INDIA: Underneath the glisten and sparkle of a gorgeous bride garbed in designer bridal attire at a lavish big-fat-Indian wedding is the pernicious underbelly of a primitive, age-old custom of dowry or a gift-giving custom passed down from generations.
The traditional ritual of a bride’s father presenting his son-in-law’s family with pots of gold and cash may be marked in the Vedas as a simple, harmonious expression of love and respect. However. The reality is far from glitz and glam.
The system has been extensively criticized for humiliating the bride in question. She is literally being sold off like cattle to the bridegroom in cash but without kindness.
Moreover, it is hugely problematic for the bridegroom’s family to expect and jubilantly accept such ‘gifts’ when their son is probably a big-shot IT specialist in the US.
Talking to Transcontinental Times Aneesha (name changed) talked about the prominence of dowry in rural areas. “I come from a small village in Madhya Pradesh. Unlike urban areas, people in rural India still follow the 100 years old rituals. I couldn’t study due to my parents’ financial status, so I was married off at a very young age. My father gave me an almirah, bed and cash in the form of a dowry. They did much more than their capacity, but I have to hear my in-law’s taunts daily. Life has been miserable, but there’s no one to hear our plight.”
Although the ritual has witnessed a slow, waning popularity in recent decades, many prominent Indian families still engage in this primitive custom, splurging crores of rupees on the wedding and the gifts. In that context, let us take a look at the origins of the dowry system in India.
Origins of the ancient system
Dowry, or ‘dahej’ as it is primarily called in the northern part of India, is a demand for property or valuable security presented by the bride’s father to the bridegroom’s family for the agreement to wed the bride-to-be.
The dowry system has a connection to our ancestors of the past, as stated in the Code of Manu, which explicitly delineates that it is an esteemed social custom primarily associated with the upper-caste Brahmins. Since Vedic times, dowry was a prevalent ritual where gifts from parents and relatives were recognized as ‘Stridhan’.
The bride’s family presented Stridhan as financial support to the bridegroom’s family, who would integrate the woman into the household fabric as a wife and mother. If her husband has made no contingency, she could make use of that property to maintain herself and her children.
In 1793 when Lord Cornwallis implemented the privatization of land, ensuring women had no economic security in owning land or property, the money she received from her parents would be given to her husband to ensure her welfare and safety.
Meanwhile, in Islamic laws, the dowry is a sum of money or property paid to the bride at marriage, conferring the Mahr or Dower’s right.
Since then, dowry has been considered an integral addition to the family, which flows in with the bride’s entry into the household. The system lies at the root of several household evils, including murder, mental abuse, domestic violence, and suicide. Now that the history of the ancient custom has been established let us delve deeper into the current scenario of the system in India.
Current situation of the dowry system in India
The ancient custom has been at the helm of several social evils in the Indian household, with uncountable reports of premeditated murders and domestic abuse bordering on hellish insanity recorded across several regions of the country. In 2021 alone, reported dowry death cases in India amounted to nearly 6,800, which do not even include the unreported ones due to societal stigma and life threats.
This was a gradual decrease from a 2014 survey which recorded nearly 8,500.
Dowry death cases were a huge problem during 2010-2015 when they were peaking at the 9,000 mark.
In India, dowry death cases have become one of the most prominent and predominant perpetrators of violence against women, threatening women’s safety. In 2018, India was infamously named the world’s most dangerous country for women.
Although the conventional narrative surrounding women’s safety is gradually shifting, the capital territory of Delhi is still considered the most dangerous region for women in India.
Bearing in mind that the capital city is itself a melting pot of life threats for women in India, let us briefly look at the policies and laws implemented by the government to ensure women’s safety.
Policies and laws established by the government
The most dowry prevention law established and implemented by the Indian administration is the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, which advocates and legally implements the prevention of the dowry system across all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, or religion.
As per the law, any dowry case registered under section 498A of IPC is a heinous, non-bailable offense, which indicates that only a court or magistrate can grant the bail of the accused. If anyone is found and charged guilty under this law, the minimum punishment could be up to five years in jail and an additional fine of more than 15,000 or the value of the dowry received, whichever is higher.
Moreover, dowry death became ingrained into the Indian legal system under Section 304B added to Code 1860, which made the crime a specific offense punishable with imprisonment for a minimum of seven years or a maximum of life imprisonment.
Systemic failures and future progress
The Indian populace has quickly decoded loopholes in the law and misused them to the extreme to perpetuate this pernicious cycle of bride money over the generations. Prominent families, especially those with business backgrounds, have been actively involved in this ritualistic give-and-take to honor traditions.
Countless rumours float around in local neighborhoods of a lavish wedding ceremony being followed by an equally lavish transfer of high-end gifts from the bride’s family to her husband’s household.
However, in recent times, women have also abused the Dowry Prohibition Act for their ulterior motives, fabricating scenarios of dowry and filing incriminating evidence against husbands and their families to retrieve money and property from them.
In the July 2014 case of Arnesh Kumar V. in the state of Bihar, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court reviewed the enforcement of section 41(1)(A) of CrPC, which instructs the state to follow certain procedures before the arrest. The bench went to observe that the 498A had become a powerful weapon in the hands of disgruntled wives where innocent people were arrested without any evidence due to the non-bailable and cognizable nature of the law.
The future looks bleak with the ancient tradition of bride price as a developing country like India, steeped in culture and ritual, seems reluctant to change for the most part and continues to propagate the dowry system as a sort of method of earning wealth.
To this day, Indian families who believe in and promote this ritual believe that the family will profit highly from the son’s wedding, which is a subtle reminder of the dowry system.
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