Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Have we lost the dowry battle?

Nearly 60 years after the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, we need to ask why there is more, not less dowry; why the big fat Indian wedding has got fatter

Remember the glory days of the sarkari (government) slogan? Back then, we laughed at what we thought was government overreach, at par with those posters on how to be an ideal boy (always boy, of course).

Discipline makes a nation strong.

Small family, happy family.

Dulhan hi dahej hai. (The bride is the dowry)

Now older, though not necessarily wiser, I am thinking back on those missives on how to lead the good life and having a bad attack of nostalgia.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows a rising graph in the number of dowry cases registered: 9,038 for 2012; 10,709 for 2013; 10,050 for 2014. Men’s rights activists will tell you this is proof of the law’s misuse. And even the Supreme Court has pointed out in 2014 that section 498A has “dubious pride of place amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives".

Ignoring the embedded sexism (‘disgruntled wives’) in the language of that judicial observation, there are few who would deny that the section is indeed misused, pretty much like any section of the law is misused.

What is the extent of that misuse? It’s hard to say. Sometimes a case is filed and it is completely cooked up—a crime which, under the Indian Penal Code, is punishable by up to six months in jail. At other times, the complaint may be genuine but there is an out-of-court settlement or mediation, leading to that complaint being withdrawn (adding to the ‘evidence’ of yet another ‘fake’ case).

More telling perhaps is another set of data, the one on dowry deaths: 8,233 in 2012; 8,083 in 2013; 8,455 in 2014.

That’s more than 23 women killed a day, one per hour, for dowry.

Why this isn’t a public emergency baffles me. Why this isn’t a leading social crusade with government and non-governmental organizations is inexplicable. The Narendra Modi government has launched a slew of laudable social missions, from Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP). And while BBBP’s desperately needed aim is to reverse the decline in child sex ratio, a pan-national programme such as this one could easily accommodate a strong anti-dowry message. After all, it doesn’t take reams of academic research to understand the link between dowry and declining sex ratio.

A study by data journalism website IndiaSpend finds that states with the highest dowry deaths between 2005 and 2010 reported the greatest decrease in child sex ratio for the same period. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the state with the highest increase in dowry deaths (from 1,564 in 2005 to 2,217 in 2010), there was a corresponding decline in child sex ratio, from 916 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2001 to 899 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2011. Simply put: The dowry market makes girls a bad investment .

Yet, somewhere along the way, we’ve abandoned the anti-dowry message. Dowry, or to use its more acceptable euphemism, wedding ‘gift’, is now so ingrained in our cultural beliefs that, in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam manifesto promises eight grams of gold for every wedding and there is not even a flutter of protest from either activists or opposition parties.

The over-the-top vulgar wedding with its over-the-top vulgar gifts is so ubiquitous that we no longer react. A bejewelled bride in an ICICI Bank ad declares that with a personal loan she has contributed to her own wedding, apne dum par (on her own strength). Jewellery brand Tanishq runs a TV spot that shows a wedding in progress—the bride’s young daughter a part of it—and we applauded it for its ‘progressive’ message instead of recognizing it for pushing the subliminal idea that no marriage can be complete without gold. Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan, brand ambassadors for Kalyan Jewellers, select ‘grand’ diamond jewelry for their grand-daughter’s wedding; polki for the wedding, diamonds for the reception, says Jaya.

Ads are not obligated to push social messaging. But the consumerist trend percolates down. The message of these grand weddings has reached drought-hit Marathwada. Lata Shewale, a widow I met in 2014 soon after her husband had killed himself, informed me that she would be borrowing 2 lakh for her daughter’s impending wedding from her relatives. My question on whether there were plans to scale down the wedding seemed to shock the family. “It’s out of the question," muttered an uncle. “This is the way things are done."

There are those who argue that a voluntary ‘gift’ of gold or a motorcycle or a flat or a fridge is not dowry but mummy-papa’s thoughtful gesture to help a young couple get started in life. This is an extremely grey line. At what point does a ‘gift’ cease to be voluntary if it is dictated by either an outright demand, a not-so-subtle suggestion or even social pressure and ‘custom’?

Nearly 60 years after the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, we need to ask why there is more, not less dowry; why the big fat Indian wedding has got bigger and fatter.

But perhaps the real tragedy about dowry is not that it continues to blight our lives. The real tragedy is that we no longer seem to believe that this is a fight worth having. Perhaps there is an unspoken admission that this is a battle we have already lost.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint and can be reached at namita.bhandare@gmail.com.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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