Even a cursory glance at the matrimonial advertisements in the dailies would throw light on the ingenious ways in which inducements are offered for finding suitable grooms. Such spin habits of material belongings are judiciously thrown in as bidding. These might be no direct reference to dowry but it is veiled in the open exhibition of assets. Sometimes suitable additional references to the promotional chances are also made to make the bride’s father generally nervous. The magnitude of the problem of dowry today is to be assessed not only on the basis of the increasing number of the reported cases of burning of brides but also a good number of girls remaining unmarried even after crossing the marriageable age due to their parent’s inability to pay dowry.
Dowry acts as in institutionalised greed, materialism, corruption and consumerism. The central message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and honour.” Only echoes, a hollow concern. Be it in democracy or dictatorship, war or peace women’s human rights have been violated daily systematically. Their freedom, dignity and equality are persistently compromised by law and customs.
This neglect of democratic rights against the actualisation of self-identity of women in general and Indian women in particular is seen as a consequence of the politics of discrimination. Heinus acts such as female infanticide child prostitution, dowry, to maintain only a few, are the bane of our society the hard truth js that inequalities and perfidies have spread to all parts of the country and in the face of sullen less bigotry. There is no scope for justice. There is much controversy entering around the meaning of this ancient act, Vasdakshina which was voluntarily given by the father of the bride to bridegroom and which was symbolic of filial affection and attachment. The Encyclopedia of social sciences, defines dowry as the property that is given to a woman at the time of her marriage. But since a few things received in marriage remain the exclusive property of the bride and few things are given to the groom or his parents, dowry may be broadly defined as gifts and valuables received in marriage by the bride, the bridegroom and his relatives.
” The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, however describes dowry 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 or (b) by the parent of either body party to a marriage or a another person, to either party to the marriage or any other person; at or before or after the marriage as considerations for the marriage of the said parties. The Shastras, the reservoir of Indian culture and heritage, is replete with references to the practices of dowry. The marriage hymns of Rigveda and Atharveda are its instances. The Smiritis have recognized right forms of marriage. It was only in the Brahaman marriage. It was only in the gifts and presents as he could afford to a man of superior character. Thus the gifts to be given in dowry were left entirely at the discretion by the bride’s father.
Medieval India experienced a peculiar development, i.e. the marriage of girls who had not attained property. On religious as well as on social grounds, every father wanted to marry off his daughter before puberty to a man even with an offer of money demanded by groom’s father. This urgency on the part of the bride’s father stripped of the element of will form the act which was the part of the practice earlier.
Dowry, which was a part of the ritual of Kanyadan, got transformed in practice. Dowry which was started as Vardakshina sanctioned by Hindu religion, extended beyond Hinduism to become a part of marriage among different communities along different castes and class lines. The creation of new group of elite and the increasing social mobility depend upon economic differentiation. While intra caste economic heterogeneity intensified caste and kinship remained central to social life; the new conditions also allowed the lower castes to emulate the life style and behaviour of high caste. The Konkan, Marathas, The Dalits in South Gujrat for instance have started taking dowry instead of bride-pride which was prevalent earlier. The shift indicates loss of status for the girl who was no longer a blessing of God but became a liability.
Dowry is the tool of a harassment and inhuman expression out of the coalescence of processes and relationship which are degrading women turning then in to commodities. Continuance of dowry is also linked with the debarment of women from her share in property rights. The Travancore Christian Succession Act prescribes a bride’s share of the family property called streedhanam.
In most cases marriages are negotiated with reference to the amount of streedhanam available. But now the question arises as to how such an evil system has continued without the co-operation of woman herself. The active cooperation of women is ensured by an elaborate system of socialisation which legitemises the violence by power structure within the family which has thus the sanction of society. In most cases it is the in laws particularly the mother-in-law who have contributed to the menace. This gives rise to the culture of science. As a part of ensuring a new social order, the constitution envisages gender equality in its article on fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy. Several statutes have been enacted towards this end. The Dowry prohibition is a short central legislation of just ten sanctions.
Since the subject of marriage and divorce falls under the concurrent list in the constitution this central legislation was followed by similar enactments in several states such as Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. But this act has a certain loopholes regarding the nature of gifts to be regarded as dowry and the time of receiving them. Prosecution under this act of 1961 became difficult since the alleged dowry within the meaning of the section 2 of the act came to be called gifts. The act has been amended twice first in 1984 and then in 1986 in order to make it more effective. In spite of these amendments nothing could erase this deep rooted malady which is eroding the values of society. Any kind of social legislation would always remain ineffective if it is properly backed by public support. Where social concern is missing law can be poor substitute.
Anti-dowry has proved to be ineffectual, poor deterrent. Dowry is now a secret and illegal bargaining which vitiates the happy atmosphere of marriage. A lot of proper education and propaganda is needed to inculcate a feeling of moral repugnance among the people about the age old practice of selling of the marriageable to the highest bidder. These is a need for instance to deal with the dowry deaths. Proper counseling centers, legal aid cells, homes to provide shelter, facilities for vocational training and rehabilitation are needed to combat this social evil.
The government should take the initiative of creating a compact network of centers with the help of voluntary agencies and committed individuals. The National commission for women should be empowered with statutory powers to review all the existing laws affecting women and their implementation. But the success of the programmes must not be judged by governmental yardstick but has to be ensured by greater sensitization on customs that creates women as lesser species. It is time that the definition of women in terms of property or prayadhan is challenged.