Saturday, June 14, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Groomed for Cash?
What's wrong in recognising dowry as part of the girl's share of her father's property?
by A.J. Philip

SHWETA Bansal, a third-year BA student from the neighbourhood of Hisar in Haryana, has joined the new pantheon of women who refuse to be sacrificed at the altar of dowry. She decided against marrying the boy her parents had chosen when he preferred to remain a mute spectator to the ugly bargaining his family members indulged in to satiate their dowry demands. Earlier, a girl from the slums in Ludhiana showed greater courage when she saw to it that the baaratis who tried to fleece her father in the name of dowry was taught a lesson they will never forget. Both of them were not inspired by Nisha Sharma, the bright young girl from Noida, who has overnight become the toast of women's libbers, because neither of them had heard about her.

But there have been instances of girls in Delhi and other places following precisely in the footsteps of Nisha Sharma. While this is an encouraging trend inasmuch as it will dampen the enthusiasm of those seeking dowry, it overlooks another important aspect of the whole issue. In all these cases, the girls stood up only when the demands for dowry turned excessive to the point of humiliation for their parents. In other words, they were not against dowry per se.


This is a sad commentary on the state of affairs decades after dowry was declared illegal. Recently, the media reported the case of a Muslim girl who refused to accompany her husband after the nikaah because he insisted on a fat dowry. He was not satisfied with getting a life partner. What this incident highlights is that no community is free from the scourge. Dowry has now become part and parcel of marriages. If anything, this is a clear failure of the anti-dowry law.

While everybody pays lip service to the anti-dowry law, nobody is willing to root it out. When it comes to one's own children, no one has any qualms of conscience in either receiving dowry or giving it, though it may be couched in terminologies like "gifts" and "presents".

Imagine what could have happened to the Nishas and Shwetas if they had not called off their marriages and succumbed to the demands? They could have been harassed for life. Who knows, they could even have become victims of "stove bursts", a phenomenon whereby young brides die of burn injuries. There has never been a case of a mother-in-law dying of burn injuries. In fact, because of her age, she should be more susceptible to an accidental death than the daughter-in-law.

It is not difficult to trace dowry to the patriarchal system, which is prevalent in the country. There is widespread refusal to give the girl her rightful share in the property of her parents. In most cases, the dowry given at the time of the marriage is all that a girl gets as part of her parental property. Various stratagems are devised and put into practice to deny the daughter an equal share in the property. This suits the rich more than the poor. It may be backbreaking for a poor man to give a hefty dowry but for the rich all the costly items they shower on the bride at the time of the marriage do not constitute a fraction of the wealth she would have acquired if she was given an equal share in the family property.

The attachment to landed property is such that few parents show readiness to divide the property equally between their sons and daughters. It is the fear of dividing the land that is one of the principal reasons of female foeticide. Stronger the attachment to the land, weaker the will to bring up women as equal partners. Punjab and Haryana, which are among the richest states, record the worst sex ratio. A girl is a deprived person even if she manages to escape the eyes of the ultrasound machine operator. She is never given her due.

It is, therefore, a wonder that despite such bias, it is girls who outshine boys in studies. Again, it is the fear that women might exercise control over the levers of power that has forced most political parties to join hands against the Women's Bill. Both the BJP and the Congress support the Bill but each of the three times it was moved in the House, a few MPs from Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal were able to obstruct it by their throat power.

There is every reason to believe that all these parties are in cahoots with one another to defeat the Bill. In sharp contrast, the BJP even convened a joint session of Parliament to get the POTA Bill passed when it found that it did not have adequate support in the Lower House. Why is no such determination shown when it comes to the Women's Bill? The answer is obvious -- they do not want empowerment of women.

The same holds true in the case of granting women equal rights in the property. Of course, the law provides for such rights but every community has found its own ways to defeat the law. So how can we tackle dowry?

There can be two attitudes to dowry. One, nothing needs to be done as dowry has already been declared illegal. Let the Nisha Sharmas fight their battles on their own. The other is to recognise the reality of dowry and thereby empower women. Dowry should be seen as part of the girl's share in her father's property. This may appear outrageous to some.

Many people may not be aware that under the Travancore Christian Succession Act, which was prevalent until it was challenged by Mary Roy, mother of the celebrated writer, Arundhati Roy, Sthreedhanam, as dowry was known, had legal sanctity. Sthreedhanam was given and accepted in the presence of village elders and churchmen. What's more, the dowry was mentioned in the church records. If, at any point of marriage, the wife wanted the dowry back, she could claim it. If, for one reason or another, the husband incurred debt, his debtors could not attach the Sthreedhanam his wife had brought. There was certainty of the Sthreedhanam remaining with her even if her husband was declared a pauper.

