the dowry menace
Engaging Parliament in
by Dr Denis Broun
On a sultry evening last June, politicians and leaders cutting across party lines, both men and women, had come together to strategize a response to the HIV epidemic. Discussions on issues related with condom use, sex and sexuality in India took place. Such a discussion would have been unthinkable a few years ago because of societal censorship attached to such subjects.
— Delhi Letter
Acting and reacting
The practice of giving dakshina during marriage had its origin in the sublime sentiments of parents and relatives of a bride. Today, as dowry, it has gained the characteristics of a market transaction and women are killed, burned, commit suicide or get thrown out of their house. It is a unique form of violence experienced by women in India. Dowry is a social scourge and public opinion has to be mobilized against this cancerous evil. It cannot be contained by only legal and police action.
The memorable words of Mahatma Gandhi — "acceptance of dowry is a disgrace for the young man who accepts it as well as perhaps a dishonour for the woman folk" — should ring in the ears of every unmarried young man or woman. Unfortunately, even with the passage of time and spread of education, the cancer is showing no signs of abatement.
With the course of time, dowry has become a widespread evil, and it has now assumed menacing proportions. Surprisingly, it has spread to other communities, which were traditionally non-dowry taking communities. Cases have come to public notice where brides, on account of their failure to bring the promised or expected dowry have been beaten up, kept without food for days together, locked up in dingy rooms, tortured physically and mentally, strangulated or burnt alive or led to commit suicide.
In places where traditionally there is an absence of caste or dowry based marriage system (such as the tribal communities of the far-east Indian states or predominantly caste-free Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist majority areas), dowry deaths are still not rampant. Elsewhere, dowry-related violence on women is out-of-control due to the following reasons:
1) Retention of the caste system, 2) undermining of the woman by the religious orthodox and social patriarch making herself and her family vulnerable to socio-economic pressures and extortion, 3) ever-increasing greed of the bridegroom and his family, 4) an economically strangled hyper-populated society non-supportive of unmarried women, and 5) a morally depraved political system run by pro-status quo conservatives.
With a view to eradicating the rampant social evil of dowry from the Indian society, Parliament in 1961, passed the Dowry Prohibition Act which applies not merely to Hindus but all people, Muslims, Christians, Parsis & Jews. But the act did not prove effective, and the evil of dowry continued to reign supreme.
With a view to give teeth to the law, many amendments were made to the existing law. The legislature intent is clear: to curb the menace of dowry with a firm hand. It must be remembered that since these crimes are generally committed in the privacy of residential homes and in secrecy, independent or direct evidence is not easy to get. The members of the husband’s family are not likely to depose against him. There is no body at the moment to record the woman’s declaration.
When this is taken in the light of the principle of criminal courts that every accused is presumed to be honest until his guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt, it becomes very difficult for the courts to convict the accused. The whole burden of proof is upon the prosecution side. A little lacuna here or there and the accused family get the benefit of doubt. Circumstances loudly demand that there should be some burden of proof on the family in whose home a young married woman is lost by burning or otherwise. Some burden will naturally fall upon them to make their position clear if an adverse presumption is drawn against them.
That is why the legislature has, by introducing Sections 113-A & Section 113-B in the Evidence Act, tried to strengthen the prosecution hands by permitting a presumption to be raised when certain foundational facts are established and the unfortunate event has taken place within seven years of the marriage. The period of seven years is considered to be the turbulent one after which the legislature assumes that the couple would have settled down in life. If a married woman is subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or his family members, Section 498-A of Indian Penal Code would be attracted.
If such cruelty or harassment was inflicted by the husband or his relative in connection with any demand for dowry immediately preceding death by burns and bodily injury or in abnormal circumstances within seven years of marriage, such husband or relative is deemed to have caused her death and is liable to be punished under Section 304-B IPC. When the question at issue is whether a person is guilty of causing a dowry death, if the woman was subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment in connection with any demand for dowry, Section 113-B Evidence Act provides that the court shall presume that such person had caused the dowry death.
The new section creates a presumption against the husband and his family. The presumption is that even if it was a case of suicide, the family must have abetted it by practicing cruelty upon her. The effect of the new provision is that if some proof is available of the fact that a married woman was subjected to cruelty of her husband or his family members and she has committed suicide within seven years of her marriage the court may presume that the suicide had been abetted by her husband or his family members. This may be called presumption of abetment. The presumption will be raised by the court only after taking into account all the other circumstances of the case.
