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This article is written by Sushmita Choudhary, from New Law College, Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed University, Pune. In this article, the author comprehensively discusses the social etiological factors relating to dowry deaths in India including a historical backdrop and talks about the relevant provisions.

Introduction

A police officer got detained for the alleged murder of his wife over dowry demand. A husband burnt his wife a few weeks after the marriage when his demand for cash was denied despite receiving 1kg gold. It’s utterly sad to come across such regressive news as dowry deaths in 2020, still, it’s a reality in India. Even after years of campaign by various organizations and outcry of women and their family members over the menace of the evil dowry system pervading in our society for creating awareness about it, the number of dowry death cases is on the rise. According to the report from the National Commission for Women as the latest by June 2020, there already have been 128 dowry deaths. As per the report of the National Crime Record Bureau of India published in 2019 pertaining to crimes in 2017, 7466 cases had been registered relating to dowry death which equals to over 20 deaths per day. It was found higher than what was recorded in 2001 which was 19 deaths per day. Furthermore, because the bride’s family does not want to publicize the death as they consider it to be ‘shameful’ many deaths remain unaccountable for. 

The brutal reality of dowry death is not limited to rural areas only. Even the educated families sitting in urban areas like Bengaluru, Delhi and Kerala are harassing women for not bringing enough gold or money. According to the City Crime Record Bureau of Bengaluru, by the end of the first month of 2020, 60 dowry harassment cases have already been registered. A metropolitan city which boasts itself as the Silicon Valley of India witnessed an increase in the number of dowry harassment cases from 412 in 2018 to 473 in 2019 which is the latest annual data. Also, there may be many cases that go unreported especially in rural areas. Though dowry has been criminalized by law, it is still practised as a significant part of Indian marriages today and is openly defying laws and failing the efforts to eradicate it.

Meaning

Dowry system 

The Dowry system in India makes it necessary for the bride’s family to give dowry to the bridegroom, his parents, or his relatives as a prerequisite for marriage. Dowry is given in the nature of payment in cash, jewellery, electrical, furniture, bedding, crockery, and other household items with which newlyweds set up their homes.  Also, some families demand more dowry after the happening of marriage and when it is not fulfilled, the groom and his family abuse and kill the bride. This system puts a tremendous financial burden on the bride’s family. Unfulfillment of dowry leads to crime against women, ranging from emotional and physical which sometimes lead to death which this article will talk about. 

Dower or Mahr is different from dowry. Dower is essentially a sum of money or property which the bride is entitled to get from the groom or his family. Dower is the property given for the bride herself at the time of marriage and which remains under her ownership. It is a custom of Islamic Law.

The legal definition of dowry as in the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 “dowry” means any property or valuable security is given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly:

  1. By one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage, or
  2. By the parent of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person,

Dowry is different from the concept of dower or Mahr or bride price. While the bride price is a payment by the groom or his family. 

Social-etiological factors

Historical perspective and transformation

In India, dowry giving is a tradition that has long been unexpected and established in exchange during the marriage process. Finding its origin from 2500 to 1500 BC during the later Vedic period, traditionally meant the property that the bride brought into the marriage for her own use under the name of ‘Kanyadan’. It played a vital role in Hindu marital custom. Dowry at that time was actually a wedding gift voluntarily bestowed upon a bride as a means of economic protection since she had to leave everything behind her and join a new family. Kanyadaan, at its conception, was considered sacred as it gave power and status to the woman within her marriage to start a new family. However, as a result of growing consumerism and tendencies to equate social status with marital objects, dowry tradition changed drastically. Today, dowry typically refers to a unilateral agreement between the bride’s and groom’s family where the bride’s family pays a huge sum of compensation for taking her in and hypothetically giving her shelter for the rest of her life. Although dowry exchanges were initially intended towards protecting the women, the contemporary definition points about how women are presently not seen as their partner’s equal and rather considered as a  burden on their families. So, it is under this social construction of ‘putting up’ with the bride in exchange of dowry that dowry deaths have emerged.

