Kerala has been gripped by news of a sensational murder in which a man threw a cobra at his wife, whom he had previously drugged.
After the snake bit her, the man killed the reptile, then waited till morning to take his wife to a hospital. However, she had died by then.
Investigation showed that he had made a similar attempt earlier, using a viper, but she had undergone treatment and survived.
Police said the man had confessed to having killed her because she failed to meet his never-ending demands for dowry. He had reportedly got about 100 sovereigns of gold and ₹5 lakh as dowry. The gold ornaments were later found buried near the family home.
The man’s father has also been arrested and police are investigating whether the whole family is complicit in the murder.
Despite laws against the practice of dowry, in Kerala, it is common to gift at least 100 sovereigns (equal to 800 grams) of gold jewellery to the bridegroom. Even many Christian and Muslim families follow this custom.
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The size of the dowry is a matter of pride for the groom’s family, and marriage brokers too play a major role in pumping up their ego on how much their ward is worth. Some years ago, the Kerala Women’s Commission suggested that the government pass a law to allow no more than 120 grams of gold to be gifted to the groom. No government has acted on the recommendation so far.
Kerala accounts for nearly a fifth of the 800 tonnes of gold sales in the country every year. The state is home to some of the largest gold retailers — Malabar Gold, Kalyan Jewellers, Bhima, Alukkas, and Lulu Gold.
Dowry is usually given as jewels, cash, and vehicles. Sometimes, the groom’s family’s demands go on long after the wedding, resulting in mental and physical abuse of the bride and often suicide.
India officially records around 8,000 dowry deaths a year—the highest number of dowry-related deaths in the world, according to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau. Kerala receives at least 3,000 complaints a year about spousal abuse. The official figure of dowry deaths is about 20 a year, but that figure does not tell the whole story.
Section 304-A of the Indian Penal Code says if a woman is killed within seven years of her marriage, and it is shown that she was tortured or harassed by her husband and any of his relatives, such a death will be classified as a ‘dowry death’. It also provides for the husband or the relative to be arrested and charged with murder.
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In most cases, with the connivance of the police, the death is marked as an accident and the criminals escape. Although charge sheets are filed in 93.7% of the cases, barely a third of them end in conviction.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 80% of dowry deaths or dowry harassment cases in the country are pending in courts. More than 83% of the cases registered under Dowry Prohibition Act are pending trials.
Activists working in this field say the parents of the brides are as much to blame as the grooms and their families for not supporting their daughters. Parents usually urge the women to “adjust” with the inlaws for the sake of “family honour”. Rarely are women allowed to come back to their parental homes.
The Kerala Women’s Commission says the demand for dowry will continue as long as there is not adequate awareness of the evil. It says the trend of outlandish weddings imposes a huge burden on the family of the brides and impoverishes them.
Spousal abuse is rampant in Kerala, according to NGOs. Cases of domestic violence spiked during the lockdown-related ban on liquor sales. When sales resumed, a few women still continued to face violence when their husbands demanded money to buy liquor.
In November 2019, Kerala launched a campaign to make the state dowry-free by 2025. It roped in a young actor, Tovino Thomas as goodwill ambassador of the initiative, hoping to create awareness among young men and women that demanding dowry is unacceptable. It remains to be seen if this idea will be embraced.
(G. Krishnan has written on national and international affairs for numerous publications for 40 years.)