PUCL Bulletin,

September 1982

Dowry atrocities and the State

Although the newspapers have been reporting a dowry death almost every day in recent weeks and women's organizations are doing their utmost to highlight the increasing incidence of these gruesome events, it is doubtful whether this concern is matched by a corresponding concern on the part of the agencies of the State like the police and the judiciary.

There is nothing to show that the police are becoming either more vigilant so as to prevent dowry atrocities or more energetic in investigating such cases. There are repeated complaints not only of lack of cooperation from the police but also of actual resistance to registering cases against the in-laws of the victims. Sometimes they are forced to register cases as a result of pressure from the girl's family or from women's organizations but even then vital evidence is often ignored. Later when memories of the tragic incident begin to face the police change their stand and start dragging evidence and this frequently associated with bribery and corruption.

Since the attitude of the police is not merely indifferent but actually hostile' the question of preventing policing hardly arises, even though almost everyone in a neighbourhood knows what is happening to the women who are being harassed, and it must be possible to prevent dowry deaths before we are faced with women on stretchers with third degree burns. But far from considering preventive policing, various organizations of the government seems to be blind to even the directives of the Union Home Ministry. The newspapers of October 7, 1982, carried a news item stating that the Union Home Ministry had issued instructions to State governments that serious note should be taken by the police of all cases of attempted suicide or death under suspicious circumstances of young married women during the first ten years of their marriage. It also called for stern steps to combat offences against women and dowry deaths.

These steps were outlined by the Union Home Minister on October 6, 1982 in a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha. The police authorities in the capital, even though they were right under the nose of the Union Home Ministry, had either not received these instructions or paid no heed to such directives, because the following day a young woman who was six months pregnant by gasping for breath in Safdarjung Hospital with 90 per cent burns and there was no one to record her dying declaration. The victim had earlier made a brief statement in which she had alleged harassment by her mother-in-law. Subsequently she wished to make a fuller statement but the authorities refused to record it. When pressurized by the worker of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, a women's organization the DCP agreed to send a magistrate but actually did nothing. Meanwhile the woman's condition deteriorated All that the Samiti could do was to tape her statement. But the doctors on duty refused to be witnesses. The statement itself is not likely to be acceptable in a court of law.

Similarly the courts also do not seem to have done their duty with any degree of diligence in dowry-deaths. As a newspaper editorial pointed out, there is no known instance of any court having ordered the police to continue an investigation. Hardly any of the cases registered reach the stage of conviction and deterrent punishments are even rarer. Acquittals are common, as happened in the case of Veena Nagaraj, a woman sub-inspector who was burnt to death. Her five year old son testified to the father sprinkling kerosene over her and setting her ablaze. The court however acquitted the husband.

The attitude of the authorities has resulted increasingly in a sense of disillusionment with the government apathy and lack of commitment in dealing effectively with these disturbing and heinous deaths. Women Members of Parliament have complained about the fact that the sympathies of the investigating officers lay not with the victim but with the culprits. Even the Speaker of the Lok Sabha has blamed the police for lacking the will and commitment necessary to handle this social evil. The growing loss of faith in the police and the judiciary is driving people to self-destruction and desperate actions. In a recent incident the demonstrating crowd became violent when they heard from the victim's relations and friends of the torture and harassment faced by the deceased. The crowd rained stones on the house of the in-laws, smashing all the windows to pieces. In another striking example a mother of our children was burnt to death in her in-law's house. Her brother who knew that she had been harassed for many years, came from Mathura and walked into the house, fuming with anger. A violent quarrel ensued and the enraged brother picked up an ice pick and attacked the in-laws, killing the mother-in-law on the spot.

Similarly a spontaneous reaction to a gruesome murder of a young wife in Pilakva led to an anarchic act of violence. The victim, who was married about a year before her death, had been beaten regularly by her in-laws and kept confined to her rooms during the day. She was being harassed with demands for dowry. The neighbours began to boycott the family for its ill treatment of the daughter-in-law. The young woman was then taken back to her parents and left with them. When the young wife tried to return to her in-laws she was refused entry but when she sat on the steps she was brutally murdered. The post-mortem report indicated death by strangulation; the body was burnt using kerosene and then thrown down from the second floor balcony.

As word of the heinous crime spread in the neighbourhood then the town, a crowd began to collect and shops shut down. In a burst of spontaneous anger the large crowd which had gathered outside the house became violent. The husband and his three brothers ran away, but some persons in the crowd grabbed hold of the mother-in-law and father-in-law. The two were stripped and dragged through the streets of Pilakua with the enraged crowd beating them.

If these spontaneous bursts of violence are not to be repeated the government must act to restore their credibility in the eyes of their people. They must back their statements in Parliament and outside with concrete actions for everyone to see. The community too must assert itself to prevent the deaths from occurring. A beginning has been made recently by Manushi, a women's group, in outlining the need for preventive action. If only we could expect the same from the Government?


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