Bride burning and dowry deaths in India (an original article)
Bride Burning and dowry deaths in India:
Gruesome and Escalating Violence on Women
Rani Jethmalani, a noted lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court, in her book
"Kali's Yug"1 (=the era of Goddess Kali) said about empowering women in
"It is possible through the revival of an energized feminine principle
symbolized by Kali -- the most significant Goddess in the Hindu pantheon.
Kali in the non-Sanskritic personification -- ethically dynamic and
control-free. Kali -- autonomous and active and not defined by male
control as she is depicted in later mythological texts by her
"spousification" with her consort Shiva. Kali who challenges the
civilized order of Dharma and the status quo."
The above quote was important for our present discussion. The women of
India are an epitome of oppression and exploitation in the name of
religion practised by the conservative male chauvinists and social
patriarchs: the rulers of the country. Equal rights for women is only
electioneering demagogy. The traditionally ruling Congress party (which
produced a dictatorial regime of India's only woman prime minister causing
even more woes for the oppressed) and the rapidly surging Hindu
fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been naturally apathetic
to the plight of the women. The rise of BJP is about to bring back an era
of darkness for the traditionally oppressed classes of India -- the
"untouchables", the religious minorities, the women. Powers like BJP and
its ally Shiv Sena (SS) could very well be compared with the Christian
Coalition, Promise Keepers or Ku Klux Klan of USA, Neo-Nazis of Germany or
England, or the dictatorial-monarchican rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and
their brainchild Islamic radical groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh.
Different names, different countries: same racist-separatist
socio-religious doctrine, same oppression.
In the Indian context, Goddess Kali could indeed be the energizer and
savior of the oppressed women through social and political empowerment.
But first, Kali has to be stripped of her "spousified" status -- a status
methodically imposed by the Hindu orthodox and social patriarch --
synonymously the ruling socio-political hierarchy of India. What is going
to accomplish that empowerment? Of many possible ways, one is the
DISCLOSURE OF FACTS -- facts of gruesome violence -- facts of torture,
oppression, and exploitation practised through ages -- facts that have
been kept a well-hidden secret until now! Exposure to the world of these
criminals and their heinous acts would perhaps draw attention of women
warriors and their supporters from all over the globe. Maybe, only maybe,
a global solidarity of progressive women would help their Indian
counterpart challenge the social and political status quo.
II. The Background
The root cause of the problem behind dowry deaths is Hindu religious
orthodoxy and its degenerate caste system that divides and redivides
Hindus into innumerable classes, groups, subgroups and factions and
provides manipulative socio-religious power to the "upper" castes to drive
the "lower" castes to subservience, humiliation, poverty, and death.
Dowry5 is derived from the ancient Hindu custom of "kanyadan", where the
father presents his daughter jewelry and clothes at the time of her
marriage, and "vardakshina", where the father of the bride presents the
groom cash or kind. Both of these were done voluntarily and out of
affection and love. These days, these customs have rendered coercive and
brutally dangerous. The Brahmanical-order Hindu caste system has
degenerated to such an extent that it has brought about extreme misery and
distress not only to the "untouchables", but also to artificially formed
"inferior" groups belonging to the same social stratum or caste. In fact,
most dowry deaths have occurred in the upper strata of Hindu communities,
i.e., the Brahmins (the caste of priests cum the Kings' policy-makers),
Kshatriyas (the caste of warriors now-turned politicians), and Vaishyas
(the traders now-transformed sponsors of conservative parties). Most
killing of women for non-payment of "promised" dowry have so far occurred
in the urban affluent upper-caste Hindu communities. As the following
table will show, in spite of its rapid escalation and migration into
traditionally incidence-free areas and non-Hindu communities of India as
well as Bangladesh and Pakistan (where death of newly married women due to
"stove bursting" has often featured the newsmedia in recent years), the
phenomenon of dowry death is by and large concentrated in the communities
and areas mentioned above. In places where traditionally there is an
absence of caste- or dowry-based marriage system (such as the tribal
communities of the far-east Indian states or predominantly caste-free
Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist majority areas), dowry deaths are still not
rampant. This evidence reasserts that the problems of dowry death, bride
burning, and other forms of dowry-related violence on women is a Hindu
phenomenon that is now almost out-of-control due to the following reasons:
(1) retention of the caste system, (2) undermining of the woman by the
religious orthodox and social patriarch making herself and her family
vulnerable to socio-economic pressure and extortion, (3) ever-increasing
greed of the bridegroom and his family, (4) an economically strangled
hyperpopulated society non-supportive of unmarried women, and (5) a
morally depraved political system run by the pro-status quo conservatives.
