India’s Dowry Scare

In 2021, 13,534 cases were registered in the country under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, reveals the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). This, strikingly, was a 25 percent increase since last years’ statistics. The NCRB, in 2017, recorded nearly 7,000 dowry-linked deaths a year. Dowry deaths rose from about nineteen per day in 2001 to 21 per day in 2016. At an alarming rate, India sees twenty women die every day as a result of harassment over dowry — either murdered, or compelled to commit suicide.

The Dowry Prohibition Act prevents and prohibits exchange of dowry, definable as durable goods, cash, and real or movable property that the bride’s family offers the groom, his parents and his relatives as a condition of marriage negotiations. While existing laws prevent any exchange of assets or money over twenty thousand Indian rupee, marriage negotiations continue incorporating exchanges beyond this legally permissible limit.

The unchecked continuation of dowry exchanges harbingers other crimes. Predominant among them are cruelty (mental and physical torture and harassment), domestic violence (including physical, emotional, and sexual assault), and abetment to suicide and dowry death (including bride burning and murder). When the Dowry Prohibition Act, which was the first all-India legislative enactment relating to dowry, came into force on 1 July 1961, it was seen as heralding the beginning of a new legal framework. The legislation consolidated the existing anti-dowry laws which had been passed in certain states. The Act provides for a penalty involving a prison term of not less than six months and extendable up to two years along with a fine of 10,000 Indian rupee. In a step towards strengthening the anti-dowry law further, new provisions were added to the Indian criminal law. In 2005, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed. It added an additional layer of protection from dowry harassment.

The onus of proving that an offense was not committed is on the persons charged and not on the victim. Under its powers to frame rules for carrying out its objectives under the Act, the government of India formulated the Maintenance of Lists of Presents to the Bride and the Bridegroom Rules, 1985. Section 113A of the Evidence Act, 1872, provides a similar presumption of abetment of suicide, an offence under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), in case of death of a married woman within a period of seven years of her marriage. In addition, the judiciary also includes a murder charge under Section 302 IPC as this allows courts to impose death penalty on perpetrators of the offence. Section 498A of the IPC laid down provisions for the groom and his family to be automatically arrested if a wife complained of dowry harassment. However, in the face of widespread criticisms that the law was being used by disgruntled wives to harass their in-laws, the Supreme Court, in 2014, ruled that arrests were only permitted with prior approval of a magistrate.

Legislations have largely remained ineffective. In 2022, three sisters and their children in Jaipur city of Rajasthan were found dead in a well. They left behind a message blaming the family they had married into for their death. Earlier in the same year, a court in southern India found a man guilty of abusing his wife over dowry leading to her death. While creating emotional and financial stress on the girl’s family, the dowry system also reduces the value of a woman in Indian society. While sons are welcome, the birth of a daughter is unwelcomed as it foreshadows the expenditure that the family would incur while marrying her off.

Loopholes exist in tandem with legislations. Evading the legal framework thus becomes easy and rampant. A thorough change is essential in the societal framework which remains hospitable to dowry transactions. While a groom’s family should not use the dowry system to extort money from the bride, anti-dowry laws should also not become a vehicle for a bride to torment the groom’s family. Socialization since childhood and education in school should emphasize gender equality and raise awareness against dowry. A fundamental change in social mindset and social attitudes is the ardent need to purge India of dowry evils.

Sucharita Sen