A string of dowry-related deaths in Kerala has caught the attention of the media over the past few weeks. While our society has struggled with the issue of dowry for decades, these deaths seem to have brought back the problem into the public consciousness.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in response to the public outcry, has called for reform in the prevailing system of marriage itself – and termed the dowry system 'barbaric and degrading'.
The Kerala government has also declared a series of measures to address the problem – fast-track courts and police helplines being the primary interventions. However, media reports suggest a different mood.
The call is for public action, a social movement to rid society of the menace of dowry. This vision is rooted in the belief that the anti-dowry law, enacted 60 years ago, has failed to deliver.
What Dowry Act Really Envisaged
Interestingly, the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 (Dowry Act) was never really conceptualised to lead the fight against this practice. In fact, AK Sen, the then Law Minister, while discussing the Bill stated:
“I do not claim at all that a law passed by this Parliament would completely eradicate this evil. In fact, law never does eradicate evils. It is the social conscience of the people which ultimately sanctums the prevention of crimes and evils. The law only expresses that social conscience. We are only taking the first step, namely, express in no equivocal terms the conscience of the people which regards this practice as pernicious and which regards it as an evil.”AK Sen
Although this attracted stern criticism for its defeatist tone, the debate on the Bill by and large proceeded on a similar track – highlighting the need for a law, but sceptical about its effect.
Speaking about the Bill, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru underlined that the law was essential to shape public opinion, but asserted that legislations cannot, by themselves, solve deep-rooted social problems.
Making The Law More 'Deterrent'
As lawmakers underlined the limitations in using law as a means of furthering social reform, a popular struggle against the dowry system took place in the 1970s and 1980s. But as dowry-related violence continued to increase, the State flung into action, this time armed with the tool of deterrence.
Accordingly, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was amended in 1983 to provide for the offence of cruelty by the husband or his relatives. The Indian Evidence Act, 1872 was also amended to provide for a presumption of abetment to suicide if it was shown that that the woman was subjected to cruelty by her husband or his relatives.
In 1984 and 1986, the Dowry Act was amended to provide for stricter penalties for the offences of giving, taking, or demanding dowry. It reversed the burden of proof and categorised the offences as non-bailable. In 1986, the IPC was amended again to provide for the offence of ‘dowry death’, which attracted a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years, which could be extended to life imprisonment.
How Deterrent Punishment Failed To Curb Dowry Violence
Reported cases of dowry deaths rose from 999 in 1985 to 5,157 in 1991. Three decades after the amendments in the law, cases of dowry-related violence continue to rise.
On an average, more than 11,000 cases under the Dowry Act, 7,400 cases of dowry deaths, 4,770 cases of abetment to suicide, and 1.1 lakh cases of cruelty have been registered every year since 2015.
Further, data from 2019 shows that the pendency rate in cases of dowry-related violence stands at around 90 percent and the conviction rates at 35.6 percent in cases of dowry death; 15.8 percent in cases of abetment to suicide; 21.5 percent in cases under the Dowry Act; and 14.6 percent in cases of cruelty.
While the figures keep reminding us that the solution to this issue perhaps lies somewhere else, it is important that we look beyond the criminal justice system for redressal. As we wait for this system to work its magic, thousands of women lose their lives and lakhs struggle to survive patriarchal family structures.
With renewed calls for a popular movement, the discourse on dowry-related violence seems to have come full circle, reminding us that populist measures, relying on stricter penalties that mask real issues for long, can only exacerbate problems such as demands for dowry and the violence that comes with it.
(Naveed Ahmad is a Research Fellow (Criminal Justice) at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)