The image of Dowry system in today’s India is considered to be of that social evil that gives rise to Social crimes such as Dowry Deaths, Female Infanticides, Domestic Violence, and Subjugation of Women at large. NCRB data corroborates these crimes with their data but certainly does not provide the reason (especially in the cases of Domestic violence). Indeed, the crime is of a very grave nature, if a woman/wife is being harassed or killed just because, an incompetent husband is unable to fulfill his materialistic ambition out of his own efforts and resorting to an easy option of begging from his wife and In-Laws, although the nature of begging is different, then it is a very bad precedent for all the society.
India reports 1 Crore/10 Million wedding per annum. More than 80% of weddings occurred with all lavishness that Indian weddings are famous for. And there is an exchange of dowry, gifts, and other valuables in these weddings despite the ban enforced by “The Dowry (Prevention) Act 1961”. If we borrow data of NCRB, it only shows 0.07% of these 1 Crore wedding reports Dowry Deaths. If Dowry would’ve been the real culprit, then the percentage of Dowry Deaths would have been enormous.
Let’s dive deep into the topic by starting with a definition itself. Is it different or the same for everyone? What is the meaning of dowry to the people of today’s India and how is it different from those of earlier times? Is there any linkage between Dowry expenses and Female infanticides, both in modern and medieval India? What was the role of Britishers in the evolution of a system which was designed to provide a safety net, but transformed into a noose? What was the role of our late 80s and 90s T.V dramas and Bollywood movies in perception building around Dowry and Dowry Deaths, Domestic Violence, and Building a Male-centric image of Social Structure? And finally what are the takeaways for you out of these new facts and viewpoints?
Dowry Act 1961, defines dowry as the exchange of gifts, valuables, money, and any other items of materialistic value, either small or large, to any party of marriage by any party of marriage. But This dowry Act does not apply to Muslims. Isn’t it hypostatical, and against the constitution? First, the definition is flawed and secondly, it discriminates between citizens based on their religion. If a system or practice is considered a crime, then the Law should apply with “no if’s and but’s”. The subscriber of this definition is unable to make difference between the exchange of gifts, property, or any other materialistic thing during anniversaries, birthday parties, celebrations, etc. by extending this same logic on other occasions.The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961
The real definition should be, that if a father or daughter/wife is being forced either directly or indirectly to give any of the above-mentioned things during any wedding, it will be called dowry. But this thing should apply in reverse as well. If you are preventing a father from giving anything to his daughter, just to look good in your social circle, and trying to prove that you are against such derogatory practice, which you yourself have heard with the word of mouth and never went deep into the history of this practice, then it comes under the category of reverse Dowry. Similarly, like other occasions, other than wedding when you don’t force anybody to either give or not give anything as a present, gift, etc. Imagine if you have refused to accept or demanded specific gifts during these occasions, wouldn’t it be counted as a gesture of dishonor/Insult?
It is well established in our society and practiced even to this date, that if you are from the grooms’ side, and asking for even the needle from the brides’ house, it is the most despicable thing considered socially. It was in the Bollywood movies of the 80s and 90s that Groom’s father asked for dowry while फेरे were occurring, it is far from reality. It is honorable for every Father to provide his daughter with everything he can because it is the biggest day of his daughter’s life and a new phase of her life is awaiting her. But if he senses even remotely, that groom’s side has asked for anything that he is not willing to give. Then the entire program of the wedding with that family got canceled and huge disrespect is earned by the groom’s side. Grooms’ side can lower the list of things provided to the new bride based on their presence in her new home (ससुराल) but certainly cannot force to increase the same list. We all have experienced these things in our lives which contradict the popular beliefs around dowry in our country.
So, if you again try to define dowry in the future or someone else is trying to define it for you. You need to ask the difference between exchanges that occurred during other celebrations and Weddings (if it is not forced in both directions). Dowry is not bad unless you force someone to provide you/your wife with some extra things or prevent a father from providing his daughter with anything he wants for his daughter. “Do not fall for the skewed and pathetic definition of dowry in the Dowry Act 1961“
Dowry origin, Link with Caste and Female Infanticide
To investigate the origin of the Dowry is as difficult as finding the origin of the practice of exchanges while greeting someone after a long time with presents as a gesture of etiquette, in India and other parts of the world. We can presume that it has evolved from that very same etiquette around the globe. Because, dowry has been given in many parts of the world from time immemorial i.e., Babylon, Greece, Roman Empire, and the Indian subcontinent. One Classic example comes in 1662 when the King of Portugal gifted Bombay (under Portuguese control) to King Charles-II as dowry in lieu of marrying Portuguese Princess Catherine. If it was exclusive to India and especially to the Hindu religion, which Britishers tried to associate at one point in time, then it would be sanctioned in Vedas and other religious texts. Vedas and other texts do not mention how you should greet someone and what present you should offer; the same thing applies to Dowry. It is the human system; we have evolved over a period of time to support our kith and kin, without the influence of external factors.
