An Indian bride reacts as her husband prepares to feed her during a ritual at a wedding ceremony. Sam Panthaky / AFP
An Indian bride reacts as her husband prepares to feed her during a ritual at a wedding ceremony. Sam Panthaky / AFP

Despite the law, dowry demands are a real evil in India

Munish Dalal was an obscure Indian until 2003, when he became a national hate figure. His bride-to-be, Nisha Sharma, accused him of demanding more dowry on the eve of their marriage. Ms Sharma reported her fiancé to the police under the country’s tough anti-dowry laws and went on to be feted as an icon of Indian womanhood.

India's anti-dowry laws are aimed at tackling the husbands and in-laws who, even though they have received a dowry on marriage, abuse a woman afterwards so that she asks her parents to hand over yet more cash, jewellery and consumer goods.

The mistreatment is so common that the law allows the police to arrest a man the moment his wife alleges that he demanded more dowry. No evidence has to be produced. Bail depends on the discretion of the judge. The man is considered guilty until he can prove his innocence.

Mr Dalal ended up being vilified. He lost his job. His elderly mother lost her government job and with it her state pension.

In 2012, however, his name was cleared by the courts. It turned out his fiancée had been in love with another man. She did not want to marry Mr Dalal but was too scared to say so to her parents. Accusing him falsely of demanding dowry was her way of getting out of the marriage.

This is precisely the kind of abuse of the law that the Supreme Court acted on with a ruling last month saying the police cannot arrest a man on the basis of mere allegation.

The judges said the law was being misused by “disgruntled wives as a weapon”. In future, the police will have to give reasons for the arrest. This evidence would then be examined by a magistrate.

The judges pointed to the fact that the conviction rate in dowry harassment cases is only 15 per cent of all the cases registered.

It’s a welcome decision. Many innocent men have been wrongly arrested. Lawyers have said that the law was being used by some wives to persecute husbands and settle scores.

But there is a problem with the statistics.

According to government figures, more than 8,233 women were killed across India in 2012 over demands for dowry from the groom and his family. That is almost one woman every hour.

The evil that the law was intended to stop has not gone away. Nor is the custom of giving dowry fading. If anything, it is becoming even more entrenched.

Perhaps it didn’t occur to the judges that, if the conviction rate in dowry cases is low, it might be connected with the fact that it is hard to prove harassment by in-laws.

If you are denied food, locked up in a room, verbally abused, threatened and refused all contact with your parents and friends, it is not easy to provide evidence of this kind of cruelty.

Secondly, given the acceptance of dowry in Indian society – even though it was banned in 1961 – it is possible that the police are not very thorough in their investigations.

After all, in their eyes, it may be a crime in law, but it is not a crime in culture. It’s possible that they bungle investigations, leading to a low conviction rate.

Moreover, many women who go to the police to report harassment over dowry later come under tremendous pressure from their husband and in-laws – and also from their own parents who fear the stigma of a police case – to retract.

In India, the imperative is to keep the family together and preserve its reputation, at any cost. Lawyers say that this could well account for the high acquittal rate.

If it is not this pressure that makes a woman withdraw the case, it can be the fact that dowry-related cases drag on for years and years.

If the woman’s family does not have the financial resources to keep paying legal fees over such a long period, no wonder it decides to settle out of court. So yes, the ruling by the Supreme Court diluting the law is sensible because it is unfair to arrest a man without having a reasonable reason for doing so.

But it does not alter the unfortunate fact that demanding and giving dowry is as widespread as ever, along with all its attendant horrors that it might bring, such as domestic violence, harassment and torture.

By using words such as “legal terrorism” and “disgruntled wives’’, the Supreme Court judges have created the impression that vindictive women are making life miserable for their husbands.

Let’s not forget, however, that it is an Indian woman dying senselessly every hour, not an Indian man.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi


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