By Rajeev Dhavan
MAY 12 was not an ordinary
day for Nisha Sharma. Instead of getting married, she called the police.
It was not an easy decision for her. Some 2,500 guests were present
at the wedding. Since a further dowry demand of Rs.12 lakhs was not
acceptable to her family, the marriage was called off. The groom and
his family went to prison. Nisha, a third-year college student, made
history to be feted for her example.
The next day, many young
women spoke out. At least three from Delhi said that they would not
permit `dowry' in their marriages. In Orissa, on May 13, young Bhagyabati
refused to yield to a demand of Rs.50,000 and a motorcycle. The infuriated
locals sided with her. On May 17, in New Delhi, a few hours after her
marriage, 21-year-old Anupama Singh declined to accompany her husband
whose family wanted Rs. 8 lakhs more. No formal complaint was filed.
The matter was left to the panchayat which ensured that Anupama's family
retrieved the money and the motorcycle which had already been given.
Her father insightfully stated that he had "four children, no money
to fight the dowry case and could not face the hardship of running to
police stations and court hearings". Like Anupama, Farzana of Delhi's
Walled City, too, declined the formal rukhsati (farewell) from her parents'
house in the face of a demand for Rs.50,000 and a motorcycle. She had
no local support like Bhagyabati. Nor did a panchayat sort out her problem.
She was inspired and her source of inspiration was Nisha Sharma.
Pleased that Nisha had donned
their mantle, the personnel of the Delhi Police's Crime Against Women
cell said: "Girls should come out on their own to fight against
the dowry menace and inform the police... (and obviate) dowry harassment".
This is easier said than done. Nearly 80 per cent of women's complaints
in Delhi relates to dowry. The large bulk of these are abandoned. In
a sample of 106 out of 400 cases, the women complainants refused to
appear. The woman risks everything the ignominy of proceedings,
the possible disgrace of not being believed, the stigma of unmarriageability;
the cross accusation as with Nisha Sharma of other motives;
the pressure of dismay faced with a society that is both hostile and
uncaring; and the cruelty of legal processes which victimise her and
test the tenacity of her courage.
Nisha's case reflects the
unreal existence of laws in our society. Laws exist only on paper, and
have little meaning for those for whom they are made. They are as fickle
as society wants them to be. Laws are mobilised by people. Only the
organised well off can play the legal game. But for the rest, `law'
is a chimera; and litigation a devious evil which corrupts the soul,
batters the mind, empties the pocket and destroys the working life of
ordinary people. This is why Anupama's father ran away from the law
to the panchayat.
But all this reflects on
the fate of human rights and social justice in Indian society. Such
rights are not won by great laws and grand judgments. Paper laws are
just `bargaining endowments' to be used if possible. Laws do
not protect human rights, only people do. In fact, even in India's litigious
society, there are too few human rights cases rather than too many.
The correct test to gauge human rights quotients is to estimate the
number of times the law is not mobilised at the expense of human rights
In significant research done
in America, Europe and Australia, it has been shown that in most `serious'
instance claims, the individuals simply `lump' the perpetrating ignominy
without protest. There are no complaints, no cases and no redress. No
research has been done in India on the `lump it' or abandoned claims.
My hunch is that the `lump it' rate on human rights violations in India
is astoundingly high. What human rights can we possibly speak of when
faced with their continuous social abandonment? How, then, is the law
to be mobilised? Not by others but by ourselves and the communities
around us. This is all the more difficult when the community itself
supports invidious practices. People are afraid of the police. Cells
for women add a cosmetic aspect to humanity sometimes effective
to preserve the status quo. What is important is the `relevant' community.
Nisha used her courage. Her family was with her. This is not always
the case. Unless, pre-litigative support converts `grievances' into
'claims', the law is writ on water. We spend too much time enacting
laws; and give little or no resources or thought to how to mobilise
them into fruition.
Enacted in 1961 to criminalise
giving or taking of dowry (Section 3), the Dowry Prohibition Act has
failed. In 1986, the Union enhanced the term of imprisonment to 5 years,
but this penalty was lessened in Bihar, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh
to between 6 months and one year, with the maximum in West Bengal at
3 years. But, why punish for giving a dowry under coercion? The penalty
for demanding dowry is imprisonment ranging from 6 months to 2 years
Since 1986, advertisements
for dowry have been banned (Section 4A). Agreements for dowry are void
(Section 5), yet valid to benefit the wife and her heirs (Section 7).
The 1986 changes also enable State Governments to appoint Dowry Prohibition
Officers (Section 8). Where are they? Why has no one heard of them?
The Dowry deaths law (Section
304A) of the Penal Code punishes husbands and in-laws for terms ranging
from 7 years to life. The Judiciary goes soft in these cases. Husbands
cannot subject wives to cruelty (Section 498A). A dowry demand is one
such cruelty but not always so. Following Nisha's example, some potential
defence lawyers scoffed at the anti-dowry law. No doubt, the punishment
thresholds are low key but not impossible as a deterrent or punishment.
Judges are often sympathetic to dowry perhaps, as part of the
living practice of their social and family lives.
The law needs revision, especially
on questions of bail, on making dowry a civil wrong, providing for interim
compensation and having a single civil and criminal court to deal with
the problem rather being piecemeal in different proceedings. We need
courts of general jurisdiction. Dowry officers have proved to be a non-existent
Some judges, like Justice
J. D. Kapoor, feel that `dowry laws' are being abused. In Savitri Devi's
case (May 21, 2003), he rejected pleas to indict relatives other than
the husband and his father in the dowry case. Anxious that children
should not be dragged to court, he wanted high-ranking police officers
to investigate and experienced judges to hear these cases, amidst other
reforms. But, his basic premise that the law is abused appears to be
grossly wrong. In fact, these laws are grossly unused. Dowry as a social
evil survives in a greedy, consumer and commoditised society in which
well-placed human beings are willing to harass and even kill for a motorcycle,
a TV or Rs. 10,000. No doubt, a dowry case destroys a marriage. In fact,
such marriages die the day dowry is demanded under threat of assault
and blackmail. Through Nisha we re-learn the law. Never a self-fulfilling
prophecy, law preserves status quo and cloaks injustice.
But Nisha's case shows it
can be the site of struggle. Law can be used with courage and caution
against dowry. This will not destroy patriarchy, but may go some way
to mitigate its evils and pain.