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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Correcting for bias

Investigative and legal processes should address the unequal context that dowry laws operate in.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: July 4, 2014 12:35:54 am

The fear against dowry has been central to most strands of India’s social reform movements. In its most immediate manifestation, the demand for dowry exposed women to bodily harm, even death. In more diffuse ways, the demand for dowry and the harassment of women and their families is a symptom of a social order where gender equality remains out of reach. To fight dowry, therefore, is to battle on many fronts; for the individual, recourse to the law for justice and protection, and for changing society — not only because the giving and taking of dowry continues in a collusive manner between the bride and groom’s families, but also because it is clear that there is still not enough social opprobrium to inhibit its demand. Dowry and the crimes done in its pursuit are reminders of this country’s failure to step out of social backwardness.

This is why the Supreme Court’s order restraining police in all states from “automatically” arresting the accused in dowry cases needs scrutiny. It asked police personnel to first determine what purpose an arrest would serve in the case at hand. The court referred to the large number of arrests made under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, but it is unclear how this may affect other laws protecting women from harassment, like the Domestic Violence Act.

More importantly, it is useful to recall the reasons why the law has been progressively strengthened. It was not only that by 1983, when section 498A was included in the IPC, it was obvious that existing legislation was not effective enough — the rash of cases of women “accidentally” being burnt to death left nobody in doubt about that. In a larger sense, it was seen that the system, the sites of legal recourse, the police station, the court, as much as the home, exhales a patriarchal acceptance of dowry. The law needed to be strengthened to empower the victim in a system disinclined to take a firm, unforgiving view of dowry.

Of course, in any case a policeman should ask himself what purpose an arrest serves. But there needs to be an acknowledgement of the context of disempowerment that creates dowry, which has not abated. The answer lies in fair, non-discriminatory legal processes.

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