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Not Left Out

By Malabika Bhattacharya

Jyotsna Bera , 32, was killed by her husband, Gopal, and his parents. Her fault? She had failed to get a sizeable dowry. Police arrested the three after Jyotsna's brother lodged a complaint saying she had been tortured for days. The incident took place in Sagar Island's south Haradhanpur, south 24 Parganas. The district figured in the National Crimes Record Bureau report, 1998, for recording the second highest number of cases of marital violence, including dowry deaths.

On May 20, 26-year-old Sharmishtha Biswas died in a Kolkata hospital after battling for life for 12 days. Her doctor husband, Sudip, had injected her with poison, as she had had the temerity to say no to his demand of a plot of land or cash for setting up a private clinic. Married a little over six months ago, Sudip had been eyeing his mother-in-law's landed property in south Kolkata.

The two instances are a pointer to the spread of the dowry menace in West Bengal society. Though the number of dowry deaths in the State is low compared to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Orissa, the fact that they take place in communist-ruled Bengal is disturbing.

According to the NCRB report, in 2000, Bengal, in terms of the actual number of dowry deaths, was seventh in the country. Seen in terms of percentage of the total population, it stood ninth with Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tripura. In 1999, 257 cases were reported. And in 2000, the number was 284. Non-governmental organisations, however, say the figures cannot be considered accurate as most of the dowry-related deaths are treated as "unnatural'' or "suicide".

"Dowry death is a misnomer. It is actually cold-blooded murder. The police and the court call it a dowry death and do not consider it a murder. Dowry is not the cause of death. It is the violence that leads to it,'' says Anuradha Kapoor, director, Swayam.

The Shramajeebi Mahila Samity feels that dowry death is a rural phenomenon. And that migration of labour, caste hierarchy and growing consumerism play major roles. "The Leftists' land reforms programme is receiving a big blow as many agricultural labour are losing the land they had acquired because they are now under compulsion to part with it as dowry,'' Anuradha Talwar, a member of the Samity, says.

Both the organisations feel that the police, courts, parents of the victims, political parties and, above all, social conditioning come in the way of fighting the dowry menace. In many cases, the police are not willing to register cases of violence against women.

Convictions in dowry death cases are few and far between. The delay in bringing the culprits to book and the lack of interest among lawyers to argue such cases only show that a lot needs to be changed. Surprisingly, political parties in Bengal have not found the dowry issue and its impact on society serious enough to build up a campaign.