Hidden deaths in Open
What the Women and Child Development Minister Ms. Maneka Gandhi, admitted on the floor of the Lok Sabha was startling, between 2012 and 2014, around 25,000 women either committed suicide or were killed due to dowry harassment[iii]; this vindicates the claim of women’s movement in India. Taunts, mental and physical abuse and ultimate death by murder or ‘forced-to-commit-suicide’ is an open fact of the Indian society. While dowry and domestic violence are reprimanded by Law, its continuance raises many questions. The sheer numbers of incidences, low conviction rates and voices against for change in law are disturbing and raise an alarm for all of us. No one is unaffected by this.
The Indian Constitution grants equal rights to woman as a human being but has the society stopped seeing her more as than a chattel? The Dowry Prohibition Act (DPA), came way back in 1961as a result of the uproar of the women’s movement around the bursting of stoves in kitchens and the deaths of several newly-wed women. Ever since the ground situation and factual numbers don’t seem to have changed much. By mere extrapolating the figures placed on record by the government – if in 2016, 20 women are killed every day, 4,68,000 married women have been killed in India due to tortures related to dowry. These are only the reported numbers, the ones that came to notice. In reality the number of women killed due to this is much more. Resultantly, we can say that over 5 lakh women have been killed for dowry in India.
What is it that has made dowry so popular? Dowry is one form of historical injustice done to women in the name of degrading customary and religious practices. It runs across class, caste and religion. It is almost like a contagious disease inflicted upon married women by the society. What has made it spread so fast that all laws and intervention strategies have failed? It has become a pattern to the crime that prosecutors have not noticed because they too internalise the same faith. The higher socio-economic strata and the educated well informed class are equally involved. What is so tempting about dowry that no one can gather the courage to say no to this golden opportunity? And what makes the accused persons so blind in greed that they are willing to subject a living person to violence, abuse and cruelty to the extent of murder just for benefits in cash or kind? If it runs deep in the social system, what is required to uproot and expel it? Did the efforts to empower women create any dents in the commodification of women or categorising them as second class and next to chattels? The increasing numbers in deaths of women seem to be directly proportionate to the increasing consumerism and the increase in personal prosperity and economic showcase. Sadly these are the new symbols and indicators of development in the society?
It is well known that the rate of conviction for dowry deaths has been very low across the country. Even though the crime has spread pervasively, taking and giving dowry is still seen as a social evil and it is not treated as an offence. So in most cases, the culprits are not booked in the first place, and those that get booked; go scot free after long years of trial in various courts of law.
In Maharashtra, acquittal cases are as high as 80 percent. Given the complex circumstances under which married women in India are murdered, the question that needs to be asked is what is the role of law? Where is justice in all this? Are young girls being married only to be killed brutally for illegal demands of unmet dowry? And does this mean that those married women who have survived, have actually exchanged their hands with dowry and therefore stand guilty of violating the law made to tackle it?
Before we seek the answers to the many intriguing questions, let us understand the law on this subject. The DPA prohibits the request, payment or acceptance of a dowry, “as consideration for the marriage” and dowry here is defined as a gift demanded or given as a pre-condition for a marriage.
Despite several amendments, this law has failed to instil any fear in abusers. Many of those who have killed a young married woman, have gone ahead in life and married again to lead lives of normalcy, uncaught and unpunished – where is the deterrent?
Section 304B of the Indian penal code (IPC) deals with “Dowry Deaths[iv]”, which is ‘cognizable, non-bailable, non-compoundable and to be tried in Courts of Session’ and imposes a punishment of not less than 7 years but which may extend to imprisonment for life. The death has to be immediately preceded by cruelty and harassment due to dowry and has to be in abnormal circumstances within seven years of the marriage. In such circumstances the husband or the relative, as the case may be, will be deemed to have caused her death and will be liable for punishment[v]. The deemed imposes a presumption of guilt – both intent and action. However the prosecution under section 304B of IPC cannot escape from the burden of proof that the harassment to cruelty was related to the demand for dowry and such was caused “soon before her death”. One of the main ingredients required to prove the fault of accused is to establish that she was harassed “soon before her death” for dowry.[vi]. Is this the main factor for the increase in crime and for rendering this law meaningless?