Dowry death is defined in Section 304-B of IPC. It covers a kind of death which is not natural, occurring within seven years of marriage and is preceded by cruelty or harassment in connection with dowry. Section 304-B is a special provision which is inserted by the amendment in 1986 to deal the dowry deaths. It is a substantive provision creating a new offence and not merely a provision effecting a change in procedure for trial of a pre-existing substantive offence.
Awakening of the collective consciousness is the need of a day. For this, a wider social movement is necessary. The role of the courts, under the circumstances, assumes a great importance. The courts are expected to deal with such cases in a realistic manner so as to further the object of the legislation.
One of the cardinal rules of interpretation in such case is that a penal statute must be strictly construed. The courts have, thus, to be watchful to see that emotions or sentiments are not allowed to influence their judgement, one way or the other, and that they do not ignore the golden thread passing through criminal jurisprudence that an accusation must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. They must carefully assess the evidence and not allow either suspicion or surmise or conjectures to take the place of proof in their zeal to stamp out the evil from the society while at the same time not adopting the easy course of letting technicalities or minor discrepancies in the evidence result in acquittal of an accused. They must critically analyse the evidence and decide the case in a realistic manner.
Justice Pritam Pal is a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Fiery Pakistani poetess, novelist, journalist and celebrated feminist Fahmida Riyaz was in the capital recently researching for her latest novel. Fahmida’s career has been replete with controversies due to her radical views on women’s empowerment and sexuality. Fahmida first locked horns with turmoil and controversy when she launched Pakistan’s first women’s publishing house and started a radical magazine called "Awaz". Fahmida launched a tirade against the then government of Pakistan run by Zia Ul Haq and she had to face the full fury of that regime. Fourteen cases of sedition were filed against her and she was exiled where upon she resided in India for many years. The exiled poetess has today become an internationally acclaimed figure and currently resides in Karachi from where she pens prolifically. The Tribune met up with Fahmida recently for an interview.
Q: What made you write on women and what has been the driving force behind your poetry?
A: Well, it was natural for me to write on women since I am a woman and therefore am fully aware that we are a rather repressed lot in society in general. It is irrelevant whether a woman is Hindu or Muslim, she is repressed and is a victim of society and familial pressures. A woman’s dilemma and victimisation is something we all grow up with and it naturally made a huge impact on me and I could not ignore it. Further, the main driving force behind my poetry is justice, social justice and naturally it began with the way women were treated around me.
Q: Can you tell us more about your quest for justice?
A: The thrust behind my writing, justice, has been a great craving for all societies. Our shared cultural histories and mythologies are filled with examples of legendary seekers of justice. This is a very basic craving of the human heart and this is why it has been the driving force behind my poetry, the energy that causes me to create.
Q: Can you share with us your journey through your long years of struggle?
A: My years of struggle began as a college student when I was a part of the Anti Martial Law Students Movement in the 60s and later I joined the Socialist movement in Great Britain. In 1972, I returned to Pakistan and then the real struggle began. Basically it was for bringing social justice to Pakistan. Soon its nature changed into a struggle for democracy. As editor of the Pakistani magazine "Awaz" we carried out a campaign for democracy. However, the then government put an abrupt end to this endeavor. I was arrested. Cases of sedition were filed against me and I became a political exilee and lived in India for 7 long years.
Q: Can you tell us something more about this period?
A: My exile was completely a political debacle engineered by the regime that was active then. Zia’s government was extremely retrogressive and it was a government that had been imposed upon the people of Pakistan. People should really realise that by becoming a part of the western strategy towards Afghanistan, Zia’ss dispensation nearly destroyed the society of Pakistan. Today, I think Musharraf is really trying to reverse the process and I have great respect for him.
Q: What was the period in India like?
A: I wrote lots of poems about both Pakistan and India. This period coincided with rising communal tension in India instigated by ruthless politicians. I joined hands with the progressive writers of India and wrote poetry on the communal issue.
Q: Tell us something more about your Indian experience, surely it can’t all have been communalism?
A: In a way my experience of India was much longer then the seven years. There was the entire thing about this bond we share with India. My family comes from Meerut and our ancestors are from here. What I felt cannot really be summed in a few lines. I feel I learnt so much about my past here as also about my entire life. It confirmed my earlier ideology and I learnt a thing or two about how a democracy actually works. I saw both its beautiful, very excellent side but I also saw its flaws.
Q: What are your views on the position of Muslim women in India?
A: At the time of partition nearly the entire educated Muslim middle class migrated from India to Pakistan. The Muslim community here was left without an educated, concerned, aware middle class. I felt this most poignantly during my stay here but this time round I do feel that an educated Muslim middle class has begun to emerge. This naturally effects the position of Muslim women in India. I would like to add that basically in both Hindu and Muslim societies there is no difference in the status of women and in both societies domestic violence against women is rampant and in both societies women are deprived of basic rights. However, in India today there is this much of a difference that in the rather sizeable educated Middle class women are allowed to work and are given education, atleast among the Hindus. But for a long time this phenomenon was missing among Muslims which however, today we see this emerging.