Under the Act, she was entitled to a share in the father's property if she was not paid Sthreedhanam. She also had a claim on the intestate property of her father subject to a maximum of Rs 5,000. Incidentally, this amount was fixed over a century ago when the value of the rupee was several thousands more than what it is today. Now that the Supreme Court has virtually annulled the Travancore Succession Act, there is no protection to the dowry given at the time of marriage. If a marriage fails, the girl cannot make any claim on the dowry her father has paid.

The Christian men have found ingenious ways to deny their womenfolk equal rights in their parental property. It is doubtful whether Roy has received her due share in her father's property despite winning the court case.

So what's wrong in recognising dowry as part of the girl's share of her father's property? The former Union Minister, Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, who has been taking up the cause of Punjabi women cheated by their NRI husbands, has made a demand that the dowry given at the time of marriage should be registered so that the women can claim it back if the marriage fails. Whether she wants her share in cash and kind at the time of marriage when she needs them to set up a new home or at the time of division of family property, the choice should be the girl's.

In any case, the daughter should have equal rights on her father's property as the son. Needless to say, in some cases the parents leave only financial burdens to their children. In such cases, the women should be prepared to take a share of the burden also.


Dowry demands zero tolerance
Aruti Nayar

DESPITE all the legislative measures adopted since Independence to abolish it, dowry simply refuses to go away. Nisha Sharma of Delhi, who has been in the news of late, was catapulted to fame because she turned her groom away from the mandap. She is being acclaimed as a new woman who is out to reject the outmoded social mores and traditions and usher in a silent revolution that legal measures have failed to bring about.

However, Nisha and other girls like her and their families were not opposed to the practice of dowry per se. They did not want to rock the boat till a point in time when the dowry demand became too much. And whatever chain of reactions was triggered off was more due to the powder-keg like nature of the issue than due to any revolutionary fervour on their part.

Perhaps the slogan dahej lena aur dena donon jurm hai went out with the black-and-white documentaries made by the DAVP. Then, things were either right or wrong. Dowry as a practice was rejected. Now, only the degree and its extent is being opposed. Too much of dowry is bad, but pray how much is too much? What is too much for one can be peanuts for the other. Instead of quantifying dowry and masking it as "gifts" that the girls parents can rightfully give their daughter, is it not high time that we took a stand that is less ambivalent and more definitive?

It is admirable that girls are refusing to be maltreated by greedy prospective in-laws. But if one knowingly enters a business transaction, is it justifiable to change the rules of the contract mid-way? After all, parents knowingly give dowry as they want to "buy" happiness for their daughters. They bribe the prospective son-in-law and in-laws with gifts and commodities so that their daughter would either be taken care of or be in a commanding position by virtue of all the goods that she has brought with her.

However, doesn’t she deserve to be treated well without the add-ons? Shouldn’t she be welcome in the new household for her own sake alone? Unfortunately, a very few parents and fewer still prospective brides would agree with this.They would rather fall into the dowry trap!

Dowry remains a deplorable custom that ought to be condemned outright in no uncertain terms. People who give or demand dowry should be socially boycotted. We must remember that if we capitulate even once, we cannot have control over the dynamics of greed that invariably takes over. No one is asking these heroines (and perhaps no one is interested in knowing) whether they are opposed to dowry as a principle. And even if they are asked, their reply will be that the demand was too much!

Similarly, parents go about brokering the best deal for their daughters and are willing to cough up a lot of money to flaunt an IAS, MBA, engineer, IT professional son-in-law. When they are willing accomplices in this ‘ deal,’ why should they crib at being ill-treated or the daughter being harassed by greedy in-laws later? The more you will give ostensibly for the sake of "the happiness" of your daughter, the greater is the likelihood of the in-laws demanding even more. Without any ambivalence, why canparents refuse to enter into a business transaction? Is their and their daughter’s dignity not important?

Moreover, as far as the right to give gifts goes, why must all gifts be given at one occasion? Why can the parents not give them on numerous other occasions that are bound to crop up over a period of time? How many parents, who actually want to give their daughters a "good start" at the outset of the matrimonial journey, think in terms of giving the girl a share in the parental property and putting some money aside exclusively for her?

