By Imtiaz Ahmad
06 June, 2003
Two sets of questions have
been raised by a few recent instances of girls, who either refused to
go through marriage or called it off because their in-laws demanded
dowry beyond their parents' paying capacity.
One, why does the practice,
four decades after the stringent anti-dowry law was enacted and a widespread
social campaign launched, continue unabated? Why has the law not been
able to curb the practice when there is general agreement that it should
be stamped out? Second, is the law susceptible to gross misuse in marital
discord and what might be done to clog this possibility?
To the first question the
answer is simple. It is that there is a great deal of social hypocrisy
as a result of which we publicly condemn it but at the same time accept
and demand dowry.
The principal reason for
this anomaly is that, while the burden of public opinion expects us
to eschew giving or taking dowry, the social arrangements in which we
operate continue the practice. There are many dimensions to this: the
patriarchal character of society which devalues women so that their
acceptance in marriage ought to be compensated materially, the consumerist
ethos that is a compelling force to get rich at one stroke rather than
slog for life and the ostentatious display of wealth in an effort to
demonstrate social standing.
One reason behind such considerations
is that dowry functions as a form of moveable assets in a society where
land has been the chief property resource.
Parents, according to customs
which operate even after the enactment of modern legislation, do not
give their daughters a share in landed property. Instead, they prefer
to given them tangible assets in the form of dowry. This becomes a source
of bickering and bargain wherein each party ends up trying to negotiate
the best bargain. The terms are negotiated on the estimate the groom's
family has of the worth of the bride's family.
Where the negotiations are
fine-tuned, the marriage goes through smoothly and dowry is happily
exchanged. It is only where there is a wide gap between what the groom's
family estimates the bride's family can pay and what the latter feels
it can conveniently part with that trouble arises.
Marriage negotiations simply
break down in such cases. However, if the demand is hiked at the time
of the marriage ceremony or just before the girl is sent off, as happened
in the recently reported cases, the dispute comes into public view and
has to be settled one way or the other through mediation by relatives
Where such mediation is not
used the matter becomes one of law and order. Families usually avoid
such situations either to escape being drawn into public controversy
or to avoid marring their daughter's future marital prospects, both
of which reasons are easily understandable. It is in this respect that
the recent cases are commendable in that in all these cases the girl
rather than her family took the initiative to bring the issue to public
If the much-flogged Dowry
Prohibition Act, 1961, was intended to curb the practice of dowry it
should have not stopped at merely making the giving and taking of dowry
a cognisable and non-bailable offence and providing for stringent punishment.
It should have gone beyond tokenism and assailed the very social arrangements
which constitute the backbone of this practice.
Considerable historical and
sociological evidence exists to show that the practice of dowry crept
into Indian society out of the necessity to keep women out of property
so that family wealth would remain within the patrilineal group. This
is a universal stratagem societies have adopted to maintain the continuity
and stability of the patrilineal group.
Where the law allows women
a share in the family property, other stratagems are adopted. For example,
Muslim societies follow the principle of parallel-cousin marriages to
keep family property within the patrilineal group because Muslim law
allows women the right to inherit family assets including land. South
Asia is an exception in this respect because the enactment of the Shariat
Act, 1937, disallowed women a share in arable land.
If the anti-dowry legislation
was serious about curbing the practice of dowry, it should have ensured
that women received a share in the family property, which continues
to be denied to them even after substantial legal reforms were brought
about. If women were guaranteed property rights there would be no reason
for substantial marriage transactions as a woman's husband and his parents
would know that at the appropriate time she would secure her share of
the family property. Since the social arrangements in place at the moment
deny women that right, a woman's in-laws demand a share of the family
property in the form of dowry and many women themselves desire that
they be given a good dowry.
Academic research on women's
rights on land shows that one of the reasons offered by women for not
preferring a claim to the family property is that they feel that if
they did so they would be demanding two shares, one at the time of their
marriage and another after the death of their parents.
Yet another stratagem the
law could have contemplated was to bring marriage transactions within
the net of income and wealth tax as it applies to gifts. Because none
of these provisions was contemplated, it is hardly surprising that the
law has proved to be ineffective.
This brings us to the second
question. Conflict is endemic to marital life. Family sociology offers
no clues as to the level of friction found among married couples, nor
about the means employed to deal with marital discord.
Evidence exists, however,
that a newly-wedded woman is usually subjected to taunts and bickering.
Such bickering may relate to dowry, division of household chores or
even the social and economic background of the woman and her natal family.
Such bickering usually stops a few years after the marriage, particularly
after the couple has a child.
Traditionally, women endured
such bickering until they consolidated their position. Nowadays, some
women brought up on notions of personal autonomy and nuclear living
sometimes take resort to legal action to teach a lesson to their erring
in-laws, to get even for harassing them or to negotiate a nuclear living
arrangement in the bargain. When this course is taken, provisions of
the Dowry Prohibition Act are often used.
A well-worked network is
in place in cities and district towns to turn and twist incidents, represent
them as instances of dowry-related violence, arrange a medical examination
and file a petition.
Money easily passes hands
at every stage and, ultimately, more than the woman, it is those whose
favour has to be invoked in order to get the case instituted who seem
to be the greatest beneficiaries.
Both legal loopholes need
to be plugged.