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Dowry deaths: The institutionalisation of the practice of dowry in India

The latest National Crime Records Bureau data on dowry deaths is revealing. The Probe’s Bhaswati Sengupta talks to Ankit Mishra, who has been knocking at various doors in Uttar Pradesh to bring his sister’s murderers to justice. Bhaswati reports that the institutionalisation of dowry, coupled with a sluggish justice delivery mechanism, has made the social evil of dowry a socially accepted practice in India.

By Bhaswati Sengupta
New Update


"My sister did not commit suicide. She was murdered. A few days after marriage, her husband and in-laws started pressuring us for dowry. Their demands kept increasing with every passing day. They started harassing her for a car worth four lakh rupees. We did not have the financial means to provide them with a car. They made it clear to her that she would be harassed till the time the car reached their home. We decided to go to their house and talk to them and resolve the matter, but on December 2, we got a call from my brother-in-law that my sister was dead. They killed her. I lost my sister for four lakh rupees worth of a car," Ankit Mishra narrated to The Probe.

By the time Ankit and his family reached Gonda in Uttar Pradesh, his sister was declared dead. Ankit says that he remembers seeing burn marks on his sister's body. "When we finally reached the spot, we saw burn marks on her body. I think they used a heated iron box or something to torture her. Initially, they tried to pass off the death as a suicide. But anybody who sees the post-mortem report will easily know that it was a clear case of murder." 

Ankit's brush with the law started right from the day he found his sister's lifeless body. He states that the police initially did not register an FIR in the case. With the help of a few good samaritans and local social workers, the FIR was finally recorded, and the husband and the in-laws were arrested in the case. But the case went from far to worse in the days that followed when Ankit discovered that the local police were colluding with the perpetrators, and a watertight case was not presented before the court. 

"My parents were a little relieved when they arrested the in-laws and the husband, but we were shocked when soon the High Court granted bail to the in-laws. Right from the beginning we knew that the police were favouring the accused and were doing a one-sided investigation. The bail was granted by the same judge who had granted bail to the minister's son in the Lakhimpur Kheri case. We were shattered and totally devastated after we heard the news".

Ankit's fight for justice has not attracted any media coverage. Not many people talk about #justiceforsanju. Numerous women in India who have lost their lives over demands for dowry also share the same fate as Sanju. There are no crusaders to champion their causes. The dismal statistics related to dowry harassment and deaths in the country speak volumes of how the Indian criminal justice system serves the women of the country.

According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, 6753 dowry-related cases were registered in the country in 2021. Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 2,222 cases, followed by Bihar, which had recorded 1000 cases. Though the data paints a bleak picture, occasional verdicts in dowry death-related cases give a ray of hope to numerous victims of dowry harassment. 

Vismaya case Kerala dowry harassment victim Vismaya along with her husband Kiran Kumar | Photo courtesy: Social media

"This is a verdict against a social evil and not just against one person," said a police official in Kerala.

The case was related to the verdict in the Vismaya case - a case involving the medical student who hanged herself in her marital home in June 2021 over dowry harassment. In May this year, Vismaya's husband was convicted to a ten-year sentence for abetting her suicide. A day before her death, Vismaya had sent WhatsApp messages to her relatives, sharing photos of her wounds and injury marks related to domestic violence that she was subjected to. Many women's rights activists feel dowry deaths are not just a social evil but a rights issue.   

The biggest problem is that women are unaware of their rights. If you look at the cases in detail, in most cases, the special laws that were created to protect women in dowry harassment cases have finally come to the rescue of the women. The government must create awareness of the existing laws and attempt to reach out to the women and let them know that help is available. There are helplines for affected women. Women need to be told about their rights when they approach the police," says Anju Kapur, a gender specialist who is also the National President of the Anti Sexual Harassment Council of Women's Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (WICCI).

The NCRB data also revealed that there has been a 40 per cent uptick in the number of crimes against women in the country. However, the number of cases that lead to a charge sheet is abysmally low. According to the India Justice Report released this year - by groups that work towards social justice - only 10.5 per cent of cops are women in India.

"The police are the first point of contact for anybody in need of help, be it the victim or the victim's family members. But what do you do when a woman goes to a police station and can't find enough women officers to whom they can narrate their ordeal? The women must feel comfortable going to police stations, and this can only happen when we have enough women cops in police stations across the country. There are many sensibilities involved when it comes to handling a case of crime against women. A woman cop is better equipped to handle such cases. Sadly in our country, male cops still rule the roost in the police stations," argues Anju. 

The Parliament enacted the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 to prohibit the Act of giving and taking of dowry. The Act was intended to prohibit the practice of dowry and provide protection to women who are victims of it. In the Act, "dowry" is defined as "any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly; a) by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; b) by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person; at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of said parties".  

Crime against women Photo courtesy: Canva

Despite the enactment of this law, the practice of dowry is widely prevalent in India across all socioeconomic spectrums because dowry is embedded within the social fabric of our country. 

Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was introduced in 1983 to stop dowry-related cruelty to married women. Section 498A states that whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects a woman to cruelty shall be pun­ished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to a fine.

Under this section, the term "cruelty" is defined as - any wilful conduct which is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to the life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or harassment of the woman where such harassment is to coerce her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demands for any property or valuable security.