However, few (including the educated Indian middle-class) talk about
stamping out these social evils. The scholarly finds reasons not to get
involved. The elite and the bourgeois find even more reasons to overlook
the mess. At the Harvard conference on bride burning and dowry deaths in
India (September 30 - October 2, 1995), there were talks about the
non-violent movement of Gandhi as a remedial measure against the violence
and killing of women. I am not sure about the efficacy of Gandhi's
methods. Gandhi, the West-painted icon as the "father" of Indian
nationhood was a pro-status-quo moderate conservative. Even though he
talked about the plight of the socially oppressed including the women and
untouchables, his politics finally brought about destruction of the Indian
revolutionary forces and caused transfer of power from the British to the
urban Hindu upper castes. Gandhi did not want to rock the boat.
Otherwise, with his huge appeal to the Indian and international
communities, he could have helped bring down the caste barrier. Gandhi
worshipped Lord Rama, a legendary King from ancient India (incidentally,
Rama is also the convenient icon of BJP for their political ploy) who
often neglected his much-idolized wife Sita and humiliated her in public
by asking her to prove her chastity. Thus, Gandhi could never bring about
real change in the structure of Hindu patriarchy. Thus, as the successor
who would help keep the British administrative system and divisive and
exploitative social status quo, Gandhi was chosen by the post-WWII
financially and politically bankrupt British colonials who would have soon
left India anyway. As much as Gandhi was despised by the Hindu fanatics
for his appeasement of the Islamic separatists of pre-1947 India (and was
consequently killed by a zealot who belonged to RSS, the radical Hindu
revivalist parental organization of BJP), his views on the status and role
of Indian women were in fact quite anti-progressive as were his views on
many other social, political, and economic issues.
On the other hand, the landmark social movements of Ram Mohun Roy and
Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar of Bengal in the 1800's first attempted to
emancipate the oppressed women of India. Ram Mohun Ray fought against and
brought down the barbaric custom of "sutee" ("voluntary" immolation of the
widow along with her dead husband -- in most cases, she would be coerced
to die -- again, the custom was practised upon distortion of Hindu
scriptures where the covert purpose was to surreptitiously gobble up the
property of the deceased). Ram Mohun Ray, using his sharp progressive
mind, thorough knowledge of the Hindu scripture, and social status as a
rich landlord with connections with a few compassionate British officers
and civilians, openly challenged and defeated Hindu orthodox pundits in
scholarly debates on the issue of "sutee". At the same time, on the
streets of Calcutta, he fought thugs and criminals hired by the zealots.
Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar did the same to legalize remarriage of the widow.
Ram Mohun Ray and Vidyasagar succeeded largely because of the presence of
a colonial-thus-inherently-oppressive but otherwise-supportive and
intellectually progressive western administration of the pre-war times.
III. The Facts
The epicenter of the problem of bride burning and other forms of
dowry-related violence on women is Delhi (the Indian capital), western and
central Uttar Pradesh (cities such as Kanpur, Lucknow and Agra have
witnessed the highest number of deaths), and places adjoining Delhi
(Haryana, northeastern Rajasthan, northern Madhya Pradesh, and southern
Punjab), and the problem has largely been concentrated among the upper
caste above-average Hindu communities. These areas and people have also
traditionally been supporters of the two parties -- Congress and BJP (this
is not to say that all supporters and members of these two parties are
woman-abusers: however, the coincidence is noteworthy). Now the problem
has spread rapidly to other traditionally incidence-free areas and classes
-- south Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka,
western states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, and eastern states such as
Bihar and West Bengal (the latter having been one of the bastions of
leftist politics of India) have witnessed rapid surge of incidents in
recent years. Table I summarizes the above statement.Table I.
