September 11, 1995 Volume 146, No. 11
BY ANITA PRATAP/NEW DELHI
MARRIAGES MAY BE MADE IN heaven, but in India they are often lived in hell. Two years ago, a writhing, semiconscious Sunita Vir, 20, burned over 96% of her body, was brought to a hospital. She was beyond medical help. In her dying declaration, Sunita said her father-in-law Subh Ram and brother-in-law Dalbir held her down on a cot while Chand Vir, her husband of less than two years, doused her with kerosene. Then mother-in-law Savitri lit the match. It was the family's way of punishing Sunita for her father's failure to deliver an additional dowry of new appliances. This summer a district court for the village of Lowakhurd in the north Indian state of Haryana sentenced Sunita's husband and in-laws to life imprisonment for the pitiless murder.
Sunita's story is unusual, but not because she was killed by her husband and his family. Rather, hers is the rare case of wife murder for which the attackers were prosecuted and punished. In the past decade, despite the country's economic gains-indeed, because such gains often bring an increased appetite for money and modern conveniences-the practice of wife killing has grown dramatically worse in India. It is perhaps the world's most horrific example of how women can be fatally caught in the collision of modern consumerism and established cultural mores. Though the government enacted special laws a decade ago after a spate of so-called bride burnings, current police statistics show that India's deaths having to do with dowry demands have increased nearly fifteenfold-from 400 a year in the mid-1980s to more than 5,800 a year now. Although some attribute this to the fact that more cases are now being reported, most activists believe that even the recent figures represent only a third of the actual number of such murders. Bodies are hurriedly cremated, or in-laws bribe officials to report the death as an accident. In the great majority of dowry killings that are reported, the murderous relatives escape punishment by paying bribes and manipulating sluggish legal processes. Says lawyer Rani Jethmalani, a founder of Women's Action Research and Legal Action, which provides legal aid for dowry victims: "There has to be something terribly wrong in a society where women can be murdered for the sake of acquiring consumer goods." But that is the nearly invariable motive. Says Naina Kapur, a feminist lawyer: "In all the dowry deaths that I have encountered, greed is the main culprit."
The dowry system still practiced in nearly all Indian families is an integral part of the custom of "arranged marriages." After elders choose spouses for their offspring-almost always from within the same community-cash, jewelry and furniture must be given in dowry by the bride's parents. Often the in-laws continue to extort more goods after the wedding. And increasingly, when their demands can no longer be met, they murder the bride by strangling or poisoning her, or, quite commonly, by burning her to pass it off as a kitchen accident. Then the son can remarry and make demands for, say, a washing machine or a motor scooter from his new wife's parents. "Consumerism has become a national virus," says policewoman Sundari Nanda, 31, head of the crime-against-women unit in New Delhi. "Today many families use dowry as a tool to fulfill their material expectations." Given a conviction rate of less than 1%, the risk of punishment is small.
Sunita's in-laws seem to have been possessed by an unquenchable greed. At the time of her marriage, her father Kalam Singh, a farmer whose annual income is $1,000, incurred a huge debt for a $5,000 dowry, which included cash, steel trunks, cupboards, a sewing machine, kitchen utensils and-the crowning glory-a black-and-white television set. Yet 10 days after the wedding, her new husband and his family, who lived a spartan peasant life in a tiny three-room house, began badgering and eventually beating Sunita for more dowry, particularly an air cooler and refrigerator. "How could I pay more for one daughter," says Kalam Singh, "when I had two more unmarried daughters?" Mother-in-law Savitri, who will spend at least 20 years in jail, does not seem much changed by the conviction. She worries about the family's locked-up house, fretting, "I hope all my possessions will still be safe."
The paying of a dowry reflects the view that daughters are encumbrances who must be given away in marriage at the first opportunity. Sons, on the other hand, are considered assets upon whom parents can rely in their old age. As a result, says Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, "from the time she is conceived, every step of the way can be lethal for a woman." The birth of a girl is still mourned in most families, with fathers envisaging a lifetime of hard work and debt to raise money for the dowry. To avoid such a fate, some poor Indians resort to female infanticide by strangling or poisoning the infant. The better-off opt for sex-determination tests and abort the fetus if it is female. Beaten and abused five years for dowry, Uma Bhaskar, 38, a New Delhi schoolteacher, was forced to abort her second pregnancy after learning the fetus was a girl. Then she was abandoned by her entrepreneur husband when she delivered a girl last November. "In my next life," says Uma, "I only hope I am born a man."
Dowry harassment-which does not always result in death-is part of a nationwide pattern of domestic violence. Ranjana Kumari and other prominent women activists estimate that 97% of Indian wives have been beaten at least once in their lifetime. Studies indicate that dowry deaths usually occur within the first three years of marriage, predominantly in lower-class, mother-dominated families. The murder victim almost never finds help from her husband's mother. Says P.K. Dey, a public prosecutor who has worked on more than 100 dowry deaths: "In each and every case, the mother-in-law is an accused." A survivor of oppression in her own upbringing, the matriarch inflicts the same psychological or physical damage on her daughter-in-law. Semieducated if not illiterate, and absolutely dependent on her husband's family, the dowry victim generally has no alternative but to endure the humiliation and torture, even when she fears it will end in death. Victims' parents are normally unwilling to take them back because unmarried or abandoned women are both an economic burden and a social stigma.
When Ramarthi Rohtas, 20, was found hanging in her in-laws' house late last year, neighbors in the north Indian village of Barhana were sure she had been murdered. But they say Ramarthi's parents preferred to hush up the death because they did not want their elder daughter Saroj, 28, also wedded into the same family, to be sent back home. When questioned by outsiders, the terrified Saroj plays along with her in-laws' claim that she is mad and mute, though neighbors testify that she is perfectly normal and healthy. Says Sumitra Devi, a social worker: "Most parents feel their daughter's place is in her in-laws' home, even if she is beaten, terrorized or killed." And when daughters are murdered, parents are sad but fatalistic.
There are exceptions. In 1979 Satya rani Chaddha's daughter was burned to death within a year of marriage-an alleged dowry-murder victim. In 1987 Chaddha started Shakti Shalini, or Women's Power, which has so far provided shelter to more than 1,500 dowry victims who have fled from their husbands. She also pressed to get justice from the courts, but her case against her daughter's in-laws is still pending. "The bride's parents always suffer," notes Chaddha, 72, bitterly. "I have lost my daughter and destroyed my family in fighting legal battles, whereas my son-in-law is remarried with adolescent children."
Chaddha's court saga is all too typical of the criminal justice system's failure to protect women. The laws are stringent: a dowry death, even if it is a suicide, can legally result in life sentences for the in-laws. But in the past seven years, only four people have been convicted in New Delhi, which had a total of 1,000 dowry deaths. The Indian judiciary is clogged, overburdened and understaffed, and any legal battle, from murder to a property dispute, can drag on for as long as two decades. Law yers and women activists complain that judges and policemen are also biased against women. In any event, enforcing the law against dowry murders would, at best, serve only as a deterrent. "The problem will persist until women's self-worth is fully realized," says police officer Nanda. "As long as parents feel they have to bribe a man to marry their daughter, the dowry system will continue." A few educated bridegrooms now refuse to take a dowry, but the custom is dismayingly difficult to break, particularly in the insular social system of Indian villages. Still working on his farm while mourning the death of his daughter, Sunita's father is now slaving to hoard a bigger dowry for his younger daughter Minna, 12. He believes that will be her only salvation.