Dowry is still a dream-killer in Kerala

The recent suicide of a young PG doctor, reportedly after her fiance, also a PG doctor, demanded huge dowry, sent shock waves across Kerala, known for its progressive outlook. The Chief Minister asked women to reject dowry-seekers and the government took stern steps against the accused. The death is the latest of a series of such incidents in the State. More shockingly, of the 13,678 dowry-related harassment cases registered from 2016 to 2020, conviction was reported in only 245

December 15, 2023 07:00 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:01 pm IST

The fact remains that legal deterrents such as the Dowry Prohibition Act notwithstanding, the malaise of giving and taking dowry has clung on to the social fabric of Kerala

The fact remains that legal deterrents such as the Dowry Prohibition Act notwithstanding, the malaise of giving and taking dowry has clung on to the social fabric of Kerala | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Trigger warning: the following article contains references to suicide. Please avoid reading if you feel distressed by the subject.

From the sit-out of his home, Jassim Naz gazes out at the small, empty courtyard beyond. “Do you think the case will drag on for a long time?” he asks. To say that the past two weeks have been harrowing for the 39-year-old and his family would be an understatement. He is certain about one thing, though. “No girl should have to go through what my sister suffered,” he says, indignation and bitterness evident in his troubled voice.

In the normal course of things, the family would have celebrated his youngest sister’s 27th birthday on December 11. But that was not to be. Shahana A.J., a postgraduate doctor at Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, and the youngest of three siblings, took her own life on December 4. The young doctor who was attached to the surgery department was emotionally battered by alleged demands made by her fiance for a hefty dowry to tie the knot.

Charges against accused

E.A. Ruwise, a PG doctor at the orthopaedics department of the same medical college and president of the Kerala Medical Post Graduates Association, has since been arrested by the police from his place at Karunagapally in neighbouring Kollam district. He has been charged under provisions of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, and for abetment of suicide, the police said. Shahana’s death has left her family, which is settled at Maithri Nagar, a quiet residential neighbourhood close to Venjaramoodu town in Thiruvananthapuram district, inconsolable.

As might be expected, the suicide has sparked widespread outrage. It drew sharp reactions from all around — including the Governor and the Chief Minister — against the practice of giving and taking dowry. But a worrying element is that it is not a one-off incident, but the latest in a series related to dowry in Kerala, a State known for its progressive outlook which parades impressive social development indicators, particularly in health and education.

The never-ending demands

Photographs of Shahana, which were shared on social media following her death, reveal a smiling young woman. Her brother remembers her as quiet, brilliant in her studies. “We agreed to the marriage because she was deeply in love with him. It was Ruwise who had proposed to her. He and his family visited us on October 2, but no mention was made about a dowry. When we called on them on October 6, his father insisted on it. I wanted my sister to drop the whole thing as their demand way exceeded our ability to give,” says Nas. The ‘final’ demand, according to him, was 150 sovereigns of gold, 15 acres of land and a BMW car. Going by the December 13 gold price in Kerala, 150 sovereigns would fetch ₹67,98,000. “It was his father (Abdul Rasheed) who kept pressing him to insist on dowry. We were open to reasonable demands. Even their initial demands — 100 sovereigns, property and a car — were too high for us,” says Nas. He suspects that Ruwise raised the bar even higher only because he wanted to wriggle out of the relationship.

It was on the night of December 4 that Shahana was discovered in an unconscious state in her room. She had shared a flat close to the medical college with two other doctors. When she failed to report for night duty, some of her friends went to look her up. They had summoned the police. Although she was rushed to the medical college hospital, her life could not be saved.

Suicide note in court

The police have submitted her suicide note, four pages long, to the court, Inspector of Police P. Harilal, Station House Officer, Medical College police station, says. In it, the young woman has reportedly rued that her life is being sacrificed for dowry and that her mother Jaleela Beevi and her brother could never afford the hefty sum demanded of them. The police have also taken possession of Shahana’s mobile phone, which, according to her family, contains incriminating evidence against Ruwise in the form of chat messages.

Action against accused

Ruwise has since been placed under suspension by the State Health department, and his PG admission could also be in jeopardy if convicted. At the time of admission, the Kerala University of Health Sciences (KUHS) requires students to sign an affidavit accepting the university’s right to revoke their admission/degree if they are found to have violated the provisions of the Dowry Prohibition Act by giving or accepting dowry. The university introduced this requirement on the instructions of Governor Arif Mohammed Khan two years ago, Mohanan Kunnummal, Vice-Chancellor, KUHS, told The Hindu.

Also read | Dowry evil has gripped society: women’s panel member

The Kerala Medical Post Graduates Association has removed him as president. The State unit of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), which too has placed the 28-year-old under suspension pending a probe, observed that the recurrence of dowry-related incidents is unfortunate. The IMA would continue to fight such regressive tendencies which brings disrepute to “the field of modern medical science and the medical fraternity,” its State president Joseph Benaven and State secretary K. Sasidharan said.

