The modern definition of the Dowry System in India is as follows.
Dowry is a payment of cash or valuable gifts from the bride’s family to the bridegroom upon marriage.
This menace of Dowry has become a social menace in modern India leading to the oppression on women, physical violence on the bride, causing a financial and emotional stress on the parents of the bride, marital conflict and so on. This menace exists even today in the society even though it is a criminal offence to take Dowry during marriage.
The Status of Women in Ancient Indian Society
But what is the real history of this menace. Did it always exist in the Indian society? Was Indian society always oppressive of its women? On the one hand we have the ancient scriptures which talk about women with such high respect. The most powerful God in Hinduism is the female Goddess. Saraswati is the Goddess of Knowledge, not Brahma. Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth, not Vishnu. Parvathi is the Goddess of Power and Energy, not Shiva.
We only hear about Swayamvar in the ancient Hindu marriage traditions where it was the bride who decided whom to marry. There was no Swayamvadhu, the groom could not hold beauty contests to decide which bride to marry. Instead it was the girl who in a Swayamvar, would put all the competing potential bridegrooms to different contests and then select the bridegroom whom she liked. In the Swayamvar of Sita in Ramayana, Rama had to lift the Shiva’s bow to prove that he was eligible to marry Sita. In the Swayamvar in Mahabharatha, Arjuna had to hit the eye of the fish rotating above by only looking at the fish’s reflection in a pool of oil below.
So if this was the importance given to women in our tradition, then when and where did this contradiction of the menace of dowry enter our society? We don’t find any instances of dowry related violence in the literature of ancient times. Not even in the literature belonging to the pre-colonial era of India. So when did the Indian society adopt the evil version of dowry which has created numerous social problems in the Indian society ranging from female foeticide, violence on married women, financial stress on parents of girl child, imbalance in male-female ratio, broken marriages, mistrust between families, etc.
Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, a well researched book by Veena Talwar Oldenburg tries to answer this question. In this book, the author follows the paper trail left by British bureaucrats during the British Colonial rule of India. And then there are personal accounts from women in India including author’s own personal account on the system of Dowry. And what gets revealed after all this path breaking research and analysis, gives a huge blow to the very theory of Dowry being directly responsible for the status of women in the Indian society and goes on to prove how a system meant to actually benefit the married woman got converted during the British Rule into a system which ended up harming the very woman who was supposed to benefit from it.
The Original Institution of Dowry in Pre-Colonial India
Yes, the system of Dowry existed in India even before the British Rule, but not in the format that is prevalent in the society today. In the pre-colonial period, dowry was an institution managed by women, for women, to enable them to establish their status and have recourse in an emergency. In this ancient system of dowry, the parents of the bride, even her kith and kin, all gave wealth to her in the form of valuable gifts etc. It was just like how parents used to give a part of wealth to their sons, so did they give it to their daughters too during the daughter’s marriage. What is very important to be noted here is that, the valuables or the wealth was given to the bride, and NOT to the groom or his family. In other words, the dowry wealth continued to be owned by the wife and not by the husband or his family. This gave the required financial independence to women who would even manage the income from their agricultural land , etc.
So in the original system of dowry prevalent in India, women were gifted wealth from their parents during marriage and this served as a tool of financial independence for the bride even after marriage.
Even during the initial days of the British rule, contemporary European writers Orme, the French Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who came to India in 1792, Malcom etc have praised the status of Hindu women in India. Malcom says that the Hindu women
“have a say in the affairs of the state, have a distinct provision and estate of their own, enjoy as much as liberty they desire”.
Malcom also praises women rulers like Ahalya Bai of being great administrators.
So when did the wrong turn take place?
The Permanent Settlement of Bengal – The British Land Reforms of India
It all started with the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793 by the British under Lord Cornwallis. This enabled private ownership of land which was unknown in India till then. Private ownership of land was never practiced in India in the past. The land always belonged to the government and people only settled in the government’s land. If there was a flood in one place, people used to move on to another place in the kingdom. By introducing the permanent settlement, the British enabled the private ownership of land in India. All modern day real estate related violence in the country could hence be traced back to this act by the British. People there after started fighting over land.
