New Delhi: A* gazed at the wall in silence, while a younger cousin spoke nervously, struggling to keep her emotions in check. A’s younger sister B, 28 years old, died on 27 June 2022, hours after setting herself ablaze.
According to the upper middle class Hindu family, B was being pressured by her husband for dowry. A resident of Delhi’s Paschim Vihar, he owned a small restaurant in the national capital.
“There was occasional domestic violence as well,” according to A.
At the time of her death, B was pregnant. She had just broken the news to her family.
“The day she died, my mother spoke to her in the morning and she mentioned her pregnancy,” said A, still coming to terms with the loss of his sister. “By evening, we were looking at her burnt body.”
India recorded more than 6,700 cases of dowry-related deaths in 2021. In 2019, the country reported more than 7,100 dowry deaths, a marginal decline, which, experts said, was not a particularly hopeful sign.
More than 18 women die every day in violence connected with the practice of seeking or giving dowry, outlawed more than six decades ago.
Dowry involves the culture of the bride’s family giving durable goods, cash and property to the groom, his parents and his relatives, based on a condition laid down at the time of finalising the matrimonial alliance.
The system puts intense pressure on the bride and her family—many families take loans to comply with the demands made, and many continue to receive and fulfill demands during the course of the early years of the marriage.
The law has been useful only to a limited extent.
‘Insignificant Statistical Fluctuation’
According to the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, those guilty of accepting or giving dowry may face imprisonment up to six months, or a fine up to Rs 5,000, or both.
The police have the power to make arrests in cases where domestic violence is reported, under section 498 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. Under section 304 B of the IPC, those found guilty of causing a dowry death may face a prison term of seven years to life imprisonment.
Despite the stringent legal provisions, the practice is far from eliminated.
While India recorded a marginal decline of about 0.2% in the number of dowry deaths, from more than 7,100 in 2019 to 6,753 in 2021, the total number of cases rose. As many as 13,534 cases under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 were registered in 2021, a 25% increase from the numbers registered in 2020 (10,046), according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Meeran Chadha Borwankar, PhD, retired director general of police who headed the Bureau of Police Research & Development and the NCRB, said the decrease in the number of dowry deaths may not signify an improvement in the situation.
“Considering two years of Covid, I do not think this is a significant decrease,” said Borwankar. “Citizens, especially women, could not reach police stations and it could be a reason for lesser registration.”
The issue of dowry must not be pushed under the carpet “under the guise of insignificant statistical fluctuation”, said Borwankar, who is also a member of Article 14’s advisory board.
Dowry, A Universal Indian Demand
Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, registered the maximum number of dowry cases in 2021—4,594. This was followed by Bihar (3,362), the third most populous state; Karnataka (1,845), the eighth most populous; and Jharkhand (1,805), ranked 14th by state population.
Adjusted for population, the states that reported the highest number of dowry cases were Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and UP, indicating that demands for dowry had no correlation with literacy rate, violence against married women and income levels.
Consider the top two states by number of dowry cases per capita, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand.
– In Jharkhand, 31.5% of ever-married women aged 18-49 experienced spousal violence, compared to 15.1% in Uttarakhand.
– Jharkhand is one of India’s poorest states, with an estimated per capita income of Rs 75,587 in 2021; the per capita income in Uttarakhand is more than double at Rs 176,744.
While UP also recorded the highest number of crimes against women at 15,828 cases, Karnataka, and Jharkhand did not count among the worst five states in general crimes against women in the year 2021, according to the NCRB.
‘Cases Linger For Years’
In a statement she gave the police just before she died, B said her husband and mother-in-law had mentally harassed her for dowry.
Her husband was arrested and denied bail on 27 July, while his mother continued to be “on the run”, according to police.
The family, however, has alleged that the police were avoiding making a second arrest and that the investigation was proceeding at a very slow pace.
The investigating officer at the Paschim Vihar police station, police inspector Sunil Kumar, told Article 14 investigations continued.
“While we are investigating the case, regular raids are also being conducted to find the mother-in-law who is absconding,” said Kumar.
Since death was involved, the case was transferred to an inspector, also the station house officer, instead of being investigated by an assistant police sub-inspector or sub-inspector. “The chargesheet will be filed when the investigation is completed,” said Kumar.
A said he was prepared to fight even if the case dragged on.
Social activist Shabnam Hashmi, founder of non-profit ANHAD, which works on gender and social violence, said the situation had worsened and trials stretched over years.
“I feel getting justice earlier was easy and that the time period was smaller,” said Hashmi. “Whatever cases we are handling, they keep on lingering for years and almost nothing moves.”