Similar cases to the fore

Shahana’s death has predictably drawn the attention back to several recent cases which had grabbed Statewide headlines. In March 2022, an Additional Sessions Court in Kollam had sentenced Kiran Kumar, an Assistant Motor Vehicle Inspector who was later dismissed from service, to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment after finding him guilty in the dowry-related suicide of his wife Vismaya.

Reacting to Shahana’s death, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan urged women to reject dowry-seekers. “Avarodu than podo ennu parayanam.” (You should tell them to get lost), he advised them.

Data paint a grim picture

Yet, the fact remains that legal deterrents such as the Dowry Prohibition Act notwithstanding, the malaise of giving and taking dowry has clung on to the social fabric of Kerala. Data released by the State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) and those presented by the Home department in the State Legislative Assembly paint a very grim picture. Till October this year, Kerala has reported seven dowry deaths (incidents charged under 304B which deals with dowry deaths), according to the SCRB. But cases related to cruelty by husband/relatives numbered 3,997 during the same period. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the southern State reported 25, 12 and 17 dowry deaths respectively. The subsequent years indicate a slight dip in the numbers; eight in 2019, six in 2020, nine in 2021, and 11 in 2022.

Also read: Husband found guilty in Vismaya dowry death case

The State recorded 4,997 cases in 2021 and 4,998 cases in 2022 related to cruelty by husband/relatives. Another set of statistics, presented by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the State Assembly on June 27, 2022, reveals that in a five-year period spanning 2016 to 2020, as many as 13,678 cases were registered for dowry-related harassment in the State. But what is more shocking is that conviction was reported in only 245 of them.

Women’s panel’s recommendations

On June 24, 2021, the Kerala State Women’s Commission had submitted a set of recommendations to the State government for amending laws dealing with the practice of dowry. Among other things, the commission wanted an addition to Section 3 of the Dowry Prohibition Act which would restrict wedding ‘gifts’ given by the parents/guardians to ₹1 lakh and 10 sovereigns, and ‘other items’ to not exceeding ₹25,000. Gifts presented by relatives should not exceed ₹25,000 in cash and items equivalent in value. The commission also wanted counselling to be made mandatory for the bride and groom at the local body level. In this regard, it recommended that an amendment be made to the Kerala Registration of Marriages (Common) Rules, 2008, making counselling mandatory. The recommendations have remained on paper.

Praveena Kodoth, Professor at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, specialising in gender, migration and human development, attributes the continued practice of dowry to the underlying seam of patriarchy which still runs through Kerala society. “The real reason is patriarchy. There is no point in looking for an individual solution, like saying ‘empower the women.’ They are not isolated units in society. Our society gives meaning to a woman’s life only by linking it with marriage,” she notes.

Social reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru had spoken out against the practice of dowry and extravagance in weddings. Seeking leave to introduce the Travancore Anti-Dowry Bill in the Sri Mulam Assembly, the Travancore era precursor to the Kerala Legislative Assembly, on August 4, 1939, the member T. Narayani Amma said, “Whatever may be the origin of the dowry, there is no doubt that it is now considered by the vast majority of persons affected as a great social evil which calls for immediate removal.”

Elsewhere, she observed that “The learned author of the Report of the last Travancore Census says that the Dowry marriage is the universal custom among Brahmins and that it is also prevalent among Christians and is becoming prevalent among [numerically strong castes such as] Nairs, Ezhavas, and Nanjinad Vellalas. It is also stated that the ‘practice of parents procuring husbands for their daughters either by payment in cash or by meeting the expenses of their higher education in Indian or foreign universities is also coming into vogue among Nairs and other Marumakkathayam communities.”

The Bill had sparked heated debate and objections on various counts. For instance, K.A. Mohamed (representing Kollam-cum-Kottarakara), speaking in the Sri Mulam Assembly on August 5, 1946, noted that the Muslim community had no objections to the Bill as Islam recommended ‘Mahr’ which had to be paid by the groom. But he also added his objections, observing that succession laws in Christian and Brahmin communities at the time denied women any share in their father’s property. They were eligible for a dowry only.

Dowry in other societies

Historically, Indian societies were not the only ones to have dowry, notes Kodoth. “It was in mediaeval Europe. But in modern Europe there is no dowry. Europe went through a process where parents started investing their children with education and enabling them to compete in the labour market. In Kerala, parents provide their daughters with education, but they don’t expect them to be competitive in the labour market. Education here has another meaning, being good mothers, good wives who take care of their homes,” she says.

Naz, meanwhile, hopes that his sister would not be denied justice. “We know who is responsible for her death. It is the society’s responsibility to have him punished,” he says. “It is like a great weight pressing down on my chest. You have to experience it to know how it feels.”

(If you are in distress, please reach out to these 24x7 helplines: KIRAN 1800-599-0019 or DISHA – 0471-2552056, 1056)

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