CHENNAI: When I was born, there were already anti-dowry films. When I was a teenager, there were anti-dowry/dowry death laws; some references in serials. Suddenly, we stopped talking about it and by the time we turned around, there were lavish weddings, a wedding industry and you could aspire to be a wedding planner. I’m sure that’s all very good from the point of view of economy and livelihood. But what does that say about who we’ve become as people and what we are capable of using our so-called progress in education and affluence for?” asked Swarna Rajagopalan, managing trustee of The Prajnya Trust, as she opened the focus-point event of the 2021 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence — The Dowry Act at 60: A Review Panel.
One that has been in the making for two years now, the imperative to set up this panel came with a great deal of anguish over how even college students — probably soon-to-be-married — remain painfully ignorant of the legal provisions against dowry, she noted. The panel becomes all the more relevant when you consider the fact that India registered 6,966 dowry deaths in 2020. This is not counting the number of violations registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act (10,366) and cases of cruelty by a husband or his relatives (1,11,549). “The year 2021 marks 60 years since the passage of the law. And 60 years later, we are exactly where we were standing at that point or so it seems,” she said. It was reason enough to gather some of the most eminent minds in this field and get them to offer insights on three key points — where the law stands, the struggle that brought about the laws in the first place, and the practice that still prevails and links up with other social realities.
Enforcing the law?
While the law provided civil remedies in terms of divorce, an injunction/compensation under the Domestic Violence Act, etc., the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, and certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code brought in recourse under Criminal Law. “(The Act) makes giving and taking of dowry an offence. The punishment has been enhanced to more than five years now and a fine. What is interesting is that the law seems to accord the same weight of gravity to taking of dowry and giving. It seems to be willfully blind to the larger context of dowry. When you read these provisions, it would speak of dowry being property or gifts given to either party in the marriage. They are being gender-neutral or context-neutral; the implication seems to be that giving of dowry is also a choice,” explained advocate Akhila RS.
Though the law defines dowry as property or valuable security given before or any time after the marriage, exclusion of gifts considered customary (for the birth of child and such) has caused difficulties in its interpretation, she said. And as with any other law, many of its provisions — transfer of dowry intended for the bride being given to her within three months, maintenance of a list of gifts (within the means of the families) exchanged by the bride and groom, the mandate for district prohibition officers (DPO) to campaign against the practice — remain only on paper, she pointed out. When the courts realised that the Dowry Act has failed to be effective in curbing the practice, provisions of the IPC — 498A (Cruelty by husband or relatives) and 304B (Dowry death) began to be used in tandem to augment the process.
Over the years, several significant judgments (Rupali Devi vs State of Uttar Pradesh (2019) removed the restriction on jurisdiction of crime and place of case registration) have amended key aspects of the Act and allowed for some more justice to be doled out. But, it remains that the system is most often not an ally to the grieved woman. “Police authorities, DPO and even courts seem to approach this law with the presumption that it is going to be a false complaint. And this (as always) runs contrary to statistics,” she noted. This, in a country where 19 women are killed for dowry demand every day (2020), there’s severe underreporting and the conviction rate is a meagre 15-20 per cent.
That this is where we stand is all the more worrisome given the years of effort by grassroots organisations that went into bringing the law up to speed. The late Satyarani Chadha, in an interview, remarks, “I’m very angry that I cry. I hand it (cases) over to the staff here at Shakti Shalini and used to say ‘What is it to you? A job. Had my daughter not died, there wouldn’t even be a Shakti Shalini.’ My daughter was killed for dowry; others should not. But they are dying, they are.” Shakti Shalini was established by Satyarani and Shahjahan Begum in 1987 after they lost their daughters to horrific dowry deaths earlier that year. It was only 21 years later that Kanchan Sashi Bala’s (Satyarani’s daughter) husband was sentenced to seven years in prison. But, he was released on bail in just two months.
Given these conditions, Dr Bharti Sharma, honorary secretary of the organisation, pointed out that there is reason to look at the root cause of the practice; instead of merely looking to deter the consequences. “This cause lies in our social structure, which is deeply entrenched in gender inequalities, power imbalance and obsolete gender norms that all undermine the mental and physical health of survivors, along with their dignity, agency and safety. This is from where we are expecting dowry to be eradicated? It will not be,” she remarked. In the experience of Shakti Shalini, while they have had women reaching out for help with different forms of violence, there is no mention of dowry as being the cause. While many women are willing to go for mitigation, no one who sought their services have had cases registered under the Dowry Act. This raises the question as to whether the Act is necessary, she said. “What is the use of legislation that is not being used? Does it not mean that we have to do something about it to make it useable?” she asked.
The part that women play
This requires an understanding of how much the practice has changed over the years, beyond the obvious rituals. Professor Sharada Srinivasan’s (University of Guelph) research noted that this was one of the major factors in continued discrimination against daughters and how it manifested in their elimination. To begin with, there is a lot of difference between how dowry is defined by the law and how it is understood in society. In common parlance, dowry is also seen as a substitute to inheritance and property rights and this has to be combated to ensure women’s actual right to property, she reminded.
While the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act that allows daughters to get ancestral property is the way to combat this, it is easier said than done. For many women choose to forgo the property for male siblings in exchange for the dowry; they feel the need to share what’s available in the family, said Sharada. And this is where she pointed out (without placing the onus entirely on women) that dowry cannot thrive without the participation and collusion of the women in the family.
“Dowry is not simply a gift; it is a strategy for status mobility engaged by grooms, their families as well as women and their families. (Besides) people have always said there is a shortage of brides because of sex selection and this would lead to a decline in dowry. But no, the shortage of brides and demand for dowry operate on parallel tracks; for the demand for high-status grooms has not gone down. People have resorted to evolutionary biology to explain that this (women marrying up) is ‘natural’ behaviour; we have to be careful going down this path for I think it is a social behaviour,” she reasoned.
That weddings even in south India have metamorphosised into multi-day affairs and become a status-establishing mechanism for families involved only adds to the cause, she pointed out, adding that women themselves are at the forefront of ostentatious weddings. There’s much in the rise of consumerism and social media consumption that can explain this trend. There’s room for a lot of education here, especially to differentiate between individual liberalism and collective responsibility, she suggested.
And it all comes down to having to do a lot of work, in varying forms, all over again. “Let’s get together and work on this at two levels — at the legal level with an Act that is implementable and at the community level,” Bharti concluded.
What’s the law’s use?
While many women are willing to go for mitigation, no one who sought their services have had cases registered under the Dowry Act. This raises the question as to whether the Act is necessary, says Dr Bharti Sharma. “What is the use of legislation that is not being used? Does it not mean that we have to do something about it to make it useable?” she asks.