Though Section 498 A has helped many victims of dowry get justice, this section of the IPC has been very controversial right from the time of its inception. The critics of the law point to the misuse of Section 498A, where the law allows a woman to ask the police to arrest her husband without ample evidence. Most detractors say that the law is used by women in divorce cases to arm-twist the husband to give into the demands of a failed marriage. The controversial nature of this section makes most law enforcement agencies or judicial authorities doubt the claims of actual victims who try to seek refuge against dowry under the protection of this section. In fact, the Supreme Court in 2005 had termed the misuse of IPC Section 498A by women as "Legal Terrorism".

"I have seen several cases of misuse, and how the system treats such cases have changed over time. Earlier, when there was a dowry-related case, the police would register an FIR and arrest all the family members of the accused. But now there is so much mistrust that when there is an FIR, the police first arrest the main accused, the husband and then after investigation only, they arrest the rest of the accused in the family," says Mamta Sharma, former Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW). 

Sharma is a strong proponent of the belief that the women of the country themselves must take the lead towards the eradication of the social evil of dowry. "These dowry deaths will remain in practice until the girl herself says she will not marry someone who demands dowry. In the absence of it, these incidents will keep rising in the country." 

Sharma also feels that the ineffective handling of such cases by the police and the long-drawn legal battles make women think twice before seeking legal remedies when they are subjected to dowry-related harassment. 

"In my career as the former head of the National Commission for Women, I have found that in most cases, the police action is not timely, and it is very ineffective. Child marriage is still in practice in India but compared to the past, the incidence rates have decreased. That's because the government went all out to initiate radical measures to stop child marriages. Earlier, during Akshaya Tritiya, girls between the ages of 6 months and 16 years would be married off. This was practised widely, but this has stopped now because the government has become strict. Even in matters related to dowry harassment, we need such radical reforms and initiatives. The women police stations which have been opened across the country will have no meaning if these stations don't work in women's interest in a time-bound manner."

The National Commission for Women recently stated that post-Covid-19, the number of crimes against women in the country has steadily risen. A recent data released by the Commission revealed that in the second year of Covid-19, the NCW received 30,865 complaints from distressed women, out of which 72.5 per cent (22,379) fell under three main subcategories - to secure a right to life with dignity (36%), protection from domestic violence (21.6%) and matters of harassment of married women including for dowry (15%). 

Not just in India, the United Nations has reported that there has been an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the outbreak of the pandemic. The UNICEF had warned last year that ten million additional child marriages might occur worldwide because of Covid-19 before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice of the social evil. Though dowry-related cases are predominantly found in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran, studies have shown that India has the highest total number of dowry deaths in the world. 

In 2021, a study by the World Bank found that dowry payment in India's villages has largely been stable over the past few decades. Researchers of the study looked at 40,000 marriages that took place in rural India between 1960 and 2008 and found that dowry was paid in almost 95 per cent of the marriages even though dowry has been prohibited in India since 1961. 

According to Anju, many of our laws related to dowry harassment and domestic violence need amendments. She says the laws are archaic and written from a patriarchal mindset. "For years, men have misused these laws. They constantly look for loopholes in these laws once they are booked as accused. The cases are registered by a male-dominated law enforcement system. The cases are fought and heard mostly by a male-dominated judicial system. When there is no representation of women in any of these processes, how do you think women can ever get justice?"

According to the NCRB data, in 2021, West Bengal reported the highest number of cruelty against women by their husbands or relatives. The report states that 19,952 cases under the anti-dowry legislation (Section 498A of the IPC) were registered last year in the state. 

25-year-old Rashika Jain's death in Kolkata was widely reported in the national media. Rashika was found dead at her in-law's house in Alipore a year after her marriage to Kushal Agarwal. The case was investigated in such an ineffective manner that the Calcutta High Court asked a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the death of the young woman. The court, in its order, had stated that the police investigation in the case was “slow and directionless”. 

Yogita Bhayana, a social activist and the head of People Against Rape in India (PARI), tells The Probe that such slow investigations are not uncommon in India in cases related to domestic violence and dowry-related cases. 

"The major problem is the fact that the police consider a dowry case as an internal matter among the families. When they are faced with multitudinous cases, they give the last preference to dowry-related cases. This is the mindset of the police. Unless this mindset is changed, nothing much can be achieved. Dowry is considered a socially accepted practice. That's why most of the time, we see a very lax approach by law enforcement agencies. It is called a social evil because it is still practised as a ritual in the country. So, that is why the government has to make it strictly illegal. There must be a fear in the minds of people to ask for a dowry or even to give a dowry. The government particularly needs to be very vocal about these matters. Earlier, we used to see television advertisements about not giving and accepting dowries. But, tell me, when was the last time you saw a dowry-related advertisement on television or in mainstream newspapers? So, the government has stopped investing in these awareness programmes. I feel the old form of advertisements and awareness campaigns need to be reactivated."  

As for Ankit, who lost his sister Sanju, he has decided to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court for justice. "I don't have the means to approach the Supreme Court. I am a poor man but our last hopes are on the Supreme Court. We will fight till our last breath. Our lives have changed forever. Our only mission now is to ensure that Sanju's murderers are brought to justice."