The Menace of Dowry: Its Historical Background

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Sample these two cases that occurred a week ago-

A 25 year old woman was burnt to death by her husband & her in-laws in a dowry dispute in Muzzafarpur, UP.

Another 25 year old software engineer committed suicide,allegedly over dowry harassment by her husband & in-laws.

Educated professionals or non-working, Dowry has taken its toll on women across the country without making any discrimination against caste, religion, economic, social or educational backgrounds of its victims.

As per official figures, about 21 lives are lost to dowry every day in India.

This shocking statistics of crime against women forces can to wonder – Can we ever get rid or this evil of dowry from our society !

The land which worships the Female Forms Of God -Saraswati (Knowledge) , Lakshmi (Wealth) &

Shakti (Strength) as bearing the ultimate Powers unlike the other countries where it’s the Male form that’s worshipped, with absolutely NO regard for a female god, a land where a girl decided who she wished to marry through Swayamvar, has come to become such a conservative land for its female citizens is extremely disturbing.

How and When Did the Evil Of DOWRY come into practice in India?

Its interesting to note that Dowry in its PRESENT form is a gift of the British and NOT an ancient Hindu practice, as we have been made to believe.

In Hindu tradition, the husband and the wife have always been the joint owners of the house hold and its property. Even on the auspicious occasion of marriage the husband was required to take a solemn vow that he would never transgress the rights and interest of his wife in economic matters and secure her as an absolute equality.

In the original system of dowry prevalent in India, women were gifted wealth from their parents and relatives during marriage.

These gifts could be cash, gold, land, or other valuables etc. These valuables or the wealth was given to the bride, and NOT to the groom or his family, which was owned by the wife and not by the husband or his family. This gave the required financial independence to women who would even manage the income from their agricultural land, etc.

European writers like Orme, the French Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who came to India in 1792, Malcom etc have praised the status of Hindu women in India. Malcom says that the Hindu women “have a say in the affairs of the state, have a distinct provision and estate of their own, enjoy as much as liberty they desire”. Malcom also praises women rulers like Ahalya Bai of being great administrators.

Philologist Michael Witzel, claims that the ancient Indian literature suggests dowry practices were not significant during the Vedic Period. Property rights for women increased in ancient India, suggest MacDonell and Keith, over the Epics’ era (200 BC to 700 AD).

Lochtefeld suggests that religious duties listed by Manu and others, such as ‘the bride be richly adorned to celebrate marriage’ were ceremonial dress and jewelry along with gifts that were her property, not property demanded by or meant for the groom.

Al-Biruni, claims that a daughter, in 11th century India, had legal right to inherit from her father,

Though unclear when, why and how the practice of dowry demand by grooms began, whether this happened after the arrival of Muslim rulers in the late 11th century, or with the arrival of Colonialism in the 16th century, or both.

However strange this might seem, but it’s believed that one of the consequences of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793 by the British under Lord Cornwallis which enabled private ownership of land, unknown in India till then. Private ownership of land was never practiced in India in the past.

All modern day real estate related violence in the country could hence be traced back to this act by the British. People there after started fighting over land.

It was this system which also created the system of Zamindars or landlords in India.Till then, the zamindars were not land lords, but only tax collectors.The Britishers converted these tax collectors into zamindars giving them the ownership of that land.The zamindar or the landlord now owned the land, and it became hereditary. The children of the landlords now became the inheritors of the land.

Later the British prohibited the women from owning any property at all. Thus dowry stemmed from India’s skewed inheritance laws. It was only in 1956 that the Hindu Personal laws were amended giving the right to women to inherit ancestral property. But again those rights were not equal to those of men. Sons had an independent share in the ancestral property, while the daughters’ shares were based on the share received by their father. It was only as recently as in 2005, that the Hindu Succession Act came into force.

The Dowry Prohibition Act was made in May 1961.Its  more than Five Decades now but the laws seem to have largely been unimpactful. For even in 21st century we have ‘almost One death every Hour because of Dowry’.

The figures are shocking -Every year more than Eight thousand women lose their life to Dowry, with UP topping the chart.

Time for Indian Men and Women to Stand Up Against this – And Say NO to Dowry !