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UNEQUAL MARRIAGES

A judge of the Delhi high court recently observed that the anti-dowry provisions of the Indian Penal Code were being misused and that such misuse was undermining the foundations of the institution of marriage. Expectedly, the judge’s remarks have sparked off a controversy, with some women’s organizations decrying them as a “reflection of the judiciary’s male chauvinistic attitude”. The judge has also suggested that dowry offences be made bailable and compoundable.

While it is true that the stringent anti-dowry provisions are sometimes misused, the fact is that these provisions have remained unused more than they have been misused. The Dowry Prohibition Act, passed in 1961, had no tangible impact. Not a single person could be convicted under the act until 1978. The act defined dowry as “property or valuable security given directly by one party to another as ‘consideration for marriage’”. Since the act did not bar the tradition of giving presents, it was difficult to prove that they had been given in “consideration for marriage”.

A new act — the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act — with more teeth was passed in 1983 to deal with the problem. It inserted a new section in the IPC, section 498A, to penalize the husband and relatives of the husband if they treated the woman in a cruel manner for which she was forced to commit suicide.

A new section, 113A, was also inserted in the Indian Evidence Act to enable the court to presume that the woman had been tortured into commiting suicide by the husband or relations of the husband, if she committed suicide within seven years of the marriage. The burden of proof was shifted from the prosecution to the accused, a fundamental departure from the provisions of the Evidence Act. Further the offence was made cognizable, giving the police the power to investigate cases.

Another amendment to the criminal procedure code made a post mortem compulsory in cases where a woman had committed suicide in suspicious circumstance within seven years of marriage.

But despite all these laws, cases of dowry death and harassment continue to pour in from all parts of the country. By one estimate, more than 9,500 women are killed every year in India over dowry disputes. In the Nineties, there was an 18 per cent increase in dowry deaths and a 225 per cent increase in cases of dowry harassment, compared to the previous decade. In 2000, there was a 4.4 per cent increase in reports of dowry death over that of the previous year. Thirty-one per cent of the cases reported nationally were from Uttar Pradesh, followed by Bihar (15.5 per cent). However, these figures do not reveal the real picture owing to massive under-reporting. A study by the Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh, has showed that for every case reported almost 229 cases go unreported and unregistered.

There are other laws to deal with dowry. The Dowry Prohibition Amendment Act, 1986, bans advertisement of dowry (section 4A), and also enjoins state governments to appoint dowry prohibition officers. These officers were meant to render assistance to persons subjected to dowry demands and to help in the collection of evidence and prosecution of offenders. Unfortunately, there are few such officers in most states.

Though charge-sheets are registered by the police in 94 per cent of the cases of cruelty by the husband or relative (498A IPC), and dowry death (304B IPC), conviction rates in the first case are a paltry 19-20 per cent and in the second, a slightly better 32 per cent.

There is thus considerable room for improving the quality of police investigation into cases of dowry deaths. The Union home ministry recently issued a circular containing instructions on how dowry death cases should be handled. Among other provisions, it laid down that postmortem of bodies in such cases should be done by a team of two doctors, that disposal of the bodies should not be permitted without a postmortem, that every case should be investigated by an officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent of police and that photographs and fingerprints should be taken in every case. Unfortunately, these instructions are rarely followed.

Very often direct evidence is not available in dowry death cases. Many a time, neighbours who could have tendered valuable evidence in the court do not want to get involved. Some members of the family, though sympathetic to the bride, do not give clear evidence in order to maintain the prestige and honour of the family.

There is no doubt that the new provisions — section 498A of the IPC and section 113A of the Evidence Act — have had a deterring effect. Unfortunately, the mere existence of stringent laws will not prevent such violations of human rights as dowry. During the parliamentary debate over the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru had said “Legislation cannot by itself normally solve deep-rooted social problems. One has to approach them in other ways too, but legislation is necessary and essential, so that it may give that push and have that educative factor as well as the legal sanctions behind it which help public opinion to be given a certain shape.”

The enactment of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, which provided daughters with an equal share in the paternal property appears to have unintentionally aggravated the evils of the dowry system. Instead of claiming the daughter’s share in the property after the marriage, prospective in-laws prefer to demand the same in the form of dowry in the marriage.

Even the nature of dowry has changed. No longer is it confined to clothes, utensils and jewellery. Nowadays, the transaction is in lakhs of rupees with the demands ranging from investing money in business to building a house for the bridegroom.

Sadly, even as highly-educated young men have no qualms asking for dowry, educated women too silently suffer dowry torture and harassment. A survey conducted by the ministry of human resources development showed that 90 per cent of dowry victims were educated — 30 per cent were graduates and 20 per cent were working women who contributed to the family income.

Thus, matters cannot improve unless educated women stand up and fight against the system. Ultimately, effective resistance must come from the girls and their parents, not after they are abused but before. In this connection, Nisha Sharma, Farzana and others who refused to marry grooms who asked for dowry have blazed a new trail. They have given a new fillip to the anti-dowry movement which was almost petering out in the country.

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