The Hindu opinion column - 'The Other Half: Burn dowry, not women', briefs how dowry is still prevalent in India even in this age. The article also shows numbers indicating how the number of deaths and cases registered against dowry harassment has constantly increased. Definitely burned to death and any physical abuse in the name of Dowry is a crime, but is the act of seeking Dowry itself a crime?
Today Dowry is more or less portrayed as an expectation and demand only from the bridegroom and his family. Also as mentioned in the above article it is believed to an extent that only women are bought and sold in a marriage. Though this might appear to be true at a superficial level, it might not be the case if we look deep inside. There are some obvious invisible hands behind the act of Dowry. Before declaring Dowry as an act of crime one might have to take a step back to see how marriages work in India and the role of Dowry in it.
Even though love marriages are becoming common in India, still a significant number of marriages are arranged by families. In case of arranged marriages there is no pressure whatsoever for a family to get their children married to a particular bridegroom. Besides, given the population and sex ratio of India, there should be enough bridegrooms available for the brides. So if at all there exists Dowry then it should be demanded by the bride's family and not vice versa. At least this is how it should be theoretically.
What we see in reality is the reversal of this and often the bridegroom's family is held responsible for the prevalence of Dowry in the society. Assuming that the groom's family is the one that is demanding Dowry, is it possible that without a perennial source of supply, such a demand would have sustained for such a long period of time? In other words Dowry itself wouldnt have survived without a constant support from the bride's family.
This raises the question of why something considered so evil for the bride and her family is supported by themselves.
In a typical arranged marriage, the bride's family has a set of expectations about their son in-law and how their daughter's future family should be. This expectation may vary anywhere from a steady monthly income to an accomplished professional with a solid financial background. Of course there is nothing wrong in this as every parent would want to get their children married into a better family irrespective of their own status.
So in order to secure a groom of their expectations the bride's family is ready to give what the groom's family expects and sometimes even if the groom's family doesnt expect anything. This is just to ensure that they get their groom of their expectation and also to make their daughter feel that she has some something to hold on when entering into a new family.
One might state that marriages are union of minds and the groom's family should not insist or demand anything materialistic. But then shouldn't we also insist that the bride's parents should not seek a groom with any materialistic expectations like steady income, family background, type of job etc.? So the price of the groom or how much Dowry a groom's family can demand or insist is to an extent set by the bride's family. So in cases like this Dowry is a mere price for how much the groom and his family is worth of.
Even though the bride's family has no compulsion to get into a marriage with a family who seeks Dowry, they still get into it voluntarily with a desire to provide a life of their expectation to their daughter. In such a non coercive arrangement, where the bride's family has every opportunity to not get into an arrangement with a family seeking Dowry; the dowry is just a voluntary exchange of what the individuals are looking for.
In this case can seeking Dowry be considered as a crime ? If so then seeking a groom of certain expectation should also be considered as a crime ? After all this expectation is the one that sets the price of the Dowry or sustains the Dowry in the society.
In case of arranged marriages its not a surprise when parents seek or pay Dowry for the reasons mentioned above. Its really a surprise in case of love marriages. Unlike arranged marriages the bride has more say in a love marriage and the groom is decided irrespective of the parent's expectations. So unlike arranged marriages, here there is no demand-supply or expectations issue. In spite of this if Dowry is transacted in a love marriage, then it must be voluntary. Moreover, in a love marriage a bride has more opportunities to say No to any form of Dowry if she thinks it is is immoral or illegal and so does the groom. So again here Dowry is just a voluntary transaction and there is no compulsion for any of the parties to comply with it. In spite of this if Dowry was taken or given should it be considered as a crime?
Not often a prospective groom and his family are accused of seeking Dowry. As long as the groom is ready to get married, the bride's family is happy. The problem starts mostly post marriage when the girl is being physically or mentally tortured for further dowry. Even here the physical or mental abuse is definitely a crime, but the act of seeking Dowry? How something that was not considered as a crime before marriage by the bride's family turned out into a criminal act after marriage?
In cases where Dowry was transacted before the wedding, it is unfair if the bride and her family were silent before the wedding and later use the anti-dowry laws to accuse the groom and his family for seeking Dowry especially when the marriage turns into a failure. Shouldn't the bride's family be accused as well for being accomplice in the first place if Dowry was paid before or during the wedding ?
Obviously there may be cases where the groom's family didn't seek or promised not to ask Dowry initially and later when the marriage is over start insisting on it along with physical and mental abuse. Cases like these are no different from extortion and are clear violation of individual and property rights. No individual has any form of right over the other's property unless it is voluntarily given. These cases might most likely fall under under any existing laws for manhandling and property disputes.
Moreover, another question to be asked here is, is Dowry the only reason woman being abused in a household. Earlier there were cases about women being abused for not bearing a child, then for bearing a female child, then not bearing a male child, for their social behavior etc. So if not not Dowry then there is going to be something else as long as woman are being dependent on their husband's and in-laws and treat them as demigod. As Amit Varma writes here Women should learn to be independent and able to walk out of bad marriages if required. Only when women especially wives are not taken for granted in a household, that's when all these abuse and burning to death will actually come down.
Now going back to the original question, is Dowry still a crime? Given that in most cases its been a voluntary transaction between two families which doesn't affect the society itself as such, and any coercive way of seeking another person's wealth would/should fall under existing property laws, do we still need to criminalize Dowry and have laws to control it?
Dowry may be a moral or ethical issue depending upon an individual's standard of ethics but definitely not a legal or criminal issue when it is done voluntarily without affecting others rights.
Enforcing moral correctness by means of man made laws is not only a violation of individual rights by itself but will eventually result in abusing the law as well.
Anti Dowry laws are no exception to this and has already gone through a lot of criticism for its misuse.
Amit Varma article in India Uncut:
On Dowry Law Criticism in Wikipedia: