Bound unto death

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2009, 12:00am

In her final conversation with her father, Sangeeta Todarmal whispered on the phone that her husband and in-laws had tried to suffocate her with a towel in the bathroom while her three-year-old son looked on, screaming. A chance knock at the door by a neighbour saved her. 'Papa, I'm scared. I don't think they will ever stop,' she said.

Two days later, last Saturday, her father, Dinesh Prakash, received a call from the police informing him that his daughter was dead.

He had known that she was being tortured for more dowry - last month, she was beaten with a cricket bat - but he kept hoping, against his better judgment, that it would stop.

On Saturday morning, her life ended where so many Indian women's have - in a hospital burn unit, this one in Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi.

'Her father-in-law told the police her sari had caught fire when she was cooking. But I know they murdered my daughter,' Mr Prakash said. 'I should have brought her home. I failed my little girl.'

During her beatings, Todarmal had been ordered to get 500,000 rupees (HK$80,400) from her father. Mr Prakash, a retired schoolteacher, said he had handed over all he had - 100,000 rupees - and begged the family not to hit her any more.

He told the police that he believed his daughter was killed for more dowry. The husband and in-laws have been arrested.

While it is a deep tragedy for Mr Prakash, Todarmal's death is merely the latest 'dowry death' for the newspapers, almost as routine as a weather forecast. Every day in India, women are killed over such demands.

On the day the alleged killing was reported, the newspapers also carried a story about a woman who had been shaved and paraded naked in a village by her husband for not bringing enough dowry.

This deeply entrenched custom flourishes, despite almost 50 years of anti-dowry laws, fines and jail terms of up to six months for dowry-givers and takers - plus numerous campaigns to stop the mistreatment of a bride to extract a bigger dowry from her parents.

The National Crime Records Bureau says more than 8,100 dowry deaths occur every year, up from 2,209 in 1998 and 4,840 in 1990.

The woman invariably dies after kerosene is poured on her and she is set on fire. In New Delhi, a woman is burned to death every 12 hours.

These are the official dowry statistics. Most cases are reported by the in-laws as accidents or suicides. The woman's family finds it hard to prove it was murder. Women's groups put the real figure much higher, at 25,000 deaths a year.

Dowry abuse is rising, fuelled by greed, as Indians witness a new affluence borne of the economic boom of the past decade.

There is a new hunger to acquire the latest mobile phone and car, a bigger apartment, and swanky electronic gadgets.

'The quickest way to get the money to open a new business or trade in your motorcycle for a car is to force the wife to go and ask her parents for money,' said Rekha Dube, a marriage counsellor at the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi.

In 2003, excitement rippled through the nation when Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student, dumped her bridegroom because he made a last-minute demand for 25,000 rupees in cash just before the marriage ceremony. Ms Sharma's parents had already given him a car, gold and household appliances.

Her courage and defiance, backed by her parents, seemed to show a way out of the age-old maze in which Indian families were trapped.

'Nisha was an educated modern woman refusing to be treated like [a cash machine]. What she did was sensational and uplifting, and there have been other examples,' said Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association.

Ms Karat and other women's groups had hoped Ms Sharma's behaviour would be a catalyst for change, emboldening brides' parents and deterring bridegrooms' families.

Indeed, the occasional 'copycat' story has surfaced. In Lucknow, for example, a bridegroom who demanded a computer midway through the marriage ceremony had his face blackened by the bride's livid family, who strung a garland of shoes around him and sent him packing.

The bride's father, an electrician, had already handed over his life savings of 65,000 rupees, furniture, kitchen utensils and gold ornaments as a dowry. Police are now hunting the man.

But such cases are isolated. The fact remains that Indian parents - rich or poor, educated or illiterate, urban or rural - obediently provide a dowry, no matter how much they might loathe it, because their daughters will never marry otherwise.

Yet efforts to eradicate dowry payments are continuing. When Rasika Tyagi, vice-president of programming at the Star Plus television channel, recently launched a matrimonial programme to help young Indians find partners, she imposed only one caveat.

She asks the bridegroom beforehand if he expects a dowry. If he gives her the usual slippery answer - 'If the girl's family want to give me gifts, how can I refuse?' - she refuses to have him on the show.

'Anyone who believes a woman can only be accepted as a wife if she brings 'compensation' in the form of money and goods cannot appear on the programme,' Ms Tyagi said. 'It offends me and it's against the law. It's the only restriction I've imposed.'

In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India and the size of France, the government has declared it will sack any of its 200,000 civil servants found guilty of demanding or accepting a dowry.

The difficulty, of course, is proving it. Unless someone exposes the civil servant, how is anyone to know that a dowry was given?

'This order may make a few civil servants more careful about not being caught, but policies and laws are ineffective until you have a revolution in people's thinking, until society accepts a girl as the equal of a boy,' said Mohini Giri, former chairwoman of the National Commission for Women.

The dowry custom is deep-rooted among Hindus, the majority community in India. But it is also rising among Muslims.

The latest attempt to eradicate it comes from religious leaders who have launched a nationwide campaign in which clerics, during Friday prayers, will urge Muslims to reject the idea.

In Islam, it is the bride who is to receive a dowry, or mahr, from the bridegroom as security in case the marriage fails.

But so powerful is the wider culture in which Muslims live that the practice of a groom demanding a dowry has spread.

'I am disturbed at the number of dowry-related deaths happening among Muslims,' Mohammad Salim Qasimi of the influential Islamic seminary the Darul Uloom Deoband said.

'This curse is spreading like an epidemic. We have to attack it aggressively.'

Mr Qasimi said that if the campaign failed to show results, the seminary might issue a fatwa, or decree.

His determination impressed Asha Aggarwal, a 72-year-old Hindu who has campaigned against dowries for 25 years after her daughter, Nina, was pushed over a balcony by her husband because he wanted a new television. After his wife's death, he remarried, promptly getting a second dowry.

Arthritic and frail, Ms Aggarwal is still fighting in the courts to have her daughter's killer punished. Her deepest fear is that she will die before seeing justice done.

She wishes that her own community's religious leaders would speak out against dowries. 'Hindu priests never stand up and condemn dowry as an evil, a sin,' Ms Aggarwal said. 'They're happy to protest against something like homosexuality being legalised but not about innocent young women being killed.'