Q: How does the status of women in India and Pakistan compare?
A: In 1947, in Pakistan there was less urbanisation unlike India which got many urban centres. Pakistan remained largely tribal and extremely feudal. You have to understand that there have been no real land reforms in Pakistan. So, while women in Pakistan in the urban centers today are like their counterparts in India, most of them are working and educated. However, in rural areas this development is missing and women are often not educated and the question of working does not arise. Our political instability is also responsible for this.
Parliament in tackling AIDS
On a sultry evening last June, politicians and leaders cutting across party lines, both men and women, had come together to strategize a response to the HIV epidemic. Discussions on issues related with condom use, sex and sexuality in India took place. Such a discussion would have been unthinkable a few years ago because of societal censorship attached to such subjects. However, recognizing the importance of tackling these issues openly to curb the rising tide of HIV, some political leaders in India, under the aegis of the Parliamentary Forum on AIDS, have taken it upon themselves to raise these contentious issues in society and the highest corridors of power.
From one HIV-positive case in 1986, there are now more than 5 million Indians estimated to be living with the virus. One Indian gets infected every minute. The country has 10 per cent of the world’s population of people living with HIV and only one per cent of the world’s financial resources for fighting the epidemic. India, with its diverse socio- cultural patterns, experiences several different sub-national epidemics. In spite of the slow progression of the virus in the population, AIDS has the potential to destroy developmental gains of several decades as well as the social fabric of the country.
Realising the gravity of the situation, a group of Indian Parliamentarians met Dr. Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2001 to discuss what Parliamentarians and youth leaders could do to strengthen India’s response to the epidemic. UNAIDS has emphasized that every advance in the global struggle against HIV and AIDS has borne the mark of leadership. Hence, with support from the United Nations, the Parliamentary Forum on AIDS was formed and a political advocacy strategy to engage the parliamentarians and other political leaders at the national and state levels developed.
Today, the Parliamentary Forum has more than 350 members from all parties. The involvement of UN agencies has been useful in rendering an apolitical character to the Forum. In this regard, the contribution of Oscar Fernandes as Convenor of the Forum has also been truly commendable. Going beyond his political identity, he has been able to reach out to political leaders at every level, across parties to create a unique centre of political leadership against HIV.
The Forum is a true expression of the democratic process in India. Not only have the legislators championed the cause of HIV but also led by example. An HIV policy has been approved by the Parliament, financial resources have been mobilized and policy choices made to fight discrimination against HIV-affected people.
Dr. Denis Broun is UNAIDS Country Coordinator. October 24 is the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations.
Australia’s celebrated cricketer, Steve Waugh, once remarked that the only way to dismiss Rahul Dravid was to pray to God that he makes a mistake. Waugh, who has since retired as Captain of the Australian team, rates Dravid as the best batsman of his time, having nerves of steel yet gentle and soft in behaviour. John Wright, former Captain of New Zealand team, who was also coach of Indian team, and rarely praises a player, described Dravid as "mentally tough, a superb batsman and a student of the game, he understands. He is the whole package". Mired in controversy after controversy, the BCCI’s selection committee has, at long last, taken a correct decision by choosing Dravid to lead the Indian team. A right-handed batsman in the classical mould, Dravid produces elegant, technically correct strokes, seldom going through the air, and accumulates runs at a steady, moderate pace.
Rahul Sharad Dravid is well known as a cricketer but little is known about the many facets of his personality . He is only 32 and yet to reach the prime of career but his biography — "Rahul Dravid: A Biography" — has already hit the stands. The skipper of the Indian team is an interesting man off the field; quietly assertive without being flamboyant. He reads a lot in spare time. " Wisden Asia" featured a column by him on "The Joy of Reading". His acute cricketing sense was reflected when as a 14-year old young man, he predicted that Sachin Tendulkar would play for India and one day captain the team. The young Dravid once burst into tears because he lost his wicket to someone else’s lethargic running between the wickets.
Seeds of Dravid’s classical batsmanship have been sown by his father, Sharad, an admirer of Vijay Hazare. Dravid’s father and uncle too played cricket and that, evidently, aroused the young boy’s interest in the game. Starting at the age of 12, his early cricketing was in the streets. Discipline and sense of purpose came from his mother who studied two courses simultaneously despite being from a conservative Marathi family. Hailing from Karnataka, Dravid’s school — St. Josephs Boys High School of Bangalore — had a good cricket team and he was the star batsman. He did very well in the junior tournaments to merit selection in the state under-15, under-17 and under-19 tournaments. At one time, he was captain of the Under-19 team and was very successful with the bat.
