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Bride Burning and Dowry Deaths



A Matter of Extreme Cruelty: Bride Burning and Dowry Deaths in India

by Partha Banerjee
Injustice Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, November 1997


This article discusses the rapid rise of dowry deaths and bride burning as an indication of the growing exertion of patriarchal power and cruelty on women in India. The paper concentrates on the religious, political, and economic structures of the Indian society to explain the age-old tradition of extortion of dowry that has taken a brutal form today. The paper provides a historical context of the problems of dowry and bride burning that originated in the Brahmanical Hindu societies but now persist across almost all class lines. The perpetuation of the dowry tradition is indicative of the power of the gendered and caste-based social and political structures that aim to oppress women and "lower" castes in order for the sustenance of the sociopolitical status quo situating "upper"-level men in positions of power. The paper also presents statistics on bride burning and dowry deaths to conduct a comparative analysis of the brutality documented from the various geographical regions in India. It is hoped that the readership would be interested to act against this exploitation and violence.


I. Prologue

Rani Jethmalani, a noted lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court, in her book Kali's Yug (i.e., the era of Goddess Kali) said about empowering women in India (Jethmalani, 1995):

"It is possible (to empower women) through the revival of an energized feminine principle symbolized by Kali -- the most significant Goddess in the Hindu pantheon. Kali in the non-Sanskritic personification -- ethically dynamic and control-free. Kali -- autonomous and active and not defined by male control as she is depicted in later mythological texts by her "spousification" with her consort Shiva. Kali who challenges the civilized order of Dharma and the status quo."

The above quote is important for our present discussion. The women of India are an epitome of oppression and exploitation in the name of religion practiced by the conservative male chauvinists and social patriarchs -- the rulers of the country. Equal rights for women is primarily electioneering demagoguery. The traditionally ruling Congress party (which produced India's only woman prime minister who ran a dictatorial regime 1 and the rapidly surging Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been naturally apathetic to the plight of the women -- BJP’s deceptive stance has been particularly troublesome 2. The rise of BJP is about to bring back an era of darkness for the traditionally oppressed classes of India -- the "untouchables", religious minorities, women. One could compare powers like BJP and its ally Shiv Sena with other fundamentalist or fascist groups such as the Christian Coalition and Promise Keepers of USA, Neo-Nazis of Germany or England, or the fundamentalist rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and their brainchild Islamic radical groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh. We see different names in different countries, however, they all have comparable racist-separatist socioreligious doctrines and similar oppression. The ignominious 3 Shiv Sena (SS) and its supremo Bal Thackeray have been openly supportive of dowry-based male-domineering marriage. Some leaders of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parental organization of BJP) and its religious wing VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) have been supportive of the infamous now outlawed "sati" system. Sati is the "voluntary" immolation of a widow along with her dead husband -- in most cases, she would be coerced to die perhaps under drugs -- again, the custom was long practiced by Hindu male chauvinists upon distortion of the scriptures where the covert purpose was to surreptitiously gobble up the property of the deceased. Just a few years ago, an incident of “sati” in the state of Rajasthan caused huge uproar among the Indian women -- however, a prominent BJP woman leader defended the system.

SS and BJP with their political fronts and allies are now ruling the economically prosperous and politically important Indian states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. The developed state of Punjab is also in the hands of them and their conservative ally -- the Sikh party Akali Dal. BJP is hopeful of winning the next Indian parliamentary elections. In the most recent elections, BJP became the single largest party and formed a short-lived government.

In the Indian context, Goddess Kali could indeed be the energizer and savior of the oppressed women through social and political empowerment. But first, Kali has to be stripped of her "spousified" status -- a status methodically imposed by the Hindu orthodox and social patriarch synonymously the ruling sociopolitical hierarchy of India. Economic independence and education for the postcolonial Indian women are prerequisites for any possible resistance -- places such as Kerala with a high female literacy have had the least patriarchal oppression.

Of many possible ways to help the struggling women of India, one is the disclosure of facts to the world. Facts of gruesome violence, facts of torture, oppression, and exploitation practiced through ages, facts that have been kept a well-hidden secret until now, must be exposed to the civilized world -- to men and women in solidarity. Exposure to the world of the cruel acts would perhaps draw attention of activists from all over. A global togetherness of progressive women and supportive men would help their Indian counterparts challenge the social and political status quo and its archaic manifestations such as the extortion of dowry. 

