There will be more Vismaya Nairs

Source :SIFY
Last Updated: Thu, Jul 1st, 2021, 10:28:25hrs
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dowry

It has been just over a week since Vismaya Nair was found dead at her marital home, where she lived with her husband Kiran Kumar and her in-laws. On the morning of 21 June, Monday, she was brought dead to hospital in what is suspected to be a case of “dowry death”. While the autopsy report initially said Vismaya Nair had died of asphyxiation due to hanging, Mathrubhumi has reported that police are now investigating a possible case of poisoning.

Since her death, Vismaya Nair’s family has spoken to the media. Her parents and brother said they had given her husband 100 sovereigns in gold, a new car and 1.2 acres of land, and he had “still” harassed her. The fact is, both he and they are guilty of committing a crime, according to the Indian Penal Code.

The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, has been in force for half a century. It deems the taking as well as giving of dowry criminal, punishable by imprisonment of not less than five years and a fine of Rs. 15,000 or an amount equal to the dowry given, whichever was greater. Even demanding dowry was criminalised, punishable by six months to two years in prison, along with a fine of up to Rs. 10,000. Back in 1961, one ground of land in the centre of a metropolis could be purchased for Rs. 15,000, so the punitive sums were by no means small.

Anti-dowry laws were further strengthened in 1983, with the introduction of Section 498A. This pertains to “Cruelty by Husband or Relatives of Husband”, and defines subjection to “cruelty” as  “(a) any wilful conduct which of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman, or (b) harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such a demand.”

There was no shortage of legal recourse for the family, even before the marriage. Just asking for money and land and gold and a car could have had the prospective groom jailed. And yet, they not only didn’t report the demand, but also acquiesced. In news reports, they said it was the done thing, a matter of “prestige” in the community.

The reason the anti-dowry laws have been ineffective is the collusion between the families of the bride and groom to pass off what is actually dowry as “wedding gifts”, because of the notion of “prestige”. And for as long as the collusion continues, for as long as families continue to believe they must make a show of their social status with grand weddings and exorbitant “gifts”, dowry as an institution will survive, and dowry deaths will continue.

In India, we have pathologised marriage as a bond between families rather than two people. We pass off savagery as tradition. And what is dowry if not savagery? Perhaps at one point of time, families were forced to engage in bidding wars for suitable grooms, not least because their daughters were typically uneducated and unentitled to a share in property. This situation has changed so much as for the notion to be ridiculous. Most working women bring in a monthly dowry to their in-laws’ homes; the ones that live in nuclear families make, at the very least, a monthly contribution to the running of their families.

We have also pathologised divorce. The first issue, of course, is the self-defeating question “What will people say?” People rarely say anything of value. People are particularly happy to speak when misfortune strikes someone else, be it a neighbour, relative, friend, enemy or stranger. And the gossip never ends. Why is someone unmarried? Why is someone divorced? Why does someone not have children? It is in the nature of “people” to have and voice unsolicited opinions.

Most divorces occur years after they should have, not simply because of “people”, but also because of hope. One rarely enters a marriage thinking divorce is an option. Marriages that are dead on arrival drag on for years, increasing the rancour and bitterness of each member of the couple, because each hopes the other will change and remains blind to the basic incompatibility that has rendered their marriage a failure.

Vismaya Nair’s case was extreme. Her family said she had shared images of marks and scratches on her face, and said her husband was torturing her. They also said he forcibly took her to his home after she had returned to her parents’, and would not allow her to speak to her parents or brother.

One of the most bizarre reports about the conflict in the marriage is of Kiran Kumar’s dissatisfaction with the mileage—of all things, the mileage—of the car he received in dowry. He allegedly demanded a cash payment in lieu of the car and assaulted his wife because her parents asked him for time. Such brutality points to serious mental illness. And the fact that her parents were going to give in to the demand points to a societal plague—the notion that a woman, once married, must stay married to the same man, whatever breed of brute he may be.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of annual dowry deaths is around 7000 and there are over 100,000 cases registered under Section 498A every year. The data for 2018 is 7166 dowry deaths across the country, 5037 cases of abetment of suicide of women (1815 among these over dowry) and 103,272 cases of “cruelty by husband or his relatives”.

All the laws in the world cannot help a woman who will not report a crime. And no woman can report a crime if her family brings in the matter of “prestige”. For as long as we hold on to our skewed perspective on marriage, there will be more Vismaya Nairs.

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