How do children learn about their culture? Through their parents, schools and, of course, through television. From Bollywood movies to small screen shows like Satyamev Jayate, there have been some pretty active people in the cinema and television industry who believe in using the clout to drive change in the country.
And both these industries have been successful in educating people about the regressive practices that continue apace in the country. But, have they been successful in eradicating them? Of course, not.
That’s something that the citizens of the country need to fight for - not just through voices and slogans, but through "actions".
I still remember one such movie Nikaah, which I watched some three decades ago. As a child, before watching the movie, I didn’t have much knowledge about different religions, cultures and the practices that they involved. But the BR Chopra film starring Salma Agha, Deepak Parashar and Raj Babbar, a cult classic that it was, changed that. Highlighting the regressive Muslim practices like "instant talaq" and "halala", the movie displayed the sharp reality of how women are treated in Muslim patriarchal society. And it shook me from within.
I strongly believe that the practice of triple talaq must end and the triple talaq bill or the Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, must be passed soon. However, I also believe that just like this practice needs to be obliterated from the Indian society, so does dowry - for the latter affects not a particular religion, but almost every religion, every culture and every region of the country.
Even though anti-dowry laws have been implemented since 1961, the menace refuses to die in the country. The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, prohibits the giving or taking of dowry, but it remains largely ineffective as several parents continue to give dowry in cash or kind, in the form of "gifts" that may include but are not limited to jewellery, household appliances, furniture, cars, bikes, etc.
Image: Reuters photo
All this is done in the garb of ensuring that their daughter gets all the comfort and enjoys a good standard of living in her marital home, even though the gifts are largely for the groom and his family.
Dowry - a practise transformed from good to evil
In India, the moment a girl child is born, her family has to deal with a ubiquitous pressure to save money for her "future" - which simply implies "dowry". A practice that has destroyed the social fabric of the nation and which has given birth to many evils like domestic violence, female foeticide, and dowry deaths, didn’t originate with the same intent as we see it today.
The dowry system in India started voluntarily as a gesture of happiness and goodwill, honouring daughters as goddesses and blessing them with material comforts when they leave their parents’ home. What started as a practice to provide a girl with everything, never taking anything from her, soon turned into an inescapable social evil, bolstered by societal pressure at every step.
The changing times did bring some changes in the regressive tradition, but only for worse. While earlier the practice was limited to the time of the wedding, as the world progressed, Indians regressed and the demand for "gifts" extended to occasions beyond the wedding ceremony. From demanding precious gifts on popular festivals like Diwali and Holi to even birth and death ceremonies, dowry has surely turned a girl child into a liability in a country which is filled with hypocrites who can’t take anything from a girl, but accept everything from her family.
Death and dowry
An average of 22 women died each day in India because of dowry-related cases, from 2005 to 2015. As horrendous as it may seem, 88,467 women were reported dead in that decade due to the age-old dowry practice that continues to plague the country.
Even when dowry practice was criminalised in 1961 with the creation of the Dowry Prohibition Act, the practice still haunts the society. And although amendments were made to the act a number of times, and sections 304B and 498A were added to protect women from dowry demands, the situation became grimmer with every passing year and still does.
There is no denying that the anti-dowry law has often been misused, incarcerating innocent people, but the reality states that there is still a major segment of the society which continues to be crippled because of dowry, even when the law is active.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2015, 7,634 women died in India due to dowry harassment. Some were forced to commit suicide; some were burnt alive - ridiculing the institution of marriage and the unification of two souls.
Many women continue to suffer at the hands of their husbands and/or in-laws, without reporting the cases of dowry harassment, often due to societal pressure, concerned about their parents’ well-being or due to lack of an alternative.
Damaging the very essence of a woman, dowry flourishes unabated, abusing millions of women physically as well as emotionally.
Dowry and its different forms
The regressive custom of dowry perforates the entire nation. Notwithstanding the economic status and social standing of the bride’s family, the groom and his family expect dowry of some sort. From rich people to the poor, no one is spared from the clasps of dowry. At times, the girl’s family even has to take loans to meet the demands of the boy’s family.
And for what? Just to get a daughter married - for otherwise, it may not be possible for her to find a "suitable" groom.
A top college in Bengaluru - one of the most progressive cities in the country - taught lessons that include words like: "The marriage of ugly girls, who otherwise would have gone without a partner, is made possible by offering (a) heavy amount of dowry."
Another shocking incident came to light when the Maharashtra government ordered a probe regarding a Class XII sociology textbook that read: "If a girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes very difficult for her to get married. To marry such girls, the bridegroom and his family demand more dowry. Parents of such girls become helpless and pay dowry as per the demands of the bridegroom as family."
Teaching our future generations that dowry is beneficial for a girl who is either ugly or handicapped, is a real shame for the country that talks of gender equality, and launches women empowerment schemes like "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao".
A look at different parts of the country and the dowry systems prevailing there is nothing but a slap in the face of the progressive, open-minded Indians who believe in disregarding orthodox, regressive practices of the old India. But, the New India is no good either.
In Bihar, prospective grooms are marketed as commodities and command "prices" based on their educational qualifications, jobs and, of course, social status. An outsider’s visit to these markets of grooms is shocking to the core, given the fact that in some cases these grooms are even auctioned, demanding the highest price they deserve for getting married.
In Punjabi weddings, dowry is often looked on as a "custom" or "sagan" without which the marriage may become inauspicious. The irony is that many Punjabi weddings continue to fail, even when they have been blessed with "sagan" from the bride’s side. From "milnis" that encourage the exchange of blankets and cash to providing cloth pieces and gifts to the long list of groom’s family members and relatives - all these "customs" contribute to dowry in one way or the other. Sikhs and many Punjabi Hindus also believe in providing properties, cars, and bikes as dowry to portray their wealth in the society.
Miles apart in the south of India, the practice is as prevalent as in the northern part of the country. Here the emphasis is placed more on jewels and ornaments than on money. The greed for dowry here goes to such an extent that often south Indian weddings have seen the bride’s family gifting gold to her in-laws that’s equivalent to the girl's weight. What’s even more ironic is the fact that the practice is adopted even in highly literate states like Kerala.
While our country’s love for dowry is deep-rooted, the social evil has been unable to make a mark in the Northeast, and that’s a ray of hope in this materialistic and male-chauvinist society of ours. A benchmark for other Indian regions, the Northeast India has been free from the pathetic dowry system, and even more wonderful is the fact that the brides here are showered with gifts from the groom’s family - giving her the actual respect and love that she is worthy of.
The country needs reforms, not laws
Ever since the Hindu Succession Act was amended to include the law which gave equal right to daughters in ancestral property, the instances of dowry have seen no respite. Married women are forced to get their share in their ancestral property in some form or the other. Dowry has been spreading like cancer, and the government is content by implementing a law.
However, having a law is not the perfect solution to any problem. It gets misused at times, and innocent beings have to pay the price for that. It’s important to understand that law just acts as a deterrent. It is the absence of public campaigns and mass awareness as well as mobilisation that has made many women suffer behind closed doors inside their marital homes.
Having laws is good to keep a check on the wrongdoers, but what’s even more necessary is to reform the society. Today the society subsists without reformers. Those who want to bring a change by fighting for a purpose, soon get driven by the power of politics and leave the cause to get a seat.
Let’s not mix social reforms with the law. Let’s put an end to the sufferings of different sections of the society. Let’s put an end to the regressive Indian practices that are as cruel as triple talaq.
Many among us are willing to fight for the country and its people. Let’s get united. And make this nation free from all the vices.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Give India it’s long overdue freedom from regressive practices. Wake up and act.