Bride exposes in-laws' greed as dowry demands rise


India: A student's decision to call off her wedding over an illegal dowry demand has catapulted her to fame, writes Rahul Bedi, in New Delhi

A special jail wing dedicated to mothers-in-law, arrested for demanding excessive dowry in India's capital New Delhi, faces overcrowding due to the pressure of new entrants.

"The swift inflow of mothers-in-law into the ward meant exclusively for them, has stretched capacity to the maximum," a Tihar jail official said. She said the section, the only one of its kind in the country, currently housed 114 women.

Most of the mothers-in-law, aged 50 to 60, who constitute around a third of the total number of Tihar's women prisoners, say they have been "framed". They claim to have been the innocent victims of their wily daughters-in-law who successfully duped their "guileless" sons into conspiring against their mothers.

"The increasing number of inmates in the mothers-in-law ward at Tihar jail is indicative of how serious dowry demands have become in consumer hungry middle class Indian families," said barrister Miss Sushmita Dev, who specializes in women issues. Many parents, she declared, believed that "squeezing" dowry out of the hapless bride was the quickest way of satisfying their consumer needs.

According to officials over 12,612 dowry deaths were recorded across India in 1998 and 1999, and the highest rates occurred in the eastern states of Uttar Pradesh (2,229 ) and Bihar (1,039 ), India's most socially and educationally disadvantaged. But anti-dowry activists and NGOs say the figure is much higher and estimate that a woman is burned to death over dowry-related incidents every 10 minutes.

Once the bride refuses to satisfy incessant demands by her in-laws for money and goods she is either starved, beaten frequently, or even "jailed" inside her bridal house. Campaigners say that if the unfortunate bride's family declines to pay, many parents in connivance with their sons, force her into an inflammable nylon sari, douse her with paraffin and set her alight, claiming that she caught fire whilst cooking.

It was after such deaths became an almost daily occurrence in the early 1980s that anti-dowry activists forced the government to change existing laws. Today, any such death by burning within seven years of marriage is deemed unnatural and a case of murder can be registered against the husband and his parents and immediate family.

"But hundreds of cases go unreported," activist lawyer Malavika Rajkotia said. And it often takes decades for the simplest of cases in India's overloaded courts to be decided.

Social commentators say Indian men have an "umbilical attachment" to their mothers not seen in any other race. "From birth the boy child is conditioned to expect that his every wish will be fulfilled and the very status of parents depends on how many sons they have," said newspaper columnist Lalita Pannicker. So the bridegroom and his parents simply cannot understand why his bride should not meet all his needs.

The girl child, neglected from birth expects little from life, Ms Panicker said. She is conditioned to accept humiliation heaped upon her, she added.

But software engineering student Nisha Sharma's decision to call off her wedding over a last-minute dowry demand earlier this month has catapulted her to fame and prompted an outcry against the outlawed practice.

The 21-year-old woman alerted police when her schoolteacher groom made a dowry demand of 1.2 million rupees (€21,000) hours before the ceremony. The groom was arrested, bringing howls of outrage from his family but widespread praise for Sharma from other brides, two of whom followed suit and had their own grooms arrested.