In 1991, Dravid made his Ranji debut against Maharashtra. Batting at number seven, he scored a masterful 82. He got his maiden first class hundred in the next game against Bengal (134 at number six). The next year brought more success for him as he scored centuries against teams like Goa and Kerala. He got tremendous support from great former players like Gundappa Vishwanath, K.K. Tarapore, Roger Binny and Brijesh Patel. All this time he did not neglect his studies — he studied at St. Joseph’s college of Commerce and though he had to remain absent from the college for a long time, he maintained a first class record throughout. In 1995-96, Rahul broke into the international team for the first time and since then he has delivered consistent and solid performances.
Dravid is admired for his classy and technically correct batting. For a long time he has been labeled a test batsman because of his low strike rate even though he showed signs of some explosive batting — one may recall the way he thrashed Alan Donald in a crucial match, driving the fearsome bowler to despair. The New Zealand tour in December 1998 — January 1999 saw him come into his own and cement his place in the one-day team. No longer does he plod around, wasting hittable balls. His strike rate is comparable with the best and his average has also risen to a decent level. At World Cup 99, he moved into the realms of greatness with fantastic performance which saw everybody singing his praises. Rahul has been an integral part of the Indian team both in One-Day and Test matches.
As far back as 1997 Rahul was ranked as the 4th best Test batsman in the world by Wisden. Also in recognition of his talent, Government of India honoured him with a Padma Sri in 2004. Dravid says he is ready for the new responsibility and was also looking forward to Sachin Tendulkar’s return to the international arena from a lengthy injury lay-off. As he flew to Nagpur to see his new born son after deciding to skip the team’s conditioning camp at Bangalore, he said ."I am keen on playing alongside Sachin". Indeed, Dravid and Sachin make a formidable combination.
Another police commemoration day has gone by and things have not changed for the better for the families of brave policemen and women in our country who made the supreme sacrifice in the call of duty. Nor have we improved upon the way we remember them on Oct 21st, the declared Commemoration Day. The number of police officers dying on duty each year is over a thousand.
These police officers did not die for the sake of a wreath or a medal of martyrdom or a police constable’s job for their son, daughter, or a cook’s work for their spouse, but for that ultimate call of duty, so that we may live. The tragedy is that these brave are forgotten in no time. They die rather unwept. The common man seems unmoved. The powers that be just do not seem to care. The family members are left to fend for themselves.
I recall that I wrote on the subject some years ago after I attended a Commemoration parade and came back with strong feelings of remorse. Regrettably, I returned with the same feelings this time again. Other than the names of the dead being read out and a wreath laid at the memorial and a few jobs given to the widows in public display there was no public participation at all.
I recall I had made some suggestions earlier and am compelled to reiterate them to keep the social conscience informed, with a firm hope that this will lead to some results somewhere, someday.
The suggestions that were made are as follows;
1) Declaring October 21st as a National Police Day. Once this is done all matters of police issues get focused in different ways. Be it the media, the laws, the visits to police stations by students, the welfare aspects of police and police families and so on.
2) India’s capital could have a (non controversial) National Police Memorial where the President of India may lay a wreath on behalf of the nation and give a message on behalf of the nation. Perhaps announce a welfare measure for good policing. Even an appreciation of a reality will go a long way for a million and half population of police men and women in the country.
3) Each State Capital could house a State Memorial where the State Governor could place a wreath on behalf of state’s citizens and say a few words on police challenges ahead. And perhaps similarly offer welfare measures for the police families.
4) These National and State memorials could be symbols of ultimate duty and patriotism. Hence, they should be treated with respect.
5) Senior police officers, on taking and remitting charge could begin or end with paying their homage here. Thereby respecting the spirit of personal discipline and sacrifice prioritized in the service.
6) The exceptional gallantry medals be presented by the President of India in a special investiture ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, on the lines of other recognitions, on this day. While the other gallantry medals could be given by the Governors in the Raj Bhawans similarly.
7) The departmental amenities extended on fatalities or injuries to personnel could be reviewed. Namely: Better insurance cover against risk covering death and injury: Other benefits available to the martyrs of the armed forces could also be extended to police martyrs.
8) Provision for dependent parents and education of children so that they are not orphaned. The welfare department must be made responsible for their rehabilitation and care.
9) On this day the newspapers could carry some selected brave stories with the interviews of the families and also of the department heads or the colleagues for a gallant service to come alive. These could be the new role models for the youth of the country.
