One of my favourite columnists, Kalpana Sharma, produced a disturbing piece yesterday – on dowry deaths. Kalpana was appalled to read a headline, ‘One bride burnt every hour’. Not 50 years ago, but last week. It’s the kind of fact that we in India are inured to. It doesn’t have shock value for the average reader. I can’t imagine the equivalent in the West – domestic violence, possibly. Dowry death, like domestic violence, is the kind of term that hides the reality. It should be called murder, because it’s not an accidental or natural death. It’s a premeditated, deliberate, cold-blooded act of murder and solely for profit, because the bride’s parents could not pay up.
Imagine the horror of being forcibly held down, doused in kerosene or petrol (the commonest modus operandi) and set ablaze.
And, it’s ceased to shock us Indians. It’s routine, part of the daily news, has been for decades now. This was seared into my brain a few years ago, when a British student came back from a visit to Vimochana, a women’s rights group in Bangalore. They took her to a burns ward in a Bangalore hospital. The British girl couldn’t eat or sleep for days afterwards. She wept, had nightmares. She’d seen the victims, all young, many dying. Every bride was disfigured for life, scarred physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s not a pretty sight. Even seasoned activists recoil in horror from the burnt, charred flesh, the contorted skin, the sheer horror of it all. Imagine the plight of the victims, then. They suffer agony, it takes months to recover. The first time they look in a mirror after the initial emergency period, they are shocked and traumatized by the stranger in the mirror. The knowledge that they have to live with the physical scarring, where once there was youth and beauty. Even when they survive, just the simple act of carrying on living is hard. Do they go back to their parental homes? How do they support themselves? How many families can provide back up to a woman? If she has kids, she’s worried about being a burden to her aging parents. It all costs money. We don’t see pictures of these women in our papers or on TV. So they remain statistics, not even seen as very disturbing ones.
Kalpana reports: ‘According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there were 8,391 reported cases of dowry deaths in 2010. Just under double the number of cases registered in 1995 – 4,648 cases. For every dowry death reported, there are dozens that go unreported. Of the 8,391 reported cases in 2010, although 93.2 per cent were charge-sheeted, the conviction rate was a miserable 33.6 per cent. The murderers and their families get away with it. What’s worse, they go scot free and bring back another bride.
Women’s groups fought tooth and nail from the 1970s onwards to get anti-dowry legislation in place to protect brides. Unfortunately, though the campaign, which was at its peak in the 1980s, raised awareness and had women protesting all over the country, dowries, and dowry deaths, have not been eradicated – as the statistics show. Indeed, the figures are even more horrifying considering India claims to have moved out of the feudal ages and into the 21st century.
Why hasn’t it changed? Because even educated people continue to pay up with a smile (albeit forced). It’s the norm, it’s tradition, they say. If you don’t, your daughter will suffer. I’ve had conversations with young about-to-be-married women. ‘You’re not a commodity,’ I’ve said. ‘A chap who wants money to marry you is a scumbag, definitely not worth marrying.’ At the back of my mind I know I risk incurring the wrath of their families when they find out about this conversation. I’m talking radical nonsense, confusing their daughters. Creating trouble.
Books can be written about dowry; a blog is simply too short. But isn’t it time we got young people angry again? Most of my women friends who’ve fought for decades are tired. We need young blood to use the internet to restart the campaigns. Shame dowry seekers. Blast their pictures all over the internet, to their offices, colleagues. Use your gizmos and Facebook to change society. To stop the murder of Indian brides.