Another despicable crime called female infanticide is generally linked with the Dowry system. It has been in the popular belief that, since a daughter needs to be married, it would cost a lot of money for a father, which might deteriorate his financial condition. Therefore, the easy way to reduce the financial burden is, to kill her in the first place and save yourself from the financial vagaries of the future. Whereas we know that, even when you are getting your son married. You have to spend nearly the same amount, for the feast of Sagai, Shagun, and other wedding compulsions (gold for the bride). Then where does this belief originate, that these females are killed even today to secure your finances?
It all started with the British conquest of Punjab in 1849 against the tiger of Punjab “Ranjeet Singh”. Britishers needed a very logical reason to explain, that they are not fighting for selfish expansion and fulfilling their promise of civilizing missions in the “Barbaric” country of India, under the India Act 1813 (to admit missionaries). James Peggs, a Missionary designed a lurid text called Suttees Cry to Britain in 1826 followed by Female infanticides and Finally a 518 pages literature called Cries of Agony- A historical accounts of Suttee, Infanticide and Slavery. These statutes reinforced India’s image as cruel, barbaric, and act as a lifeline for Evangelicals in England to expand their Missions and gave a reason for the British Army of conquest Punjab, that they are here to correct barbarians and want to liberate Women especially upper-caste Hindoo. Jonathan Duncan, a British resident at Banaras, reported in 1789 about Female Infanticide, same in 1808 report by Alexander Walker in Baroda. If they really wanted to end this “Barbaric Crime” and Civilize Indians, then why did these “barbaric” Indians had to wait for 60 years for Female Infanticide Prevention Act 1870 and the very same Law was pulled back in 1906, while the British Census of 1901 declared that this crime is still being practiced and sex ratio is skewed in many parts of British Empire and Princely states.
Judicial Commissioner of Punjab in 1853 (R. Montgomery), Dy. Commissioner of Gurdaspur in 1851 (Major Lake) and Major Edward Reports concluded out of a fictitious story of Dharam Chand Bedi (Grandson of Gurunanak dev Ji) told by locals, which they used as an official historical record, to establish that the practice of Female Infanticide was started by Bedis because he and his family were denigrated by inferior caste “Khatris”.
Dharam Chand Bedi (1469-1538) had two sons and a daughter. When his daughter was betrothed to a Khatri boy and when “Barat” arrived at the gates. The Groom’s side insisted to pass the Litter (Palki) through the doorway, which was not wide enough to let it pass. The Groom’s side destroyed the door by force and passed. Secondly, when Bride’s brother accompanied their sister at “Vidayi”, the Groom’s side took young Bedi boys farther than required in the Scorching heat and the boys returned with the footsore and weary bodies. These two incidents enraged “Dharam Chand Bedi”, then he laid the inhuman injunction of killing daughters since it would prevent any such insults in the future on his descendants. (How absurd and Illogical)
Britishers tried their best to link the crime with the prominent Castes and Religion in Punjab, because these people were at high ranks in Ranjeet Singh’s court, and they might prove to be dangerous in the future, had any revelation comes to them to snatch back their reign. So easy way is to make these people suffer in Self Guilt, and they won’t be able to stand morally first, lest fighting Britishers. Major Edward was the main person who tried to emphasize too much on this theory to prove his point by manufacturing new facts, stories, and other materials in his reports i.e., Bedi Sikhs and Khatri are exclusive offenders, and this crime is sanctioned to all Hindus of respectable classes. He concluded, “It seems clear that religious pride, and horror of giving a daughter to an inferior caste first let the Bedis adopt the custom of Female Infanticide. It is laughable that same Edward never mentions the Dowry an Issue in his reports of Dharam Chand story but very surreptitiously claims Caste pride, Extravagant weddings, and dowries emerged as a driving force behind the crime as his conclusion. He distinguished between Female Infant killing in other parts of Globe with that of Indian, was the Marriage Expenses were so high that either the father with a fortune would live or his daughter. So, these people choose daughter killing instead of beggary. But he was never able to explain, why the Muslims and Jats of Punjab had a skewed sex ratio (far worse than khatris) despite the reason, that they practice “Bride Price” where the Bride’s side is given a Dowry by Groom’s side instead of Bride’s side. He simply said that there is some mistake in the census of Jats and Muslim Sex ratio. The Ravindram report pointed out the extensive mortality of females in England between the mid and late nineteenth century. This crime has been very evenly spread over cultures and countries and not certainly to one region, religion, or caste. So, these reports of Britishers were circulated all over India and the general belief was already established that Female Infanticide is directly linked with Dowry. This perception was carried forward after the Independence, emboldened by incidents of Bride Burning, Domestic Violence due to dowry demands and furthered by our Bollywood movies and drama which fantasize these things to a new level, and culminated in the form of “Dowry (Prevention) Act 1961.
