The recent high profile case of a Delhi coaching institute owner being arrested on alleged charges of dowry harassment and poisoning his daughter-in-law shows that no matter how much we talk about equality and empowerment, women are still on the receiving end. In our naivety we believed that education and paychecks would automatically ensure a better deal. That we have crossed the Rubicon and do not have to worry about trousseaus and incidentals, which add up to more than what we plan to give to the girl.

The ancient Hindu customs of ‘kanyadan’ and ‘stridhan’ did not foresee any appendages being added. They were voluntary practices transformed through passage of time into the evils of the dowry system spreading its tentacles in almost all parts of the country and sections of society. In kanyadan the bride’s father offers the father of the groom money or property and the bridegroom is given a varadakshina in cash or kind. In stridhan the bride gets jewelry and clothes at the time of her marriage, usually from relatives or friends. Over a period of time these voluntary practices became life threatening for the person it is meant to benefit the maximum, the bride. In a recent interview Veena Talwar Oldenburg (Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins Of A Cultural Crime) says that ‘making dowry demands is a cultural oxymoron that bears no resemblance to the historical meaning and practice of this institution.’ (Times of India)

What is farcical in today’s context is that the Dowry Prohibition Act, in force since 1st July 1961, was passed with the purpose of prohibiting the demanding, giving and taking of dowry. Further, to stop the offences of cruelty by husband or his relatives on the wife, Section 498-A was added in the Indian Penal Code and Section 198-A in the Criminal Procedure Code in the year 1983. The Dowry Prohibition Act clearly stipulates that a person who gives or takes or helps in the giving or taking of dowry can be sentenced to jail for 5 years and fined Rs.15,000/- or the amount of the value of dowry, whichever is more. The Act also prohibits the giving and taking, directly or indirectly any property or valuable security, any amount either in cash of kind, jewelry, articles, properties, etc. in respect of a marriage. The control is provided by stating a limit and names of gifters and their relationship to the married couple to be signed by both sides of parents.

The 1980s saw a backlash with women’s organizations taking up cudgels on behalf of the humiliated daughters and families. But we are where we began. The cases continue as the word ‘Dowry’ sheds its decades old generic image of burning brides or wedding barats returning due to inability of a girl’s family to give a car, scooter or hard cash. A more sophisticated public image of an extended gifting session has replaced it. As Dr Ira Dash Rajguru, HR Consultant and President of a non-government organization puts it: “the malady is embedded in our system. Today marriage is an agreement between families on the basis of assets both financial and personal. In short an easy way to prosperity and richness”.

Often the central characters give in, as they are dependent on parents (family business). Most want an event to remember that of a traditional wedding with henna, sangeet and attending functions.

“Marriage and dowry are irrevocable facets of a system from which we have no escape routes”. A parent who recently got her daughter engaged says that “dowry in any form has always been around and the difference these days is that no parent wants to admit that they are gift-wrapping their daughters.” The demand is not stated in black or white but an equal status family is preferred. “It is very simple. There is already a talk in the marriage market that such and such family expects a certain amount in cash or kind and whoever can fulfill that demand is entertained. The girl’s parents do not protest about the blatant extravaganza as they regard the alliance as a stepping-stone towards higher social status and better matches for remaining children. If the in-laws are amateurs, (first wedding in the family or the only son) they will be cruder in their demands”. Maimoona, a social activist adds another dimension to the whole affair. According to her “the upper and middle class parents ensure that their children find partners in similar positioned families so that the status quo remains. It is a mutual understanding between families and problems arise when expectations are not fulfilled’.

Seeing a handful get the cake the rest follow suite and leading the pack are the Non Resident Indians living as some of them do in a time-warp of rituals and demands. An NRI mother, recently in town, wanted to know the market value of foreign educated and working persons. She has an eligible son and was testing the waters of how much bride price he will fetch, about top of the line hotel services, non-stop wining and dining and family heirlooms. After all she too has invested in her son…a reverse Osmosis of money power. As Ira adds, “blame it on the kitschy, never ending consumerism of recent years.”

In this barter on a massive scale how do the chief players react? Some refuse as Sonal did insisting on a simple wedding and minus the bounty. The outcome was obvious as the boy’s mother found a more than willing business family for her America-settled son. Often the central characters give in, as they are dependent on parents (family business). Most want an event to remember that of a traditional wedding with henna, sangeet and attending functions. Shopping is done jointly so that there is no repetition in designer labels. The wedding and reception is meticulously planned, often a theme wedding, from what should be given and to whom during “Ghori” or ‘Pheras” or ‘Shagun’; list of invitees and packing of the ‘dahej’. A corresponding industry of ‘wedding-planners’ is taking a piggy-ride given the mega bucks involved in showcasing the ‘products’ to be swapped.

And who foots the bill for the five star wedding treatment? Sometimes both sides share it but very often it is the bride’s family who fulfills the requirements. The reason, dowry is the inheritance of the girl in the family property. Even today in majority of Indian families the boy has inheritance rights while the girl is given a hefty sum at the time of her marriage in lieu of the Government regulated equal rights for girls in parental property. Societal norms dictate that ‘good’ girls do not ask for share of family property. They are compensated by a fabulous wedding reception, gifts in hard cash, jewelry, holidays abroad etc.

Awareness and demand is increasing. But before we get sidetracked, “the awareness” according to Asha Lata, Delhi State Secretary of a national women's group, “is not for saying no to dowry but for a better lifestyle, thanks to the TV commercials. There are exceptions but to majority it is the easy way out.” As the Sachdeva case shows both parties belong to well-heeled segment of society. The greed is evident going by the daughter-in-law’s allegations that the in-laws continued with their demands despite the bride’s father, a jeweler, spending lavishly at the wedding and giving expensive gifts.

Dowry or gifts for the bride is not an Indian phenomenon. In Cyprus we have what are known as the ‘dowry apartments’. These are incomplete houses waiting for the daughter of the house to get married, as she is the one to inherit the family property. The parents move out to the top floor or to an apartment or house in the same compound depending on the financial status and the numbers of daughters. What one does not hear of are dowry related deaths or harassment which is uniquely an Indian or sub-continental custom.

Sometimes economic empowerment boomerangs as in the case of two sisters, both medical doctors in reputed hospitals. It has not helped them find husbands due to insufficient dowry. Secondly, social pressures have an uncanny knack of leveling the playing field. As the elder daughter is unmarried the parents are finding it difficult to find a suitable match for the younger one. A retired government servant, the father knows that having unmarried girls in the house can be a stigma no matter how educated or drawing a five figure salary.

Alliances may be primed in heaven or in the matrimonial columns, but the great Indian dowry custom continues to rule society regardless of reforms and regulations. A strong awareness that marriage is not a retail system will be a step in the right direction.