sentence, reduced it to ten years.
Globalisation has increased consumerism in the Indian society. It has increased social and economic inequalities with the rich setting the trend for what comprises status and style. Parents of female children are desperate to concede to the absurd demands made by the groom and they go to any extent to “marry off” their daughters even if it eventually reduces them to paupers. The misery of the girls’s parents does not end with their daughter’s marriage. The demands sometimes go on throughout their lives. The women are sent back to the parent’s home or they are mercilessly abused or worse still burnt. The pattern is familiar: a woman is burned to death in her kitchen; the police arrive; the family of the husband claim it is a “cooking stove” accident; the police are assisted towards this conclusion with a wad of rupees.
Recently there have been cases where the bride has got the groom and his parents arrested under the Anti Dowry law. To cite a case, Nisha Sharma of Delhi brought this illegal but thriving dowry system in the spotlight when she decided to send her groom packing when his mother demanded an extra $25,000 as dowry payment. In yet another incident, in Chennai, a middle class girl Vidya called the Police when the groom and his parents demanded more money on the day of her wedding.
The main prison in Delhi, Tihar Jail, has a “mother-in-law” cellblock, set-aside exclusively for women who have killed or harassed their daughters-in-law. It is full of elderly women, some of whom are serving 20-year sentences for murder.
Dowries are not going away. They are deeply ingrained in Indian society and are growing stronger, and the law prohibiting them is treated with contempt and the police are powerless to stop it.