10) A book listing out some of these heroic lives could be released each year for the general public as well as one for the children to be specially written, to inspire them on policing and issues of national security and how they could one day grow up to protect their own country.
11) May be at least one film a year could be commissioned by the Union Home Ministry, of the selected brave act to be shown on the national television channel on this day, as the nation’s homage to the supreme sacrifice.
Countries which value their police and policing do treat their brave with great respect. October 21st is a day of reaffirmation of the importance of the police service to the nation. It is a day for the public and the police to come together to not only respect the gallant officers and their families but the spirit of sacrifice and nationalism this service entails. Otherwise, how will we motivate the patriotic and brave youth to join the rank and file of national security read ‘police/protection’ service?
Remember, the respect with which we observe such days reflects who and what we are as a nation. The present is a reflection of our past.
We have enough news of condemnations. We need to also find ways of commendations.
— Delhi Letter
The Foundation for Unity of Religions and Enlightened Citizenship (FUREC) which was launched last year has some prominent personalities associated with it — President of India Abdul Kalam, Jain monk Acharya Mahaprajna, academic Sudhamahi Regunathan, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, and scientist and principal adviser to Confederation of Indian Industry YS Rajan. At the FUREC meet, other interesting facts poured out. I simply got fascinated when YS Rajan not just poured out tea but ran a commentary on it .
What goes into the making of this heady brew and place and circumstances when its properties were discovered. Just as the waiter handed me a cup full of tea, Rajan not only commented on how it should be lighter, together with that actually got hold of a tea bag and dipped it in boiling hot water for just about few seconds and made me see the difference in the very colour and flavour.
And from tea we went on to talk
about today’s changing patterns, where forums like FUREC can play an extremely
vital role in shaping heads and destinies. And when I spoke of my
disillusionment with city life he quipped: "You go and live in a village
there would be a different set of problems.
Writers and rebellion
Books and their rather elaborate releases seem to be the very highlight of the fortnight. Vikram Seth’s Two Lives (Penguin), Bapsi Sidhwa’s edited volume City of Sin and Splendour - Writings on Lahore (Penguin ), Shinie Antony’s Kardomom Kisses (Rupa), Bhaskar Ghose’s Doordarshan Days (Penguin ), Marie Desplechin’s Sans Moi (Rupa), JP Das’ Words on Canvas ( Lalit Kala Akademi and Harman )...Yes , all these hitting the stands, one after another, so as to say. The very invite to Seth’s book release at the Taj Mahal hotel on October 20 was so very elaborately sleek that it could put many a wedding invite to shame. The tale, though, is another one plucked from his family archives.
And come next month and there will be a spotlight on a woman writer of yesteryears - Rasheed Jehan. She had been a founder member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer, and Ahmed Ali and she was the maternal aunt of our former foreign secretary Salman Haider. On November 27-28, there is going to be a two-day national seminar on this rebel writer — who was definitely far ahead of her times. So much so that her writing had influenced not just the ordinary but even Ismat Chugtai.
And when I queried one of the organizers as to why the seminar venue was Aligarh and not New Delhi, the answer was lack of funds and resources. A pity, that even now there is a likelihood of the venue standing in way of the rest of us getting to know what Rasheed Jahan’s writings were all about.
So much for human rights
Last weekend there was an interactive session between the men manning the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the media. In fact, it was a long winding session at the NHRC’s new address at Faridkot House, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi, but an aching tooth stood in the way and was I late. In spite of that I managed to get the feeling that the NHRC is rather too earnest to play the watchdog role to its fullest capacity. But then, there could be slight hindrances.
For one, it’s difficult for the
helpless to just breeze in and lodge a complaint. Maybe we resort to the
technique of yesteryears, when the ordinary and the ‘aam’ could just walk
into the courts of kings with a ‘fariyaad’ or the proverbial court of
justice where a grieved could pull a string attached to a bell and he had every
chance of being heard.
And though it has been taking to task many of the human rights violators, seeing the rise in these violations perhaps much more needs to be done, and immediately. One should also not overlook the fact that there is a lack of follow up machinery in our system - whether its reportage on crime or nabbing of actual culprits. Most follow the traditional technique of going by the police version. Though it’s time that there has to be a counter version, done by an independent body or forum.
Acting and reacting
Why isn’t Bollywood reacting or even simply acting! For the last few days I have been hearing this comment so I thought I must bring it to your notice. For decades, Bollywood has made use of the Kashmir Valley and its locales for its shoots and now it’s time they think in terms of repaying - by reaching out to the earthquake affected. So far only Sanjay Dutt is said to have held a fund raising event, but there’s been no further details. What about the others?