II. The Background 

The root cause of the problem behind dowry deaths is Hindu religious orthodoxy and its degenerate caste system that divides and re divides Hindus into innumerable classes, groups, subgroups and factions and provides manipulative socioreligious power to the "upper" castes to drive the "lower" castes to subservience, humiliation, poverty, and death. Dowry is derived from the ancient Hindu customs of "kanyadan" and "stridhan". In "kanyadan", the father of the bride offers the father of the groom money or property, etc. whereas for "stridhan", the bride herself gets jewelry and clothes at the time of her marriage, usually from her relatives or friends. In "varadakshina", the father of the bride presents the groom cash or kind. All of these could be done voluntarily and out of affection and love. These days, these customs have become coercive and brutally dangerous.

The caste-based Hindu marriage system is sacramental and not contractual or civil (Sarkar Shastri in Dutta, 1984). According to this system, a marriage is forever, and there is no scope for a separation. Among the various ceremonies previously practiced, the ceremony in front of a "godly" fire ("Yajna" in Sanskrit) has taken over, a ceremony that has resemblance with the ancient Roman "confarreatio" marriage (Dutta, 1984). An analysis of this marriage would find its root in the antiquated system of "marrying a wife by capture". Examples of these customs proliferate throughout the post-Vedic Hindu history. This form of marriage began the practice of dowry, where originally, the family of the bride would accept gifts and money from the groom's (potential conqueror’s) family as an alternative to bloodshed during the capture of the bride (Dutta, 1984). This practice still remains among the "lower caste" Hindus and also Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. A later modification of this system has paved way for the present coercive and exploitative patriarchal dowry system primarily practiced by the "upper caste" Hindus. However, dowry is an economic and definitely not a religious matter. The degenerate caste system and its sponsor conservative social and political rulers of India have provided a religious twist to it for their own interests. Some ancient Hindu scriptures such as Manu-Samhita and Gautama-Samhita, where the wife is deemed to be a subordinate "property" of the husband and is barred from all religious and official activities, have also fueled the oppressive aspects of the practice.

The Brahmanical-order Hindu caste system has degenerated to such an extent that it has brought about extreme misery and distress not only to the "untouchables", but also to artificially formed "inferior" groups belonging to the same social stratum or caste. In case of an arranged marriage (and barring a few urban areas, most marriages are arranged where the bride is chosen by the family, relatives, and middleman of the groom), grooms are traditionally from the "superior" and the brides are from the "inferior" factions of the same caste. So, the religious twist is this: by coming up with the dowry, the bride's family is elevating itself to the upper ladder in the caste hierarchy. This is but one excuse behind extorting the dowry. There are many other reasons, and all are equally vague and deceptive. The bottom line is greed and oppression in an increasingly materialist and historically male-chauvinist society.

Most dowry deaths have occurred in the upper strata of Hindu communities, i.e., the Brahmans (the caste of priests cum the Kings' policy-makers), Kshatriyas (the caste of worriers now-turned politicians), and Vaishyas (the traders now-transformed sponsors of conservative parties). Most killing of women for non-payment of "promised" dowry have so far occurred in the urban affluent upper-caste Hindu communities. As Table I will show, in spite of its rapid escalation and migration into traditionally incidence-free areas and non-Hindu communities of India as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan (in Pakistan, the death of newly married women due to "stove bursting" has often been featured in the news media in recent years), the phenomenon of dowry death is by and large concentrated in the communities and areas mentioned above. In places where traditionally there is an absence of caste- or dowry-based marriage system (such as the tribal communities of the far-east Indian states or predominantly caste-free Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist majority areas), dowry deaths are still not rampant.

This evidence reasserts that the problems of dowry death, bride burning, and other forms of dowry-related violence on women is a Hindu phenomenon that is now almost out-of-control due to the following reasons: (1) retention of the caste system, (2) undermining of the woman by the religious orthodox and social patriarch making herself and her family vulnerable to socioeconomic pressure and extortion, (3) ever-increasing greed of the bridegroom and his family, (4) an economically strangled hyper populated society non-supportive of unmarried women, and (5) a morally depraved political system run by the pro-status quo conservatives.

However, few (including the educated Indian middle-class) talk about stamping out these social evils. Indian scholars are aware of the situation but are reluctant to get involved. The elite and the bourgeois find even more reasons to overlook the mess. At the Harvard University-sponsored conferences on bride burning and dowry deaths in India (October, 1995 and November, 1996), there were talks about the non-violent movement of Gandhi as a remedial measure against the violence and killing of women. The present author is not sure about the efficacy of Gandhi's methods. Gandhi, the West-painted icon as the "father" of Indian nationhood was a pro-status-quo moderate conservative. Gandhi believed married men and women should remain celibate except for procreation purposes (Kapadia, 1995). Gandhi preferred girls to remain unmarried all their lives than to be humiliated and dishonored by marrying men who demanded dowry (Kishwar in Kapadia, 1995) -- however, he never prescribed social changes where the above onus (social and economic) to remain unmarried is not on the women. Gandhi acknowledged at a much elderly age, "I learned the lesson of non-violence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering of my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule her" (Tendulkar, 1952).