Recently NFHS-5 (national family health survey) showed that the sex ratio improved significantly with girls exceeding boys (1022:1000), but the practice of Dowry is ever more prevailing in our Indian weddings. Although it may differ regionally, the pan India sex ratio is very much appreciable. So, to say, due to the fear of Dowry in future for daughter, a father/mother kill their own daughter is clearly absurd and out of logic thing based on the above-mentioned data and accounts of history.
How British Land reforms turned dowry into male-centric Social Evil
- Dowry arrangements under the Pre-Colonial era.
Dowry is not the only expenditure that is bourn by the family members but the expenditure around wedding feast, clothes, Jewellery and much more. Which share most of the part of the wedding expenditure. Dowry has been given for ages but how was this arrangement benefitting our daughters and sisters in earlier times in their new homes?
Before Land reforms (Permanent Settlements 1793, Ryotwari Settlements 1820, and Mahalwari Settlement 1822) of Britishers, terms like “individual rights”, “property”, “purchasing power of money”, “credit”, “attachment and sale” of Land were completely alien and meaningless to local population and peasants. Because in the pre-colonial period, peasants had the assurance that land was unalienable, they could migrate away from it but they could not be forcibly evicted even by the high authority. Timely remissions, grain reserves, and village malba were instrumental elements of this insurance policy and prevented migration from the land in times of poor cultivation due to meteorological conditions. And if there was any borrowing done by family, it was done only on the surplus of a good crop. Local Bania was merely a peasant’s humble servant and accountant. Because, if a peasant lapses his payment, he could not evict or confiscate his land to compensate losses. The land was seldom sold or bought. Shares of the family grew or diminished according to political or economic opportunities; new lands were acquired or lost by the village through politics, war, or clearing forest. Men tilled the soil but more importantly, they defended the rights of their families that they were entitled to cultivate against local and external enemies, and they, their wives, widows, and unmarried daughters shared in the grain and other produce it yielded.
The rights and entitlements of men and women were not qualitatively different. It was more of the share in the produce, rather than the right to own the land because the Land was completely owned by the state, from the times of Chandragupta Maurya to the times of Ranjeet Singh. When a person migrated permanently to another area, he/she stood to lose their right to share in the produce of the land of the village of their birth, but the rights of his/her siblings, wife, and family did not lapse if they remained in the village. It clearly shows that it was evident that the daughters will be moved permanently away from their place of birth after their marriage. In that case, she should have proper resources at her disposal to manage a financially independent life to instill self-confidence in her. This independence is translated in the forms of Livestock, Jewellery, Furniture, and other materialistic resources, that we call Dowry. Because anyone who is moving away out of their own will lose the share of produce in the land.
If this intent and practice of Dowry was not empowering women of that time, then there cannot be any other institution that we can design to help women to become financially independent. Since it was a different arrangement of Land and Resource distribution this system proved to be emancipating and liberating women. To further secure her rights she was given the share of produce in her husband’s family holding, right after her right of share loses in her natal family. Her riches get richer and there is no exploitation in the name of Dowry.
2. When did things go wrong?
It started with the Ryotwari revenue system and the codification of “customary laws”. The desire to eliminate the bewildering operations of middlemen between the administration and the peasant and to streamline the state’s essential business of collecting revenue, the land was declared a marketable commodity to be privately owned by an individual and the title registered by the state, along with the fixed amount of revenue owed on it. Most importantly the revenue demand was in cash vs cash and kinds earlier. This established a typical budget-oriented government with the seasonal assessment of harvest to adjust revenue demands.
Now the Land a peasant owns through proprietary title could be alienated if there is a hail storm, drought, pests, flood or disease in the family, etc. Now he does not have the support of the state like in earlier times, whereas the new rulers have fixed terms and conditions to be followed in paying revenues (time, date, and cash). Any dues would amount to the eviction of peasants out of their lands. The earlier system protected individuals from forfeiting their rights in the land even in bad times. Now they would borrow more cash from money-lenders to save their lands and in order to do that, they even have to sell their livestock. This system was making them bankrupt bit by bit.
Everywhere the ownership was recorded in individual titles, and the owner or owners were invariably male and the implicit rights of women to the produce of land became vanished. It was because of the inherent belief of the new political masters, that women do not hold titles in their own country, therefore we would also not register them as proprietors to Land titles in our new colonial state. The position of women in Britain at that time was not equal to men, they were considered to be inferior to men and no equal rights were given to them. Even in the 20th Century Women had to do a lot of struggle to secure political rights, social rights, and working rights equal to men in Europe and America.