While Section 304B I.P.C. and section 113B of the Evidence Act lays the proximity text to determine the period which can come within the term ‘soon before’ and is left to be determined by the courts, depending upon facts and circumstances of each case. But due to lack of training, improper investigation and evidence, the courts have failed to live up to the expectations of grieving families.
The 1986 Amendment and insertion of Section, 498Aof IPC to deal with cruelty in connection with dowry with the living wife, has created a lot of noise yet it has been ineffective in providing any relief to married women experiencing the threats of dowry. The false propaganda of misuse of this law by men and husbands claiming that they have been booked wrongly under this law and the involvement of the police facilitated by the corruption component, rendered this law so debatable that the government has been forced to think of diluting the law to allow compromise and settlement between the husband and wife at the onset of trial in dowry harassment cases. Sadly the same mindset is reflected in the efforts of all courts too: to counsel and tell the wife to compromise and survive in the marriage because after all it is a sacrosanct relationship. No police of court till date has counselled the woman and told her to seek peaceful separation and not to tolerate any form of violence. The approach has been more of social norms than of implementing the law. A murder case and a dowry death case are seen as so different by the law enforcement as if the former is a crime and the latter is only a family matter, even the Law Commission and Justice Malimath Committee suggested making this law compoundable[vii]. But did this take into accountthe hard evidence of increasing murders of married women?
In 2005 a new civil law was enacted, that aimed to ensure that the woman was protected and safe in her marriage. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) came into force in 2006 and by 2016 it was being said that this law too has failed. This law was meant to keep survivors of violence “alive” by protecting them from any kind of further violence from intimate partners. It brought a woman out of the situation immediately so that she could live and then decide on her later recourse. Interim and emergency orders have not been many. Thus we see that DPA made in 1961, 498A inserted in 1986 and PWDVA made in 2005 have all been made to fail miserably to keep newly married women live her rightful life of dignity and free of violence and abuse. The patriarchs in power, instrumental in failing the laws are also the ones to claim misuse of law by women and demand revoking of all such pro women legislations. The need is to go beyond the brief and make a more holistic plan towards a socio-legal change strategy for taking care of the situations.
Gaps and loopholes in laws are a given fact of the Indian legislative system, resulting in their poor implementation. For a woman fighting the legal battle for justice, the system remains unbending due to the male dominant thought processes at all levels. Laws after laws made to protect them from violence have failed. Yet the silver lining in the cloud remains. Nagaland and Lakshadweep have shown some ray of hope where no dowry deaths were reported during the period.
What is different in these places? Is the law working or is the law enforcement better? What needs to change? Law is only a tool and even as it is undisputed, the police needs to improve their investigations and there is much to be done to remove the unconscious bias present in the judiciary. Are there other ways that society needs to look to? Where is the system to ensure that women who marry stay alive and are not killed to dowry violence? What will it take for the young man ready to get married, to say he will not take dowry? Can movies like ‘KI and KA[viii]’motivate and propagate the message of equality between husbands and wives? Can we work together to close the gaps and even attempt to re-look at it to ensure that we keep the survivors of domestic violence “alive”? Can we have simple solutions and each one play our role? Can we still make it in time to catch the last bus on its way to equality and justice? Can we try again and ensure that no more is a girl married and tied to chains and whipped by a belt just so the family’s living room is adorned by a new fridge[ix]?
[ii] Vikram Srivastava, is a Delhi based Advocate and Founder, Independent Thought (www.ithought.in). He is member, Delhi High Court Legal Services Committee and previously been with Child Welfare Committee.
[iv]304B. Dowry death.–(1) Where the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called “dowry death”, and such husband or relative shall be deemed to have caused her death.
Explanation.-For the purposes of this sub-section, “dowry” shall have the same meaning as in section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (DPA).
(2) Whoever commits dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.
[v]Vadde Rama Rao v. State of Andhra Pradesh, 1990 Cr LJ 1666
[vi]Prema S. Rao v. YadlaSrinivasa Rao, AIR 2003 SC 11
[viii] 2016 bollywoood movie based on euqlaity between husband and wives