KOLKATA: Sociology students of an undergraduate class in Bengaluru’s St. Joseph’s college in Shanti Nagar were being taught from a passage about the advantages of dowry. The students were asked to read a photocopied section of an unidentified book which stated that many ”ugly” girls of marriageable age are able to get married only because of dowry! The source for this passage was not mentioned and the students were given a photocopy!

One Rithika Ramesh posted this on her social network page that was shared over 3000 times. One line in the passage states: "The marriage of an ugly girl, who would have otherwise gone without a partner, is made possible by offering heavy amounts of dowry."

There are more shockers:

It is a useful and effective method for attracting good, handsome and sometimes unwilling (sic) boys for marriage;

Dowry would help the newly married couple to start afresh. Dowry provides them some basis and foothold for facing hard realities of life.

Dowry provides some opportunity to meritorious boys of poor classes to go for higher education and make their future.

Dowry increases the status of women in family. As a woman brings a substantial sum at marriage, she is treated well just for her economic contribution. It affects the love and affection her husband bears for her. A poor girl who does not bring dowry in her marriage does not usually receive the same attention and affection that is bestowed on a rich girl.

Some people contend that dowry would help people to raise their status in society. If, by paying dowry, marriage of their daughters is made possible to high status groups, there are people waiting for it. This would help them move up in the status ladder (sic).

Dowry maintains harmony and unity in the family. Some people feel that dowry system should continue but a woman should not be given any share in her father’s property. They are scared of disruptions, dissections (?), jealousy and factions and feuds which daughter’s inheritance may lead to. Thus, they want to repeal the Hindu Succession Act 1956. According to this Act, a daughter may claim a share in the ancestral asset, but she does not accept the liabilities. Hence it is better we give dowry, but not a share in property. This will also avoid fragmentation of landholding and help in maintaining family unity and harmony.

As if all this is not reactionary and regressive enough, the passage skirts the reality of the increasing number of dowry deaths of girls whose fathers have already surrendered to dowry demands at the time of marriage.

Let us take a closer look. Statistics on dowry-related deaths in India from 2001 to 2012 released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that such deaths have increased over the years. The arguments quoted above take no cognisance of the ongoing struggles of women who die either because they are actively killed by their husband and/or in-laws for not surrendering to pressures of dowry even after dowry has been given at the time of marriage and there are children to be looked after, or, because of the constant stress they must live within.

The NCRB statistics show that 91,202 dowry deaths were reported in India from January 1 2001 to December 31, 2012. Of these deaths, 84,013 were charged and sent for trial and the rest were either withdrawn during the course of the investigation or not investigated at all. Of this, 5081 cases were reported to be false.

Dowry is no longer a word in the dictionary. It is no longer a Hindu custom that needs to be observed during marriage negotiations. It is much less a “culture” that needs to be preserved. It is a stock market where the father of a boy ‘invests’ in the boy’s education or training or both in order to earn heavy ‘interest’ when the boy’s marriage is negotiated through an informal and invisible ‘auction’ where the boy is trafficked to the highest bidder (the father of that girl who can shell out the highest dowry) not only in terms of cash but also in kind – jewellery, flat, car, land, furniture and everything else that the newly married couple needs in their new life.

Never mind if the couple continues to live within the extended family. A boy qualifies for a demand for dowry because he is just born male and never mind if he is ugly or handsome, employed or bekaar, handicapped or fit, a gambler or an alcoholic, a rustic or a city-bred guy, educated or illiterate, dowry is still a socially and culturally sanctioned practice in India.

Dowry is an institution unto itself that all of us across generations have nurtured, encouraged, directly and indirectly, actively and passively so that it is now so deeply ingrained into our social system that those who submit to it often get burnt at the stake and those who try to avoid it, end up like the three young girls in Balithya, a village in Bankura district West Bengal who, in September 2004 attempted to take their lives. One of them died and two survived. They drank pesticide so that their poor father, beset by dowry demands, would not have to worry about their marriage. The father had earlier sold much of his ancestral property to marry off his two elder daughters. His son tried but failed to find a job.

Another incident from Kerala is the tragic suicide of an engineer working in the engineering research unit, Trichur. The demand for dowry by her husband who was a co-worker in the institution and his torture ultimately led to her suicide. In 1989, four sisters of Palghat district committed suicide not to become a burden on their parents. They were between eighteen and twenty five and were worried about their plight. They knew how the marriage of their eldest sister, had nearly ruined the family financially.

Late filmmaker Kundan Shah made a film called Teen Behenein in 2011 based on the true story of three sisters who committed suicide in Kanpur in 1988. Associate director Shekhar Hattangadi said, “Teen Behenein only takes the seed of its story from real-life incidents of combined suicides by three sisters, and then builds a narrative around it by attempting to enter the minds of the sisters and thus exploring the probable reasons that would have driven them to their deaths.The research work that we did prior to scripting the film revealed there were at least eight such incidents that were reported from different parts of the country between 1988 and 2002. So the Kanpur tragedy was in fact the first of several others.” Sadly, none of us have watched the film because it never had a public theatrical release.

No one cares about the bottom line that even in an age when the country has the youngest woman pilot in the world, several Olympic winning sports women in male-dominated sport like boxing, marriage still remains the ultimate aim of parents of all daughters, the society we live in and the workplace where you are always asked about your marital status and then, if you are married, what your husband/father does before even looking at your “biodata”.

If you are divorced, then in all probability, you may either not land the job or taken up because your accessibility as an ‘easy lay’ is taken for granted. No man is ever asked “What is your wife doing?” in any interview!