“Any young man, who makes dowry a condition to marriage, discredits his education and his country and dishonours womanhood.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
The practice of dowry is a serious blotch on the rich cultural traditions in India. With one dowry related death every hour, it is alongside practices like sati and untouchability; heinous crimes against humanity that unfortunately find their origins in India.
Growing up I remember reading horrific stories of newly married women that were ill-treated, raped, beaten and even burnt to death for not being able to pay the expected dowry. Inquisitively, I asked my mother if her parents had been asked to pay dowry when she got married. Proudly, my mother told me how strictly my paternal grandfather was opposed to this practice and refused to take anything from her parents beyond the clothes she wore when she entered her matrimonial home, a nariyal (coconut) and one rupee. I did not have the privilege of meeting my grandfather (he died a couple of months before I was born) but was very proud to hear about his noble actions.
However, the problem across India had become so terrible that the government had been forced to pass the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961, prohibiting the giving and taking of dowry. Then in 1983 under the Indian Penal Code 498-A the government criminalised harassing, coercing or causing death and harm for dowry related issues. The government’s intent to ensure the protection of married women was evident as it gave the police autonomy to arrest and impose strict punishments on the accused. Unfortunately, 498-A became a poster boy for the often quoted axiom, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Statistically over 2.7 million people have been arrested under IPC 498-A with over 600,000 of them women. Of the 5,87,107 cases that went to trial, 81.31% ended up in acquittal i.e. 4 out of every 5 cases! To put it into perspective, the conviction rate for cases under the 498-A law was 18.69%, less than half of the 45% conviction rate for all other cases filed under the Indian Penal Code. This was due to the manifold amount of false allegations that were thoughtlessly made.
What is the reason for the low conviction rate?
The government’s intent to frame a law that would serve as a deterrent went against the basic human right provided to us in the constitution viz everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. Under this stringent 498-A law the burden of proving innocence on the accused became so arduous that it seemed more as if “they are guilty until proven innocent!”
When the police, lawyers and wives colluded to convert a provision for protection into a tool for exploitation even the courts deemed it as “legal terrorism”. The accusers didn’t even spare two-month-old babies that are among the 7,000 minors that have been accused of dowry harassment.
Deepika Narayan Bharadwaj’s documentary Martyrs of Marriage exposes the nexus that has made 498-A one of the most abused laws in India. In her own words Martyrs of Marriage is “a documentary that documents the injustice that has been perpetrated on people because of the misuse of section 498A of Indian Penal Code.”
Her passion to fix the filth created by 498-A is visible in her TEDx talks below
I had the privilege of meeting this courageous woman due to a small contribution that I made to her Milaap campaign for raising money to promote this documentary. She reached out offering to screen this movie to exclusively for my friends and family – an offer I eagerly accepted. With my immediate & extended family in attendance, Deepika spoke about her personal experience as the motivation for making this documentary. After the screening there wasn’t a single dry eye in the room.
Here is the trailer for her documentary
The entire documentary is available for $1.99 on this link.
This powerful documentary motivated me to do something for those oppressed by the miscarriage of justice. (what did you do) You may think that it does not concern you but let me leave you with the immortal words of Martin Niemoller: