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Burning of the Brides

Top: Lakshmi soon after marriage. Bottom: Burned because her parents could not afford 'enough' dowry.

For Satyarani Chaddha life will never be the same after March 17 this year when she saw her 24-year-old pregnant daughter burnt like a pile of garbage in the home of her mother-in-law, ‘I had never seen anything like it,’ she wept uncontrollably. ‘There were no eyes, no mouth . . . it was just a twisted black bundle lying in a corner.’ The mother-in-law refused to give Satyarani even a sheet to cover her daughter’s remains. ‘Instead she told me to pick up my rubbish and clear her courtyard.’

Signs of trouble could be discerned even before the wedding of Satyarani’s daughter Shashi Bala - a graduate - when the mother­in-law-to-be began demanding a scooter, a television set and a refrigerator as part of the dowry. Satyarani, a widow with modest means and five children to bring up, could not afford all of them. However, she agreed to give a refrigerator. But demands for dowry continued even after the marriage. At first Satyarani gave her son-in-law 1000 Rupees ($130). Soon after that she was confronted with another demand from him for a scooter.

Two days after this demand Shashi Bala was burnt to death. Her husband’s family allege that it was suicide. In that case how did the husband’s brother, mother and two sisters who were in the small house not hear or smell anything when Shashi Bala poured petrol over herself and set herself on fire? The police could not care less. To them it was just one more girl who had either killed herself or been killed because her parents could not give her enough dowry. But for Satyarani it became a one-woman crusade to bring to book those responsible for her daughter’s death.

She knocked on many doors for justice. The response was indifferent. Finally she met the Prime Minister of India and the Home Minister. As a result the case is now under investigation.

Fortunately Satyarani’s cry against dowry killings are being taken up by a number of women in Delhi. And about time too. There must be very few families in India where a girl’s life is not blighted by this evil, legitimised by society and sanctified by religion.

Why are there dowries? Because in Indian society a girl is considered a liability. Since she is not an equal of man, her father has to give dowry to her groom to make up for her inferiority. Fathers often become indebted for life if they have more than one daughter to marry. Dowries have not only increased in recent years but created new and alarming problems of suicide and murder.

It is bad enough that a girl should be bartered and sold as a commodity. It is worse when the demands continue after her marriage. If her parents do not provide what their son-in-law or his family ask for, their daughter can be beaten or murdered. (in which case the boy becomes free to remarry). In most cases the dowry the boy receives is used to marry off his sisters, perpetuating a vicious circle. In recent months an increasing number of cases have come to light in Delhi about the burning of brides. One government hospital registers about 4000 burn cases a year, of which 75 per cent are women. Hospital authorities suspect that 9 out of 10 of these are dowry burns or deaths.

Though the anti-dowry movement in Delhi is spear­headed by three women’s organisations - Mahila Dakshata Samiti, Nari Raksha Samiti and Istri Sangharsh Samiti - unfortunately there is little coordination between them. When cases of harassment are brought to their notice, at first they try for a compromise. Mrs Krishan Kant, who heads the anti­dowry cell of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, described one such effort: ‘I made it clear to the girl’s mother­in-law that from now on we would be the girl’s guardians and take necessary action. It had the desired effect; the ill­treatment stopped. Fear of scandal makes many families behave.

If a girl dies and foul play is suspected, these organisations try and create public opinion through the press so that the case is investigated by the police instead of being hushed up.

However, nothing is as effective as social boycott of families where girls are ill­treated or where murder is suspected. In the case of 24-year-old Tarvinder Kaur (who made a dying statement that her mother-in-law had poured kerosene over her clothes and her sister-in-law had set her alight and yet the police registered it as a case of suicide) - women of Delhi marched through the middle-class colony where she was burnt to death. Punish the murderers of Tarvinder, they demanded.

Later these students, teachers, working women and housewives marched to Parliament where they presented a memorandum to the Home Minister asking for reforms in the marriage and dowry laws.

Though anti-dowry legislation exists in India, it is not widely known. A more stringent law is now being demanded, making the accepting of dowries a recognized offence. But more important than the legislation is its enforcement machinery. It has been ineffectual because those in authority are themselves a party to the custom. Small wonder then that Satyarani says bitterly. ‘The law-makers of this country are perhaps waiting for a Prime Minister’s daughter to be burnt before they wake up’

*Mahila Dakshata Samiti*, 2 Telegraph Lane, New Delhi 110001, India.

New Internationalist issue 081 magazine cover This article is from the November 1979 issue of New Internationalist.
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