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The loss of inheritance

Should we not think more before we usher in new clauses to the Dowry Prohibition Act,1961,which will most likely be impossible to implement?

Should we not think more before we usher in new clauses to the Dowry Prohibition Act,1961,which will most likely be impossible to implement? According to a news report (IE,19 January 2010),the government is planning to extend the provisions of the act by making “it mandatory for couples to notify the gifts exchanged during the wedding ceremony before the dowry prohibition officer”. The rule is expected to come up before the Cabinet this month.

As usual,one cannot fault the intention to give the anti-dowry law some teeth. And the desire to extend its coverage is a clear admission that dowry remains a robust and flourishing custom. The new rules seek to address a loophole in the law which allows parents to give ‘gifts’ to daughters. However,good intentions do not necessarily make good policy. The new proposals are ridiculous and invasive,and attempt to govern people’s lives even more without providing concomitant benefits. These rules merely spell further opportunity for graft.

The report states that “the list of gifts worth Rs. 5000 has to be notarised in the form of a sworn affidavit to be signed by a protection officer or a dowry prohibition officer and kept by both parties”. There are several problems with this. First,it would serve no purpose to notarise a list of gifts worth Rs. 5000 or even a larger sum when everyone knows that dowry amounts and gifts can easily run into lakhs. Even housemaids and rural labourers pay higher dowries. And it is a laughable sum for those giving and receiving Honda City cars or refrigerators or sets of jewellery worth many times more than Rs.5000. And some delicious ambiguity in the law — do gifts above Rs. 5000 go scot-free? Or is it that gifts above Rs. 5000 have to be reported? Also,who will police whether everything has been listed or not?

Other clauses mention that dowry givers will be charged a lesser penalty and that registration of gifts will allow a woman to claim these back if need be. Yes,no doubt,women should get back their jewellery,cash and substantial goods if they suffer dowry harassment and wish to leave the marriage. But how easy this is going to be can be gauged from any one claiming maintenance and child support through Indian courts. And claiming back of dowry gifts is barely a solution to dowry harassment or violence or breakdown of the marital relationship. Correctly recognising the fact that dowry is not a one-time transaction,the definition of dowry is being widened to include gifts given before the marriage,at the time,and at any time after the marriage. But how will this be regulated?

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Let us recapitulate what we know about dowry today. Dowry giving and receiving,rather than having disappeared,has only spread to more parts of the country,covering many more castes,classes and communities. The reasons are several. Greater emphasis on consumerism fuels the desire for more consumer goods which can be acquired by demanding dowry from hapless parents who feel they have to marry off their daughters at any cost (here the necessity of marriage itself is at fault). Cash dowries can be used as a source of funds for young males who wish to acquire more skills through expensive education or training,or set up new businesses or — simply to get their hands on a large amount of cash at one go. Withdrawal from work of lower and middle class women whose marital families have gained some measure of prosperity,leading to their ‘housewifisation’. Such women are then perceived as ‘unproductive burdens’ on in-laws and for who parents must pay dowry at the time of marriage and maintenance subsequently.

Emulation or copying of social superiors or neighbours plays no less a role in the spread of dowry. Dowry continues to be demanded by so-called educated Indians — foremost among them doctors,engineers and IAS officers. The expected future income of a male is quickly translated into an appropriate dowry amount by mathematically adept Indians. Even unemployed engineers in places like Bihar are known to command a fairly hefty dowry. We still consider marriage accompanied by dowry the ideal honourable marriage; it has replaced bride-price among various rural and low caste communities with everyone striving to conform to what was largely a pernicious upper caste norm.

An interesting reason for the contemporary survival of dowry is young women demanding dowry for themselves (especially in the form of branded goods) as they see it as their one-time chance at getting an inheritance. Inheritance,I believe,is the key to the whole dowry problem. Ensuring equal transmission of property to daughters (now made possible by the new Hindu Succession Act) by society and by government will be the only effective weapon against dowry – it happened in Europe and it should happen here. And young girls,instead of demanding dowry,should demand equal inheritance. When parents begin giving inheritance to daughters,the need for dowry will be obviated. With equal inheritance,parents can expect support from children of either sex thus addressing another dimension of discrimination against girls and women and its fatal consequence — female foeticide.


The writer is professor,sociology and social anthropology at the Indian Institute of Technology,Delhi

First published on: 23-01-2010 at 02:26:08 am
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