IIT scholar Manjula Devak's suicide shows that in India, dowry is still a silent killer of women
The death of Manjula Devak, a PhD scholar from IIT Delhi, has exposed a society which still views women only as bringers of dowry. Not as sentient humans beings with lives, dreams and abilities of their own.
“It was a mistake to educate my daughter and send her to IIT. I should have saved money for her dowry instead.”
These words were uttered by the distraught father of Manjula Devak as he stood outside the mortuary inside which lay the body of his 28-year-old daughter — a bright PhD scholar from IIT Delhi. She had taken her own life.
So much for 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao'.
Once again, the death of a young married woman had exposed the emptiness of such slogans in a society which still views women only as bringers of dowry. Not as sentient humans beings with lives, dreams and abilities of their own.
There was no suicide note, but Manjula’s parents spoke out about an aspect of her life which she had kept to herself. The woman who posted carefree pictures of herself on Facebook and had published articles in reputed scientific journals on climate change and water management was also being harassed for dowry by her in-laws and jobless husband. They wanted her to get them Rs 20 lakhs from her father so that her husband could start his own business. Manjula’s parents also accused her in-laws and husband of beating their daughter in an attempt to force her to give up her studies and become a full-time housewife.
“They wanted her to forget about her PhD and go and cook and wash dishes for them in Baroda,” her father told the press bitterly.
Manjula, an educated and independent young woman, must have resisted all these pressures. She had been married for four years. When her husband lost his job, he had moved into her quarters on the campus. After a while, unable to tolerate his alcoholism and physical abuse, she sent him away as she was also worried about her own reputation on campus. Though her parents asked her to walk out, she stayed married because she didn’t want her family to be socially ostracised.
But something broke her finally and gave the push which sent her over the brink. And that something could well have been a renewed demand for dowry.
Dowry, dahej, jahez, varadhakshinai, stridhanam, daheri, yautuk, daheza… Call it by any name and it still remains a killer.
The Dowry Prohibition Act which we have had since 1961 has hardly made any impact on the scourge of dowry. If anything, dowry has taken stronger root across the country and even communities which were untouched before have now adopted the practice. Some are open about it. Some are coy. Some are in denial. But the bottom line is dowry is considered a “tradition” and so overtly or covertly it becomes the deciding factor in most marriages.
We now live in a society where girl fetuses are aborted because they have the potential of growing into women for whom their families will have to pay dowry… Where grown women are tortured or beaten within the four walls of their marital homes because they could not or would not satisfy their in-laws' dowry demands… Where women take their own lives because they are caught in a situation where they can neither live with their greedy in-laws nor go back to their birth families.
But it was not always like this. There is historical evidence to show that dowry as it is understood in its present form is a comparatively new phenomenon. In old patrilineal societies, the dowry a woman received at the time of her marriage was her share in her parental property. This was her parents’ way of ensuring that she was treated as an equal in her new family. The money, property or ornaments she received belonged to her. In matrilineal societies of the North East, parts of Southern India and in tribal societies the concept of dowry did not even exist. Some communities in fact, paid a bride price.
Today, every single community in our country has embraced dowry in one form or the other. Bride price where it exists, is a token amount. Even when there is no overt dowry demand, there is an expectation. When families speak of arranging a marriage with a girl from the same “social status”, that expectation is implicit.
Ornaments are not considered dowry, said the CPI legislator in Kerala whose daughter got married recently at Guruvayoor — weighed down with gold necklaces and gold bangles which went all the way up to her elbow. Responding to her critics, she said she had only done for her daughter what any parent would do…given her 58 sovereigns of gold. The rest of the gold had come from friends and relatives. The irony is that she is a senior official of a party which has always condemned giving dowry and lavish spending on weddings
How many women I know have been stripped of their jewellery even before the mehendi faded from their hands... And the money never goes to them. It is used to buy a scooter for the husband or pay his sister’s dowry. If the woman resists, she is physically abused. Her body after all was just the conduit for transferring wealth.
I remember a dowry death I investigated 25 years ago, where the young bride who was the daughter of a banker, was killed because all the money, ornaments and land deeds which she had been given as dowry was in a safe deposit locker and she refused to part with the key.
There is no limit to the demands the dowry takers make…apartments, plots of land, appliances, vehicles, finances for buying a medical seat, money to travel abroad or start a business venture. I once interviewed a senior software professional who was forced to build a palatial house for her in-laws and then was kicked out of it herself.
The belief that giving and receiving dowry is right and socially acceptable is deeply ingrained. The giving of dowry might have once been a voluntary act. Today it is an act of coercion. Families sink into deep debt trying to pay off dowry demands. Women garment factory workers, school teachers, nurses and call centre employees work hard to collect money to pay their own dowries because they believe that only then will they get “good” husbands. Ironically, the more educated and wealthy grooms demand higher dowries. And many families believe that by paying higher dowries they will ensure their daughters’ status will go up in society.
Muslim communities have a token meher (bride price) as well as a more substantial jahez (dowry). The Syrian Christians euphemistically call dowry “share” and it can run into lakhs or crores depending on the social status of the family. In the IT industry, educated women pay huge dowries to marry men who are better educated than themselves and hold better jobs.
In North India, dowries have always been much larger and weddings more lavish than in the south. And it was there that doctors first advertised the sex determination test as a miraculous way of saving money!
“Pay Rs 5,000 now and save Rs 50,000 later,” was their slogan.
Today there are no girls left to pay dowry in women-starved areas of Punjab and Haryana and the men have to “buy” wives from tribal areas. Not that these women are treated better because a price was paid to acquire them. They are subjected to the same kind of abuse that a dowry-paying wife faces.
Dowry has become one of the largest silent killers of women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, around 25,000 women were either killed or committed suicide due to dowry harassment by their in-laws between 2012 and 2014. And 30,000 cases of dowry were registered during the same period of time.
Obviously this is just the very tip of the iceberg. For every high profile dowry death, there are thousands which go unnoticed. Dowry deaths are often passed off as cooking accidents, suicide due to ill health or psychiatric problems. Many families do not report harassment or even death fearing social stigma.
As long as we, as a society, continue to normalise dowry as something acceptable, and as long as we continue to feed our daughters into the dowry trap, nothing will change.
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