In India women not only have an important social and communal role to play in daily life but have traditionally been seen as the physical embodiment of love and maternal feelings. Motherhood is considered to be the most sacred stage of a woman’s life and is widely worshipped in Goddess-like terms. ‘Mataji’ (the great Mother Goddess of Hindus) means ‘mother’ and is used as a respectful form of address to a married woman. From the era of the Vedas and the oldest Hindu texts, Indian writers and poets have reflected the high esteem in which women are held.
In Indian society, a woman’s security is held to be of the highest importance. Yet in a country where even animals like cows and elephants are worshipped, the brutal killing of innocent women under the orthodox dowry system is evidence of a great social evil.
At present, particularly in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, North Bengal and U.P., reports about the merciless killings of newly-married young girl are shocking, but all too common. Although, the Government has banned the iniquitous practice of the dowry system and strict legal measures are taken against offenders, it still exists in secret in certain communities.
The burning of brides is a very serious offense and while the judgement in proven cases is severe, successful prosecutions are rare. More criminals escape with a ‘not guilty’ verdict either due to a lack of evidence or by the case being proved to be one of ‘suicide’ because of the co-operation of corrupt police officers and even the judge, who can decide the outcome by taking a bribe to admit false evidence.
Yet often the case never reaches the court. It is settled by the police department on the basis of a lump sum offered ‘under the table’. In these cases the poor parents of the burned bride are helpless to take matters further as they will be threatened by the police or by the offenders were they to try.
In certain communities in India, girls play a key role as wealth providers by bringing a sizeable dowry to the family into which they marry. Consequently, their parents regard them as important economic assets and raise them properly. Those particular women hold a prominent and assured position in the household of their in-laws and are not ill-treated or abused. In such societies, girls can be in short supply. For husbands, divorce is an expensive undertaking and even if they were successful, it would be difficult for them to find another wife.
There are circumstances where parents have to offer a substantial dowry to attract suitable husbands for their girls. Boys in particular are in short supply and parents of such boys regard their sons as important assets and take trouble over their upbringing. They are provided with good-quality food and clothing, are properly educated and are given generous amounts of pocket money. Some parents also buy scooters and even motorcars for them if circumstances permit. If parents cannot afford to pay for higher education, then the moneylenders would regard boys as an excellent surety for loans. Parents with a number of exclusively male children are held to be well off and in times of need would have no problems over borrowing substantial amounts.
These parents maintain detailed accounts of the expenditure on their sons from birth to the conclusion of the marriage negotiations. The amount of dowry demanded during theses negotiations includes the total cost of raising the boys including the interest on any sums borrowed. Such a dowry comprises a certain amount of cash with the rest consisting of things like cars or scooters, televisions, other electronic goods and domestic appliances, furniture and so on. Clothes, expensive wristwatches, gold rings or chains are considered as gifts for the groom. The bride is supposed to be given enough cloths and ornaments, while her parents agree to provide clothes, ornaments, medical expenses including delivery expenses of their daughter for the life time.
The cash sum together with certain items will be handed over within an agreed period or on an instalment basis. Well-off parents can afford all this but middle- and lower-class parents who have a number of girls and no boys can find meeting dowry conditions extremely difficult.
Parents with an equal number of boys and girls do have not to worry as much, as they can easily offset the marriage deal either in terms of items and money from an incoming dowry. In some cases a boy from one family marries a girl from another, and then vice-versa, both families thereby being joined together by a double cross wedding. If such arrangements seem to be very convenient for the parents, disagreements and disputes can cause real difficulties for the married couples, as any mistreatment to a girl from one side can evoke a similar response from the other.
Now if the parents of the girl cannot raise the agreed amount of dowry on time, the boy’s parents can mistreat and abuse the girl to the point that either her parents provide the money by whatever means they can or they may face – literally – the death of their daughter.
In the latter case these young women are variously poisoned, strangled, burned to death or pushed from the top floor of multi-storey buildings. These brutal killings will be recorded as suicides, which is no great problem for either the husband or his parents who are always involved in such cases. Well-to-do parents – or those with enough influence – working with honest police officers can get the culprits convicted and imprisoned. But in other cases, highly-paid lawyers for the accused obtain a verdict of suicide, or else the proceedings are terminated due to the lack of evidence offered to the court by corrupt police officers who play a central role in letting such crimes go unpunished after payment of a substantial bribe.
The freed husband will then lie low for a couple of years while the search for another girl continues, this time with a little less demanded in the dowry as the prospective husband has already received part of the agreed sum for his previous wife. There are parents who are ready to negotiate with him even after learning about his previous marriage, while he may seek a new wife far away from his district, where no one is aware of his previous activities
It is time the government got to grips with the corruption and injustice that envelops this problem. As regards the police, a special department needs to be established so that when innocent brides are killed suspects should not be allowed to get away with it simply on the basis of so-called ‘doubt’ or lack of evidence. The police must be seen to operate effectively and independently with honest and committed police personnel handling the criminal aspects monitored by anti-corruption officers to ensure that no bribery is involved. In addition, women’s social and welfare groups, fully supported by human rights organizations, should vigorously and publicly pursue cases of dowry dispute and abuse, seeking solutions before it is too late.
The Indian people and the government should come together to outlaw the dowry system as soon as possible. That innocent brides are killed every year is appalling in a country which likes to present itself to the wider world as a potent symbol of democracy and freedom for women, proudly offering a woman the respect accorded to her as ‘Devi’ (a holy female). And this in a nation where women like Indira Gandhi have assumed the highest elected office.