Dowry has not disappeared, just morphed. And women continue to pay the price.

In a season where every other person seems to be taking offence at something or the other, let me add what offends me. I was deeply offended and hurt when I read the following headline: “One bride burnt every hour”. No, this is not a headline from a newspaper of the 1980s but from Sunday, January 29, 2012. The women the headline writes about are killed for not bringing in enough dowry. Yes, indeed, the giving, taking and killing for dowry is still alive and kicking in “Incredible India”.

According to data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 8,391 reported cases of dowry deaths in 2010. That is just under double the number of cases registered in 1995 — 4,648 cases. Statistics tell a story, but not the whole story. For every dowry death reported, there must be dozens that go unreported. Of the 8,391 reported cases in 2010, although 93.2 per cent were charge-sheeted, the conviction rate was a miserable 33.6 per cent.

Despite a 1989 amendment to Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), shifting the burden of proof to the husband and his family, the process of getting a conviction remains fraught because of loopholes in the law and the inability of the victim's family to establish the link between dowry demands and the death. Often, it is impossible to take the dying declaration, as the victim is barely alive. Even when it is taken, the police handling is shoddy and careless, allowing a clever defence to tear it apart during trial.

The official figures of dowry deaths are obviously just the tip of the iceberg. A truer picture would emerge if we added the cases of young married women registered as having committed suicide as well as cases filed under Section 498A of the IPC dealing with harassment from husband and relatives. In the NCRB crime data, there were 94,041 cases filed under 498A in 2010, up from 28,579 in 1995. There has been considerable controversy around 498A with some organisation, comprising apparently aggrieved husbands, claiming that women were misusing it to harass and blackmail their husbands. But even if there are a few cases of this kind, surely over 94,000 cases cannot all be false.

If further proof were needed of the prevalence of dowry, one only has to look at the sex ratio in this country. Why are girls not wanted?

Still bought and sold

The fact remains that despite changes in the law, growing awareness of it, more education, more economic progress, women are bought and sold for a price under the institution of marriage. In the 1980s, at the height of the campaign against dowry, one read of brave young women who rejected proposals when asked for a dowry. Women's group demonstrated outside marriage halls where dowry was given. There was much writing in the media against the custom. Today we don't hear about it. Does that mean it has vanished? Or has it become so entrenched that no one thinks it is worth talking about?

I did a random sampling of one matrimonial page in one Mumbai newspaper last Sunday. Of the 127 advertisements for “brides wanted”, listed neatly in caste categories, I found 16 that stated specifically “Caste no bar” and only four that said “No Dowry”. All the other advertisements went into details of the caste, the height, the looks etc of the bride they were looking for — “tall, beautiful, educated, cultured girl” stated one, for a “Kayastha, handsome, bachelor, doctor and managing director”.

One-way street

Dowry has not disappeared. It has morphed. Seema Sirohi, in her interesting and relevant book Sita's Curse, Stories of Dowry Victims (HarperCollins, 2003), gives this humorous yet apt description of dowry as it has come to be today: Dowry has become a bribe paid to a husband to keep the bride's body and soul together. A woman is a mere conduit to a ‘good' dowry — the definition of good being flexible and expandable. The boys are on sale and there are few discounts in the marriage market. There is no ‘buy one, get one free' here. It is a transaction weighted against the woman. In fact, it is a sale where even after the price is paid, satisfaction is not guaranteed. And ironically, the sale is never complete with marriage — the buyer is expected to keep paying in cash and in kind during festivals, to celebrate childbirth and to mark ritualistic occasions. Any excuse is good enough to keep the one-way street laden and moving with gifts.

Touchy as we Indians are about a whole host of things, the fact that women are still being burned for dowry in modern-day India should enrage us. Why are we accepting of this outrage, this insult to the sensibilities of all women? We should be burning dowry, not women.

Email: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com