This new arrangement gave the Men unnecessary influence over Land and its produce and the say of family women kept on diminishing over the course of the period of time. Laws can be changed in the blink of an eye, but cultures are followed over centuries. In the pre-colonial arrangement of Dowry, daughters were still going away from their homeland with the dowry, but this time land and its produce were in the control of a single man (Father, Brother, Husband, and Sons) instead of Family holding and control. This practice gave rise to the common notion of inheritance of land only to Male child and not female because daughters would be sent to their ससुराल like earlier times and Males would be staying home but with new Laws in place, that was anti-women and will make the entire agrarian society anti-women in the times to come. More loans could now be accessed via the same Bania and to prevent natural vagaries and increase yield at fields to pay debts, the want of more sons tend to rise instead of daughters. It was actually the British revenue system that was making farmers indebted and the agriculture sector to be more Men dominating. When you don’t have the support of the government in your hardship, when you don’t have other support systems, then people tend to look into their society for available resources. Hence, husbands and in-laws now started asking more dowry implicitly (harassing and killing brides) to save themselves from their own Bania, Moneylenders and it further pushed the high stakes for sons, that son will first help in fields and earn to contribute and then the dowry at the time of his wedding would be an icing on the cake. And since culture tends to percolate much longer than Laws, it perhaps transcended to Indian society even after Independence, because more than 70-80% population was living in villages before independence. So those same people migrated to cities but practiced the same old habitual practices instilled at one particular point of time in history. But over the 70 years, things are improving fast.
Today India sees 7000 odd Incidents of Bride Burning deaths according to NCRB-2019 data, which is very bad, why does any of the Bride have to go through that pain. To prevent that government brought Dowry Death Act 1986. The majority of the society is reverting back to their roots of empowering their women and daughters. Now a father invests more in education rather than Dowry and Wedding expenses. Grooms these days demand an employed wife more than any amount of dowry at all. Today Dowry is being given and will be given with the will of the father without any external force to prevent or augment him. And there has been no empirical evidence that suggests that due to dowry, families face financial hardship, nor today neither at the times of Colonial-era which they tried their level best to establish to hide their own failed policies.
No Law can ensure 100% results because the crimes that are committed by people, come from the same society we built Laws for. Only social Circles and institutions can prevent, for example, people who demand dowry are denigrated in all walks of life in India as beggars, Groom’s chance of getting engaged is reduced because this news spread like wildfire in all directions. This colonial hangover of Legislating Laws for everything is yet to over. Society has a much bigger role to play than the governments think. Peer pressure works best in these cases. Every father looks around his circle that, such and such things are given to daughters of his friends and relatives. He tries to match those very same things to make him and his daughter equal to their social circle. A father who refuses to give anything to his daughter despite his capabilities just because he wants to look good in the eyes of those who believe that dowry is bad, he earns the title of “Tightwad” and is termed as anti-women and anti-daughter. You can choose either of the sides. But you cannot walk both roads at the same time.
- Dowry is not bad and certainly not anti-women. It was designed to augment the emancipation of women but the revenue reforms introduced by Britishers changed the equations against women.
- Dowry is not responsible for the female infanticides and certainly not the reason for causing financial beggary to families.
- Dowry not only constitutes gifts and presents to grooms/daughters but wedding feast, Jewellery, Clothes and Miscellaneous. In the case of Grooms side, they also have to spend it at the time of Brides (मुह दिखाई), Sagai (सगाई), Clothes, Jewellery (especially for the bride as stree Dhan) and other Miscellaneous.
- Dowry’s definition has been misappropriated over 100s of years and it has been established that it is bad and Indian innovation especially Hindus. The same is reflected in the Dowry Act. We just got freedom in 1947 and in 1960 we designed this law based on all the biased and misoriented reports of Britishers. Like we are still carrying the burden of Aryan Invasion theory, proposed by Max Muller by misappropriating a single word called “Arya”. No indigenous research was conducted at that time to investigate the said crime but we relied completely on British reports and definitions, which were all flawed.
- We should also be sympathetic towards those families as well, who are at the receiving end of the misuse of the Dowry act by some of the very vicious women. They use it as a weapon to extort money, harass Men and settle scores with their perceived opponents. There is no extreme side we need to be with, always speak your mind no matter how unpopular it is. If you find dowry based on these findings. Speak it and stand by it.
- Never criticize your social Institutions unless you have a better alternative, which is self-sustaining because these institutions have evolved organically and promoted long-term benefits for society to function efficiently. Marriage, Dowry, Child Marriage (lost its relevance and usefulness in today’s time), etc.
- Dowry (Prevention) Act 1961
- Dowry Death Act
- NCRB data
- Dowry Murder—Veena Talwar
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