Sometimes, No Arrests Despite Evidence
Delhi resident Karan Batra, 38, was stressed and emotionally drained from the regular visits to the court.
Karan Batra is the brother of Anissia Batra, an airhostess who allegedly jumped off the terrace of her home in South Delhi’s Panchsheel Park, a tony locality in India’s capital.
Anissia Batra, 39, was a flight attendant with Lufthansa, while the accused, her husband Mayank Singhvi, is a businessman.
On 13 July 2018 reports emerged that Anissia Batra had jumped from the terrace. The matter was widely reported and was eventually considered to be a suicide.
Anissia Batra’s family alleged that she was being harassed for dowry and that her husband had verbally and physically attacked her.
The case reached the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court, where Singhvi’s bail was rejected. His family, who have also been named, have not yet been arrested.
In February 2020, the Batra family filed an appeal in the Delhi high court after the trial court dropped section 304 B (dowry death) from the chargesheet.
“There is so much evidence on record,” said Karan Batra. “It is still yet to come up (in the Delhi high court). That was back in 2020 and now we are in September 2022.”
While the trial drags on, the victim’s family suffered in many ways, said Karan Batra.
“For an individual like me, who also works, it is hard to literally leave everything aside and sit in the court the whole day or figure out what needs to be done, while court dates keep coming,” said Karan Batra.
He said he was aware that justice for his sister would be a long and hard journey. He would continue to fight, he added.
Low Conviction Rate In Cases Of Cruelty By Husband
An Indian government advertisement on road safety, tweeted by Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and featuring Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, attracted criticism for appearing to normalise the practice of dowry.
Kumar, who plays a policeman in the advertisement, makes a comment about a newly married couple in a car with "just two airbags”. A new car arrives, and the groom counts six airbags.
While the video notched up over a million views, many felt the indication that the new car was a gift from the bride’s father promoted an outlawed practice.
“This is such a problematic advertisement,” tweeted member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi on 11 September 2022. “Who passes such creatives? Is the government spending money to promote the safety aspect of a car or promoting the evil & criminal act of dowry through this ad?”
In 1983, the government introduced section 498 A through an amendment to the IPC, making acts of cruelty and harassment towards the wife by her husband and parents-in-law a criminal offence. This 1983 law not only included dowry, but also other acts of cruelty.
Under this section of law, men or their family members found guilty of mental or physical cruelty to their wives face imprisonment up to three years, in addition to a penalty. The offence was made cognisable (allowing a police officer to make an arrest as per law, without a warrant), non-compoundable (complaints cannot be withdrawn) and non-bailable (only a court may grant bail).
According to reports, from 2006 to 2017, an annual average increase of 10% was observed in the number of pending cases under section 498 A. In 2017, there was a drop in the number of pending cases. In 2018, the number of pending cases under this section once again rose by 6% over the previous year.
Meanwhile, conviction rates of cases under section 498 A slipped from 21.9% in 2006 to 13% in 2018.
A Clamour To Dilute The Law
In 2018, only one out of every seven cases under section 498 A resulted in conviction. That year, convictions under this section were nearly a quarter of the conviction rate of all IPC crimes
This period also witnessed a clamour to dilute the law.
In March 2015, then union minister of state for home affairs Haribhai Chaudhary told the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, that "quite a large number of cases (under section 498A) were found to be false".
‘Men’s rights’ groups claimed, among other things, that the low conviction rate was evidence of a flood of false cases under the section.
Law and gender rights experts have said the bogey of false cases was created by men’s groups—prominent women’s rights activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes called it “propaganda”.
Cases that languished in courts for years and end in women making compromises with the accused must not be categorised as false, Agnes wrote.
“... the presumption that women are misusing this legal provision will gain further validity through its sensationalisation in the media, and it will be impossible to file any case under this section in future,” wrote Agnes, “even in cases of extreme domestic violence. This will render the lives of thousands of women from poor and marginalised sections even more perilous.”
Data Suggest Under-Reporting Of Domestic Violence
A district level judge in Delhi, on the condition of anonymity, said that while there may have been false complaints, cases of domestic cruelty to wives were in fact grossly under-reported.
“For every two fake cases, there are five genuine cases where the victim does not come forward unless it's too late," the judge told Article 14.
Borwankar also said there were, in fact, few fake cases under section 498 A. The low conviction rate was on account of complainants and witnesses not supporting the prosecution in courts, she added.
“Maybe there is some exaggeration, but totally, false cases are very rare,” said Borwnkar. “Low conviction rate is mainly due to the fact that families try to reach a compromise after registering police complaints.”