The low status of Women

The social expectation that women should not work outside the household still exists in some parts of India, for a considerable reason for dowry deaths. This type of practice makes women financially dependent on her husband and in-laws. Also, traditional inheritance laws prohibited the transfer of property and material assets to women. As a result, women are viewed as a burden on their families because the valuable assets that are to be inherited by men of the family are being used for the women’s upbringing and dowry.

In Indian culture, after the women are married, they are expected to cut all their ties from their parents, so they are theoretically unable to assist and take care of their parents in old age. So, many families use limited resources for upbringing the female child.

This low status of women has led to high rates of female infanticides, abortion of female fetuses and maltreatment of female children. In fact, it is estimated that over 50 million girls/female child are ‘missing’ from the Indian population as a result of abortion and female infanticide. This negative and degraded status of women has perpetuated the norm that women can be easily disposed of if their families don’t meet the dowry demands.

‘Justified’ greed

Many factors contribute to the social evil of dowry death but a prime cause stems from the notion of dowry used as ‘justified greed’. The irrational demands made by the husband and his family used as a motive for accumulating quick wealth and raising their standards is a common phenomenon. And since dowry is considered as a large economic benefit at once, greed doesn’t stop the husband and his family from acquiring that benefit even if it requires murdering the wife who apparently stands in the way of the husband from acquiring that economic gain. Indian families see dowry as a way to quickly escape poverty and accumulate wealth with little effort. This greed has resulted in dowry demands which usually amount to three to six times the annual income or wages of the males in villages. Therefore, the bride’s family has to incur dowry demands which far exceed their annual income which makes it quite difficult for them to meet the groom’s expectations and ensure that their daughters are safe from dowry related violence.

This type of social construction that families have to ‘put up’ with the bride and therefore, should be compensated with some money has justified dowry and dowry deaths in our society.

Shame used as a ‘strategy’

Occasionally, the husband’s family demands a dowry before the occurrence of the marriage. There is a notion that the demand for dowry reemphasizes the authority of the bridegroom’s family over the bride’s family. Many often do not initiate a demand until well after the marriage rites have been over. In India, there is this concept of shame and dishonour associated with ‘failed marriages’ and this emotion is well exploited by demanding dowry after the marriage rites have been performed. This is an exceptionally effective way to extract money out from the bride’s family to save the shame of a ‘failed marriage’. This type of power allocated to the husband’s family makes it nearly impossible for the wife to escape the dowry-related abuse if the demands are not met. 

Women as ‘child bearers’

Although both families act as participants in the dowry exchange, it is the husband’s family who commands the process. The man’s economic value is deemed directly proportional to his education level which is not the same for women, hence the man’s economic value is deemed to be higher than that of the women. Traditionally a woman’s worth is measured through her ability to bear male heirs for the family and her performance as a wife and a mother. So, even in rare instances when she has attained a high level of education, the education and earning potential is relevant only insofar they contribute towards making her a good wife and mother. Measuring the woman’s value as a ‘child-bearer’ automatically grants uninterrupted power to the husband and his family to demand a dowry as compensation for any discerned shortcomings of the wife in the course of her marriage. 

Laws pertaining to Dowry

The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961

This legislation is the first national legislation related to dowry.  The act lays down a number of preventive and punitive measures. Section 2 of the Act lays down the definition of ‘dowry’ as discussed above. The term ‘valuable security’ which has been used in defining dowry finds its meaning under Section 30 of the IPC. Section 3 of the Act makes giving and taking of dowry punishable with imprisonment for a term not less than 5 years and fine of Rs 15,000 or the amount of dowry, whichever is more. Demanding dowry is punishable under Section 4 of the Act making the person liable to imprisonment for a minimum term of six months and a maximum term of 2 years and also fine up to Rs 10,000. Section 5 declares any agreement for giving or taking dowry to be void. A common practice has been that the gifts and ornaments given to the bride are immediately taken by her husband and his family in light of which Section 6 lays down procedures of punishment. Section 8 intends to make the act harsher by adding dowry offences under the purview of cognizable and non-bailable and non-compoundable.

