The Hindu marriage system is sacramental. According to this system, a marriage is forever and there is no scope for a separation. Among the various ceremonies previously practiced, the ceremony in front of a ‘godly’ fire (‘Yajna’ in Sanskrit) has taken over, the old-fashioned system of marrying a wife by capture.
This form of marriage began the practice of dowry, where originally, the family of the bride would accept gifts and money from the groom’s family as an alternative to bloodshed during the capture of the bride. A later modification of this system has paved way for the present dowry system primarily practiced by the society.
The dowry custom continues to rule our society. In majority of Indian families, the boy has legacy rights, while the girl is given a large sum at the time of her marriage in lieu of the government regulated equal rights for girls in parental property. Thus, dowry system has spread in almost all parts of the country and sections of society.
There are several reasons for the occurrence of the dowry system, but the main one is that it is a necessary precondition for marriage. ‘No dowry, no marriage’ is a widespread fear. There has also been an appearance of a feudal mindset with a materialistic attitude in a new globalised economy.
The price tag for the groom is now bigger and bolder. The emergence of an affluent middle class, the torchbearer of social change in modern India, is the main factor for the continuation of the dowry system.
Families arrange most marriages, and a man who does not marry for love; he can marry for wealth. For this man and his family, a woman becomes the ticket to shortcut riches through the system of dowry.
There are a number of things people desire to have in their own houses but cannot afford; they use the opportunity of a son’s marriage to get them. The girl’s parents do not protest against variety, as they regard the union as a stepping-stone towards higher social status and better matches for the remaining children.
Dowry as a phenomenon has gone beyond the ritual of marriage. Pregnancy, childbirth and all kinds of religious and family functions are occasions when such demands are made. A more sophisticated public image of an extended gifting session has replaced the old system.
Now there is demand for receptions in marriage places. The trousseau includes designer wear for the bride and groom’s family. Chefs are flown in for multi-cuisine wedding dinners. The bride’s family usually pays for all this.
The rich revel in the exchange of their black money, but this in turn exerts pressure on the other classes to ape them with serious social consequences. The women have become a kind of commodity.
It is them who are the worst sufferers because dowry is most often a monetary agreement between two men – the bride’s father and the groom. Caste-based practices have only added fuel to the fire. Marriages in political families are arranged to consolidate the caste base for support in electoral politics, so
they do not challenge the dowry system. Dowry rituals have now spread even to communities where they were unknown. It has gone to different castes, crossed the boundaries of provinces and education and religion. Muslims and Christians, such as the Syrian Christians of Kerala and the Roman Catholics of Mangalore have started demanding dowry.
Official statistics show a steady rise in dowry crimes. More and more women are killed every year in India for dowry. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh still record the maximum number of dowry crimes, but Bangalore, India’s fastest growing city also shows an alarming rise – four women reportedly die every day because of dowry harassment and domestic violence.
The cases of dowry torture are the highest accounting for 32.4% of crimes against women in the country.
The Dowry Prohibition Act, in force since 1st July 1961, was passed with the purpose of prohibiting the demanding, giving and taking of dowry.
In 1980, the Government setup a committee that recommended amendments in the Dowry Prohibition Act and also suggested expanding the definition of dowry and instituting family courts and National Commission for women. Many parliamentary debates led to some amendments in 1983,1984 and 1986.
To stop the offences of cruelty by husband or his relatives on the wife, Section 498-A was added in the Indian Penal Code and Section 198-A in the Criminal Procedure Code in the year 1983.
The Dowry Prohibition Act clearly stipulates that a person who gives or takes or helps in the giving or taking of dowry can be sentenced to jail for 5 years and fined Rs. 15,000/- or the amount of the value of dowry, whichever is more.
The Act also prohibits the giving and taking directly or indirectly any property or valuable security, any amount either in cash of kind, jewelry, articles, properties, etc. in respect of a marriage.
The control is provided by stating a limit and names of people gifting and their relationship to the married couple to be signed by both sides of parents.
In 1986, the Act was amended again, empowering State governments to appoint Dowry Prohibition Officers, who not only had a preventive role but also had powers to collect evidence against people who took dowry.
Despite protest by women’s organisations, serious activism, legal amendments, special police cells for women, media support and heightened awareness of dowry being a crime, the practice continues unabated on a massive scale. Despite every stigma, dowry continues to be the signature of marriage.
Women need real social, political, financial and moral support in their fight against the system. They have to be empowered so that they can take their decisions about their own life by refusing the dowry system.