Geographical distribution of DOWRY DEATHS in India2 (a partial list)
State or Area 1987 1990 1992 1994 1-10 Rank# by
concentration of Hindu
I. The Hindu-Hindi Heartland (traditionally ruled by BJP and Congress):
Delhi 79 200 121 132 1
Uttar Pradesh 553 1398 1783 1977 4
Madhya Pradesh 220 556 350 354 6
Rajasthan 113 286 250 298 7
Haryana 133 336 209 191 3
Punjabs 70 177 101 117 2
II. The Affluent West (*long-ruled by Congress, now taken over by BJP and SS):
Maharashtra* 250 632 727 519 5
Gujarat* 23 58 123 105
Goac 0 0 0 0
Daman & Diuc 0 0 0 0
III. The Financially-strangled East:
West Bengal 97 245 179 349 10
Bihar 120 303 170 296
Sikkimb 0 0 0 0
IV. The Non-Hindi South:
Andhra Pradesh 98 248 424 396 9
Karnataka 83 210 209 170 10
Tamil Nadu 49 124 75 83
Keralac 2 5 18 9
V. The Far-East (politically and economically alienated):
Assam 3 8 1 13
Tripura 3 8 3 6
Nagalandc 0 0 0 0
Mizoramc 0 0 0 0
VI. The "Battlefield":
Jammu & Kashmirm 10 25 18 1 8
Most places are predominantly Hindu except for Christian (c), Muslim (m),
or Buddhist (b) areas. Punjab has a large Sikh (s) population as well as
urban Hindu pockets that have major problems. The state of Jammu and
Kashmir has a Hindu majority in Jammu and a Muslim majority in Kashmir. A
large section of Kashmir has been taken by Pakistan through wars in the
sixties. Both India and Pakistan claim ownership of the state.
# Rank on the basis of a six-year average.
>From the above table, we observe the following:
(i). The incidence of dowry deaths has surged since 1987 (reason could
also be more press coverage and uncovering of facts by feminist
organizations and lawyers).
(ii). The numbers are the highest in the "Hindu-Hindi Heartland" and
"Affluent West" areas that are traditional strongholds of BJP and
(iii). The traditionally incidence-free non-Hindi-speaking south Indian
and eastern states (such as West Bengal) have seen rapid rise of dowry
deaths since 1987.
At the same time, surprisingly, some places are almost incidence-free.
This could be attributed to the following reasons:
(a) Preponderance of non-Hindu religions that forbid dowry- and
(b) Preponderance of an ancient (pre-Brahminization) Hindu social
system of dowry-free marriage (visible in Assam and Tripura);
(c) Preponderance of tribal societies that have dowry- and
caste-free social system (e.g., the far-eastern areas).
The numbers in Table I are conservative estimates as many deaths are never
reported. According to Rani Jethmalani, 15000 dowry deaths are occurring
every year in India. In another estimation3, 25000 women will have been
killed during the next two years.
In most cases, mainly because of inaction of the police, first information
reports (FIR) are often not entered. Parents of the killed bride are not
properly heard by the administration or justice system. This is more so
when the criminal or his family has connections with ruling political
parties. The legal system in India is a degenerate relic of the colonial
British system and is pathetically slow. Any case in the lower courts
(where these trials, if any pursued, are held) would take at least five to
ten years to complete. By that time, if the litigating parents can keep
their money and optimism flowing to sustain the proceedings, chances are
that the FIR, post-mortem and other reports will have been tampered,
witnesses will have been bribed or threatened, judges will leave on
vacation or retirement, and the criminal on bail will be unavailable. And,
finally, he will either go free upon benefit of the doubt or get a light
sentence upon lack of enough evidence (usually seven years in jail -- he
will actually serve two to three years). Then he will come out, and
remarry with another batch of dowry. It may be pointed out here that it
is CHEAPER for an Indian man to kill his spouse and obtain a new one with
another dowry than to divorce his wife and pay her maintenance7.
Capitalist economics works at its best in India.
Incredible as it may sound, in some cases, the convicted husband will be
requested by the parents of his previous bride to marry her sister. The
latter is an example of the severity of the problem. The sister and her
parents have no place else to go but the abuser/killer man. The death of
the woman has left a permanent mark of misfortune on her family resulting
outcasting/abhorrence by other prospective bridegrooms. The surviving
sister can't remain unmarried: the patriarch society and the upper caste
rulers would not permit that. But the incidence of the "untimely death"
of her older sister prevents her parents to find a "clean" groom for her.
Now, here comes the widower willing to remarry with an batch of dowry
probably a little less than the first time. And, he will now probably be
more "forgiving" to the bride's family he already so much knows. So, who
should the family turn to but the "closely related"?
IV. Some Known Cases 1,4,5
Sudha Goel1: Sudha was burned to death when she was eight months
pregnant. Her neighbors rushed in upon hearing her screams and found her
aflame. Sudha, like many other dying women, refuse to incriminate her
husband. However, it was one of the very few cases where the husband and
monther in-law were found guilty of killing her and were sentenced to
imprisonment for life. This was possible because of active support from
feminist organizations and lawyers.