Indian Penal Code, 1860

The problem of dowry-related violence comes under the purview of criminal law. An increasing rate of dowry deaths and failure of dowry legislation gave rise to criminal amendments in the years 1983 and 1986 by addition of Section 304-B and Section 498-A to IPC respectively. 

Section 304-B lays down four conditions for dowry death where the death of the woman is:

  • caused due to bodily burns or bodily injury or otherwise than under normal circumstances,
  • caused within seven years of her marriage,
  • caused due to subjection to cruelty by her husband or his relatives,
  • caused due to cruelty or harassment which is in relation to demand of dowry and soon before death.

Whoever commits dowry death shall be punishable for a minimum of 7 years of imprisonment which may extend to life-time imprisonment. The offences are non-bailable and cognizable.

Section 498 A of the IPC deals with cruelty to women by husbands or relatives. When a woman is subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or relatives, the perpetrator shall be liable to imprisonment for up to three years and also, fine. The word ‘cruelty’ includes both mental and physical torture. It consists of:

  • any act intended to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause danger to her own life, limb or health(both mental and physical included) 
  • Harassment to coerce her or anyone related to her for meeting the demand of dowry.

When a person intentionally causes the death of a woman, he is punishable under Section 302 of the IPC. If the husband ad his relatives create a situation where the woman committed suicide within seven years of her marriage, they shall be punishable under Section 306 of the IPC.

Indian Evidence Act, 1872

Taking into consideration the nature of the dowry offences that are usually committed in covert manners in private residential homes and within the four walls of the house, clear and direct evidence is not easily attainable which is necessary for conviction. So, keeping that in view, by the 43rd Amendment Act of 1986, Section 113B was inserted in the Evidence Act, 1872 to strengthen the hands of the prosecution by raising a presumption if certain fundamentals facts are proved or established and the death of the woman has taken place within 7 years of marriage. Once it is proved that soon before her death, the woman was subjected to cruelty or harassment by a person in connection to dowry demand, the court shall presume that such person caused the dowry death.

Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

Sections 174 and 176 of the CrPC lay down the procedures for investigation and inquiries by police and magistrate in connection to the causes of unnatural deaths. The 1983 amendment makes it mandatory for the police to send the body of the deceased woman for post-mortem examination if the death occurred within seven years of marriage to find out whether it was a matter of suicide or any other dubious matter. It empowers an executive magistrate to inquire into the death of a woman under similar circumstances.

Conclusion

Dowry death is a social curse which is quite prevalent in Indian society. It can be observed that the government of India along with the judiciary is trying to curb this menace by enacting strict legislation. Corrective measures need to be taken for eradicating this social evil but most importantly the will and commitment of the public is needed to shun away the greedy demand of dowry. Administration of justice related to criminal cases is itself a tough job but it becomes even more challenging when there is minimal social support. Generally, there is no witness to the transactions or cruelty or harassment which led to such death except the family members of the groom, some of whom might accomplice and others might refuse to testify due to family-pressure. Sometimes, neighbours who may have some clue are also unwilling to testify to avoid any hostile neighbourly relation or to avoid any burden of facing the police and court proceedings. It is important for people to raise their voices against such heinous crimes and to stand for what is right. Also, the government should take notice of the strict implementation of such laws relating to dowry. Many women can be saved from this atrocity if they are insulated from the source of violence in due time and if the culprits are given fair punishments.

References

  1. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/cbi-takes-jammu-and-kashmir-cop-into-custody-in-wifes-dowry-death-case-2237508
  2. https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bengaluru/2020/jan/17/17-dowry-cases-in-16-days-of-new-year-2090576.html
  3. https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/others/dowry-cases-on-the-rise-in-bengaluru/articleshow/74409141.cms
  4. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/legally-speaking/dowry-deaths-an-ominuous-ignominy-for-india/

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