An average girl doesn’t say no to a dowry- seeker because she herself believes that there is nothing wrong in taking gifts or making her parents spend.

Between an Act and its implementation is the shadow of public sensibility. Social attitudes do not give way under legalities. For each girl like Nisha, there are countless others whose parents yield to avaricious grooms in-laws-to-be. They do not want to be the ones to change society, they just want to get on with their simple lives without any thought of the larger picture or being judgmental.

But what is heartening is that these seemingly ordinary girls are at least questioning the practice that requires their parents to be humiliated or cater to demands even at the expense of their dignity. It is a beginning, though flawed and a small one. The practise of dowry-giving demands zero tolerance from society and not hair-splitting over how much is good enough.


Dowry deaths have risen from 5,500 in
1996 to 7,000 now

Renu Rangela

IN the afternoon of May 30, three young women walked into the office of the National Commission for Women (NCW) in the Capital which was packed with legal experts and women activists. It was exactly a week and three days since observations of a judge of the Delhi High Court on the anti-dowry legislation had triggered a massive controversy.

The three women who had been invited to join the debate on the honourable judge’s observations were none other than Nisha Sharma, Farzana Zaki and Anupama Singh, for whom the short walk from the mandaps of their marriage to the NCW premises was probably the most difficult step they had taken in their young lives. The agenda of the NCW meeting was the controversial observations of Justice J.D. Kapoor. Right or wrong, the fact is that the judge’s observations regarding the anti-dowry legislation in the country have stirred a virtual hornet’s nest. Though women have often been accused by their husbands and in-laws of misusing the anti-dowry provisions of the Indian law to settle personal scores, this is the first time a member of the judiciary has come out openly in support of these allegations.

In the words of Justice Kapoor: "I feel constrained to comment upon the misuse of the provisions (of law) to such an extent that it is hitting at the foundation of marriage itself and has proved to be not so good for the health of the society at large."

In Justice Kapoor’s learned view, Sections 498 A and 406 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which relate to dowry-related crimes, were being misused to harass the grooms’ families.

The purpose of the meeting, according to NCW Under Secretary Romi Sharma, was to discuss the need, if any, for reform in the anti-dowry law in the light of the judge’s observations. What emerged from the meeting was a general consensus that there was no ground to dismiss the dowry-related legislations as weak in law or in need of any major reform.

Manorama Bawa of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) pointed out that the solution did not lie in diluting the legislation to check the misuse, if any, but in taking steps to ensure its stringent implementation in letter and in spirit.

The All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) stated that it was not a stringent legislation or the obstinacy of married women and their families that were responsible for the breakdown of marriages but the harassment, violence, intimidation and blackmail to which they were being subjected because of unabated greed. The importance being given to market forces and the resultant consumerism had only fuelled this greed, it said.

This view was endorsed by Seba Farooqui, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, who found that the existing anti-dowry laws had been ineffective in checking this evil. How ineffective they have, in fact, been is evident from official figures which show that the number of women killed by their in-laws for not fetching an attractive dowry rose from 5,500 in 1996 to around 7,000 last year.

To demand a dowry, or gifts of cash and goods, is common in our male-dominated society but the custom was banned by law in the 1980s and is a non-bailable offence.

Pointing out that the modern-day practice of dowry bears little resemblance to its originally intended role of providing women with a means of personal security when they had virtually no title to land ownership, sociologist and historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg maintained that dowry had now become a matter of settling a ‘demand’ made by the groom and his parents rather than one of ensuring the bride’s security in the absence of title to parental property.

A grave fallout of the practice of dowry is the menace of female foeticide. The last decennial census conducted in 2001 showed that the child sex ratio or the number of girls for every 1,000 boys in the under-six age group had fallen from 945 in 1991 to 927. In northern Haryana and Punjab states, the 2001 census showed that there were just 793 girls for every 1,000 boys.

A survey by AIDWA, based on interviews with parents of young unmarried women, showed that they perceived that the practice of dowry had worsened over the last decade, exacerbated by a new consumerist culture fostered by India’s rapid globalisation.

The simple fact is that the giving and taking of dowry is a crime that enjoys wide social sanction among both victims and perpetrators — that is why it continues to flourish, according to AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat.

What is even more disturbing is that young men and women themselves have traditionally backed the practice of dowry. In fact, a survey conducted last year by AIDWA of 10,000 unmarried women and men showed that a large majority held the perception that they could not get a girl married without dowry. Girls themselves believe that unless they take dowry, they will not be happy in their matrimonial home.