It was this system which also created the system of Zamindars or landlords in India. Very few realize that the Zamindari system of landlords who ill treated peasants was created by the British rule. Till then, the zamindars were not land lords, but only tax collectors, collectors of land revenue who used to collect it from the farmers and hand it over to the local government. The Britishers converted these tax collectors into zamindars giving them the ownership of that land, and using them as a means to loot the farmers in the name of more tax. The zamindar or the landlord now owned the land, and it was hereditary ie the children of the landlords became the inheritors of the land.
The peasants on the other hand, suffered from this Permanent Settlement. They were left entirely at the mercy of their landlords, who also had share a in the production and which was not fixed! In the Pre-British system, kingdoms collected tax only during the times of surplus or sufficient growth, and the tax was used for the betterment of the society. But in the British rule, tax or Lagaan was collected irrespective of whether there was a famine or a flood, and tax rates were extremely high. It was looting in the daylight. Remember the movie Lagaan?
Prohibition of Property Rights for Women under the British Rule
But the move which affected the status of the women in the Indian society was the rule imposed by the British which prohibited the women from owning any property at all! And this was what created the menace of dowry system in India.
In the existing system, parents used to give wealth and valuable gifts to their daughters during marriage. And the bride continued to own this wealth even after her marriage and it provided the wife financial independence and there was usually no need for a wife to depend on her husband for her financial needs.
In fact, the situation even in 1870s was that,
In 49 separate volumes of customary law covering colonial Punjab, which today comprises Pakistan and Indian Punjab, Haryana, Jammu, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, dowry has been described in the 1870s as a collection of voluntary gifts comprising clothes, jewellery, household goods and cash bestowed on the bride by family and friends at the time of the girl’s wedding. Nowhere was it described as the prerogative of the groom to make demands on the girl’s family. But the British at that time had not granted their own women property rights, so it was highly unlikely they would do so for Indian women. – Dowry murder as a legacy of British policies
But once the British prohibited women from having any property rights, it meant that all the wealth that a woman got from her parents would be owned by her husband instead. And the moment, this system of husband owning the wealth of his wife was created, the traditional dowry system got converted into a menace creating an institution of greed that oppressed, victimized and suppressed women. The greed that kicked in created a system where husband and his family started looking at the incoming bride as a source of property and wealth, the male dominated society became greedy, husband and in-laws started demanding more dowry from the bride and her parents. The social harmony and the bonding created by the institution of marriage was gone. Marriage became just another business deal, where making wealth was more easy. Male child became an additional source of income, and female child became a financial burden on the family. This led to the creation of the social problems like female foeticide and an imbalance in male-female ratio in the society, which further led to more crimes on women.
After the British prohibited women the right to own or inherit property, until 1956 the women in India did not have the right to inherit property from their parents. It was only in 1956 that the Hindu Personal laws were amended giving the right to women to inherit ancestral property.
But again those rights were not equal to those of men. Sons had an independent share in the ancestral property, while the daughters’ shares were based on the share received by their father. Hence, a father could effectively disinherit a daughter by renouncing his share of the ancestral property, but the son will continue to have a share in his own right. Additionally, married daughters, even those facing marital harassment, had no residential rights in the ancestral home.
IT WAS ONLY as recently as in 2005, when the Hindu laws were amended again, now providing women equal status with men in terms of ancestral property.
Please note that, we are only talking about Hindu women here, because that is how the law system we inherited from the British is. The British based on their divide and rule policy created different laws for different religions. Prior to that the laws in India varied based on geography, and not based on religion or caste of the person.
Successive governments in independent India have retained most of the laws we inherited from the British without much amendments. Hence today unfortunately, personal laws are different in India depending on which religion the person belongs to. For Muslim women and Christian women, the rights are even less. In fact, the Rajiv Gandhi government while in power in 1986 passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act just to nullify the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shah Bano Case which had ordered the husband to provide maintenance money to his divorced wife, Shah Bano.
The marriage of Christians in India is still regulated by the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 and and the Indian Divorce Act 1869. These acts were considered unfair to women, and the Christian Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Bill 1990 was proposed as a replacement, but no progress has been achieved into converting this bill into a law.
Strange that while we call ourselves a civilized society, we are fine with the personal laws being different for men and women depending on which religion one belongs to. And even strange is the fact that the calls for a Uniform Civil Code in the country which seeks uniform laws to all citizens irrespective of their religion is being frowned upon as being communal!