Often, only cases where the woman dies by suicide or is killed are pursued to their logical conclusion, she said. “Even in such cases I have seen families reaching some kind of compromises,” she added.
Hashmi, on the other hand, said that changes in the law have only stopped women from coming forward, despite a rise in the number of cases filed.
Raminder Kaur, a Delhi high court lawyer, said that for every dowry case filed, there were thousands of others, including incidents of domestic violence, that were not reported.
“Only a fraction of these cases ever sees the light of the day,” said Kaur.
According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted in 2019-21, 29.3% of ever-married women in the 18-49 years bracket had suffered some form of spousal violence.
There is no evidence to back the narrative that section 498 A is misused.
Journalist and researcher Shalini Nair contended in a 2018 report that while National Family Health Survey-3 data (2005-06) showed that 40% of ‘ever-married women’ in the 15-49 age group had experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands, the number of cases filed under 498 A in 2017 according to NCRB data, was only 104,551, indicating widespread under-reporting.
For FIR On Cruelty, Women First Undergo Mediation
In 2014, the Supreme Court forbade automatic arrests of those named in a woman’s complaint under section 498 A. The apex court also issued directions to be followed while dealing with cases under this section.
Three years later, in 2017, the court further directed that family welfare committees at the district level were to be set up by the District Legal Services Authority to look into all cases reported under section 498 A.
These committees would submit their reports within a month, after which an investigation officer will be assigned to investigate the case. This directive was modified by another order in 2018.
According to inspector Kumar, the investigating officer in the Paschim Vihar case said, “When police receive a section 498 A complaint, the woman and her husband are sent to the Crime Against Women (CAW) cell for intervention, before the FIR is registered.”
“We get dowry cases on a routine basis,” said Kumar. “But before that, when someone is alleging anything, we send them to the mediation centres.”
Across India’s police stations, the CAW cell is tasked with handling mediation. If a case is found to fail under appropriate sections, a case may be registered, said Kumar.
Under section 498 A, it is now mandatory for families to go through the CAW procedure. In some cases, this process may take two to three months before an FIR is registered.
Hashmi said that after 2014, authorities have been “openly seen supporting the perpetrators”, and that ultimately, it was the woman who suffered. “Women now have a hard time believing they will get justice,” she said.
Court orders made registration of FIRs and court proceedings slow, prompting many women to look for out of court settlements just to spare themselves the trauma, said Hashmi, who said women needed safe homes that they could turn to when in need.
“These homes should give shelter for a period of time till the time a woman can stabilise herself,” said Hashmi.
Fear Of Society, Silent Approval For Dowry
C*, a resident of Bihar’s capital Patna, continued to relive the trauma of her past even years later. Married to a software engineer in 2019, she moved to Bengaluru to be with her husband.
Within a few days of the wedding, she began to be harassed for dowry, she said. “My mother-in-law kept dissing me for bringing in such a small dowry.” Her dowry included a car and jewelry, as well as jewelry for her husband’s family members.
Soon after, verbal abuse and domestic violence began.
“He slept around with women, threatened me and beat me up occasionally,” said C. Coming from an educated background, having completed a master’s degree in social sciences in the United States, C had never imagined she could have such an experience.
The 28-year-old social worker separated from her husband within a year, but has not filed for divorce. She said despite coming from a supportive family, leaving her husband had been a difficult decision.
“It was partly trauma attachment and partly the fear of society,” said C. Trauma attachment refers to abuse or distress emanating from a person who is a close relation or a caregiver.
Batra said that when his sister approached the police after she faced domestic violence, she was told it was a personal matter and should be dealt with at home.
“We have to understand that the society we live in does not promote somebody standing up or taking action,” he said. “It's a society which doesn't like to talk about things which are domestic in nature.”
Anissia Batra, the flight attendant, was in the process of filing for divorce when she allegedly died by suicide.
While dowry is a crime, it still is common practice. According to Karan Batra, the dowry system has changed—nobody asks for it upfront any more, he said.
His sister was a financially independent woman, he said, who was slowly broken down as her marital family attacked her financial independence. He said they pushed her to sell off her properties, among other things.
“I think towards the end of the period, she just lost hope,” said Karan Batra.
Borwankar, the former DGP, said that economic independence of girls would be a major step to reduce demand for dowry.
“It is a social issue more than a criminal one,” said Borwankar. “There is a silent acceptance and approval of dowry.”
(Nikita Jain is an independent journalist based in Delhi.)
*Names changed on request