When will the horrors of dowry and bride-burning end?, asks Himendra Thakur
June 1999: Doesn't the love of one's country include love for one's countrymen? Or is it merely a fashionable thing, patriotism merely to find pride in something but not to actually strive towards a better nation? A country is her people. Years ago, Rabindranath Tagore summed it up as: Desh mrinmoy noi, desh chinmoy The country is not a chunk of earth: it is a saga of consciousness. Without the conscience of our people, this consciousness will fade. We must rouse ourselves to the daily indignities that surround us. There are a thousand places and ways we can begin loving the people of our nation, and I offer but one here. It is a journey that each of us can begin quite easily, because the victims of this malaise - dowry - are within reach, they are our mothers, sisters, friends, neighbors. People who we normally think of as "one of our own", who we ought to protect with our lives if necessary, and yet the normal course of things has fallen so low that indignities heaped on our women do little more than make us look away.
Let us begin, then, with the people whose suffering we have even ceased to notice, let alone empathize with. Let us begin with the women around us, those whose marriage through dowry we regard as normal when in fact it is apalling. Countless brides in India are constantly under harassment in their matrimonial homes because their fathers have fallen behind in the payment of endless dowry installments, or the dowry she did bring to her husband is regarded as too meagre.
Imagine the plight of a young woman, newly wed into an unfamiliar situation, and surrounded by those she has only just met, who regard her as a means to an end, little more than a device by which to enrich themselves. She knows only too well that a bride may be killed for lack of dowry ... she too must have heard the same stories we've all heard ... but she does not know what to do. She may have overheard her in-laws, even her own husband, talk casually about harassing her, and sometimes contemplate even killing her! the kind of fear that instills in a person is beyond our ability to comprehend. It isn't even fear, it is terror.
The cruelest aspect of this menace is the role that brides' parents play in perpetuating it. My inquiry at the Dowry Cell of New Delhi Police Department revealed that most of the parents of the bride do not want to take their daughters back. There is considerable social stigma in India against those parents who shelter a married daughter back in their family. In most of the cases, parents persuade the daughter to go back to her husband's home, that is considered to be the highest form of behavior one can learn from the old scriptures.
The alternative for the scared bride is to go to one of those government shelters. However, these shelters are controlled by unscrupulous bureaucrats and their politician bosses who are accused of taking full advantage of the helpless condition of the victims who come to the shelters. The reputation and working condition of most of the shelters are so horrible that a bride will prefer to die at the hands of her in-laws than to move one of those "shelters".
So, she stays in the house of her in-laws, resigned to her fate. Then, one evening, when she is working in the kitchen, someone throws a pail of kerosene on her, and someone else throws a burning match, and she turns into a ball of flames. Can she save herself by taking off her clothes ? There is no time. Petroleum products like kerosene or gasoline work very fast, aided by her own body heat. Once that splinter is thrown, there is no more chance of life.
Perhaps this sort of recital is gruesome, and we look away. We imagine that it cannot happen to anyone we know, that our education and money has raised us above these village truths. But that isn't so - we merely glamorize the slavery we perpetuate, and pretend to endow our daughters and sisters with "gifts". These aren't dowries, we tell ourselves, this is just to help her get a good start. Conveniently, we overlook the fact that there's more than one person getting married, we don't ask often enough why this good start mustn't come from both sides.
With these pretexts, we dismiss these as unimportant issues. And as we look away, an estimated 25,000 brides are killed or maimed every year in India over dowry disputes. Intellectuals pull out their calculator and say it is less than 0.003% of India's population. They slide into research mode and throw a vast array of statistics about atrocities on women in USA, UK, Pakistan, and many other countries of the world. Foundation owners refuse to help because there are so many other problems in India like street beggars, lepers, street children, bonded laborers, etc.
So, the brides keep on burning. Except, when she burns, the "problem" is one hundred percent hers, not 0.003%. She is NOT suffering from economic exploitation like bonded labor or economic deprivation like poverty : she is instead suffering from a very complex psychological set up in the minds of most of the people, the apathy of our times, and the stench of our unwillingness to eradicate dowry.
Many intellectuals do not like to talk about this subject. They open their speech with a presentation how India is doing very good in other fields like computers, space technology, etc., as if achievements in these fields can be used as excuses to burn the brides. A nation that trades in its people, sells its daughters into ready bondage, what words can describe these horrors? What kind of progress teaches us to ignore these problems, to pretend that these can never come past our doors?
One day, our daughters too will pass into slavery, and the jewel in our eyes will lead the wretched life we choose to look away from. When will it be enough?Himendra Thakur
Himendra Thakur is a founding member of the International Society against Dowry and Bride Burning in India, Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt organization in the United States. He is currently Chairman of the Society's Board of Directors and Subcommittee on Fundraising.
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