Meena Kumari1: Meena was burned to death by her sister in-law in collusion
with Meena's mother in-law and husband. This happened when Meena's
parents refused to meet the constant dowry demands. In her dying
declaration, Meena indicated how she was mentally and physically tortured
by her new family. She was also insinuated of sexual relations with other
men. Meena's "new family" has been acquitted for lack of sufficient
Arveen Kaur1: Arveen Kaur was found dead in her room a few years after
her marriage. Before her death, she wrote letters to her father
describing the pain, torture, and humiliation she endured as a result of
increasing dowry demands. She was deprived of food, clothing, and money.
After many years, the court has recently framed charges against Arveen's
husband and in-laws.
Surupa Guha4: Surupa was poisoned to death by her husband, in-laws, and
their family servant. The husband and father in-law were well-to-do
individuals who ran one of the best schools of Calcutta. The story of her
death featured the big newspapers for years as a hot item. Unfortunately,
neither the newspapers nor the progressive intelligentsia of Calcutta
could prevent the court acquittal of the husband and father in-law. The
servant served a prison sentence.
Vimala Devi5: Twenty two year old Vimala was burned to death after seven
years of her marriage (she was married at the age of fifteen which is a
punishable act under the Child Marriage Restraint Act -- the husband is to
be imprisoned in these cases; however, in most Indian families, birth
certificates are not registered). She sought help two times at the Shakti
Shalini shelter for battered women to cope with abusive and persistent
demands for dowry. After counseling and reconciliation with her husband,
she was sent back to her marital home. Vimala's death after seven years
of marriage demonstrated the calculation and premeditation behind the
murder. (The husband Babulal was knowledgeable about the Dowry Prohibition
Act of 1961 (amended in 1984 and 1986) that stipulates "where the death of
a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury or occurs otherwise than
under normal circumstances WITHIN SEVEN YEARS OF HER MARRIAGE and it is
shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or
harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband...such death
shall be called dowry death, and such husband or relative shall be deemed
to have caused the death").
Vimala's tragedy epitomizes the enormity of the problem. The hospital
where she was taken was incompetent in properly registering Vimala as a
burn victim, the police mishandled the case by not conducting a post
mortem, they were reluctant to pursue an investigation against Babulal and
his family. Babulal or his family was not found guilty.
What can WE do to stop this gruesome and escalating act of violence on
Indian women? Empowerment of women on social, political, and economic
arenas is certainly the solution. But how can we accomplish that? As I
mentioned before, disclosure of facts and solidarity of women from around
the globe will certainly be a first step. The various traditional and
electronic media can be used for this purpose. Articles and appeals
should be sent to the human rights commission at the United Nations. The
conservative political hierarchy would not budge if it were not for strong
pressures for outside. For that purpose, we can write letters to
compassionate world leaders and politicians. A consolidated effort must
be undertaken to let the world know. The western newsmedia, hungry for
"hot cake" subjects will jump on it and as usual try to desensitize people
-- we have to live with that.
The social and political power in India must be taken away from the
oppressive conservatives and transferred to the oppressed. Parliamentary
elections are due in mid-1996. Chances are there will be a hung
parliament and Congress, BJP, and the left forces will equally share the
450-strong parliament. In this scenario, more progressive and woman
politicians could be sent to represent the oppressed. A needed alliance
of the progressive forces in the parliament and various state legislative
assemblies could change the present profile. All important states like
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (with 85 and 55 parliamentary seats, respectively)
have been experience the shift of power in recent days. Both states have
seen a legislative government run by left-of-center parties representing
the backward and oppressed castes. An opportune moment has come.
Meanwhile, Rani Jethmalani and her group WARLAW6, Madhu Kishwar (a
prominent Indian feminist) and her group Manushi7, and other fighters will
keep the torch burning. Let's not forget to send our heartfelt
salutations for them. And material support too.
Outcasting the depraved caste system will be one of the final goals. We
have to stop oppression and brutality in the name of religion.
1Rani Jethmalani, ed. 1995. Kali's Yug: Empowerment, Law and Dowry
Deaths. Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, India.
2National Crimes Bureau, Home Ministry, Govt. of India. From: Souvenir of
the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India,
Harvard Law School, September 30, October 1 & 2, 1995.
3Souvenir of the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning
in India, Harvard Law School, September 30, October 1 & 2, 1995.
4The author's personal knowledge and experience.
5Ritu Banerjee. Bride burning and the law: Vimala Devi's tragedy.
Souvenir of the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning
in India, Harvard Law School, September 30, October 1 & 2, 1995.
6WARLAW: Women's Action Research and Legal Action for Women. Express
Building, 9-10 Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi 110002, India.
7Manushi, a journal dedicated for the cause of Indian women. Manushi
Trust, C/202 Lajpat Nagar - I, New Delhi 110024, India.