Even though Gandhi talked about the plight of the socially oppressed, including women and untouchables, his politics did nothing but bring about destruction of the Indian revolutionary forces and transfer of power from the British to the urban Hindu upper caste. Gandhi was not a revolutionary and was against any radical changes to the Indian social system. Otherwise, with his huge appeal to the Indian and international communities, he could have helped bring down evil and degenerate relics such as the caste barrier. Gandhi worshipped Lord Rama, a legendary King from ancient India 4 who often neglected his much-idolized wife Sita and repeatedly humiliated her in public by asking her to prove her chastity. Basically, Sita was Rama's subordinate and an endeared "property". Thus, as the successor who would help keep the British administrative and judiciary system and divisive and exploitative social status quo in post-partition India, Gandhi was chosen by the post-W.W.II financially and politically bankrupt British colonials who would have soon left India anyway. As much as Gandhi was despised by the Hindu fanatics for his appeasement of the Islamic separatists of pre-1947 India (and was consequently killed by Nathuram Godse, a zealot who belonged to radical Hindu groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha), his views on the status and role of Indian women were in fact quite anti-progressive as were his views on many other social, political, and economic issues.

In sharp contrast to Gandhi, the landmark social movements of Ram Mohan Ray and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar of Bengal in the 1800's first attempted to emancipate the oppressed women of India. Ram Mohan Ray fought against and brought down the barbaric custom of "sati". Ram Mohan, using his sharp progressive mind, thorough knowledge of the Hindu scriptures, and social status as a rich landlord with connections with a few compassionate British officers and civilians, openly challenged and defeated Hindu orthodox pundits in scholarly debates on the issue of "sati". He established Brahmoism, a tenet conceptualized on the Unitarian doctrine of Hinduism and Christianity. Brahmoism became the driving force behind the celebrated "Bengal Renaissance" of the nineteenth century Bengal and India. At the same time, on the streets of Calcutta, Ram Mohan Ray fought thugs and criminals hired by religious zealots who were hell-bent to break his body and progressive movement. 'Sati' became illegal when in 1830's, after a grueling social, religious, and political battle, the then governor general of India Lord William Bentinck signed a law in Calcutta 5 banning the practice. The conservative Hindu landlords and priests challenged the law and petitioned to the Queen of England. To counter this challenge, Ram Mohan left for London. He successfully lobbied with the legislators of the British parliament to make the ban on 'Sati' permanent. However, Ray could not come back to India -- he died suddenly in Bristol.

A few decades later, a Hindu Brahman scholar Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar spearheaded another movement to legalize remarriage of the widow. Ram Mohan Ray and Vidyasagar succeeded largely because of the presence of a supportive group of progressive western scholars and administrators in British India. In the early twentieth century, a far more severely brutal and repressive British regime replaced the milder colonial administration. However, that's yet another story. 

III. Laws in India Pertaining to Dowry 

The Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act -- DPA (1986) introduced as law numbered S.304-B in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) defines dowry death. According to this law,'where the death of a woman is caused by burns or bodily injury, or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances within seven years of her marriage and it is shown that soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry, such death shall be called “dowry death”. The Indian Supreme Court that has been supportive of oppressed women, delivered a landmark decision where suicide committed by the victim herself would be considered to fall under “dowry death” as envisaged under IPC S.304-B. 6

In addition, “dowry” has been defined in Section 2 of DPA 1961 (and in 1984 and 1986 amendments) “as any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly: (a) by any party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage, or (b) by the parents of either party to the marriage or by other person to either party to the marriage, or to any other person at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties but it does not include “Dower” or “Mehr” in the case of persons to whom the Muslim personal law (Shariat) applies. 7


IV. The Facts

The epicenter of the problem of bride burning and other forms of dowry-related violence on women is Delhi (the Indian capital), western and central Uttar Pradesh (cities such as Kanpur, Lucknow, and Agra have witnessed the highest number of deaths), and places adjoining Delhi (Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab), and the problem has largely been concentrated among the upper caste above-average Hindu communities. These areas and people have also traditionally been supporters of the two parties -- Congress and BJP (obviously, this is not to say that all supporters and members of these two parties are woman-abusers: however, the coincidence is noteworthy and the silence observed by RSS and BJP on this issue is striking). Now the problem has spread rapidly to other traditionally incidence-free areas and classes -- south Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, western states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, and eastern states such as Bihar and West Bengal (the latter having been one of the bastions of leftist politics of India) have witnessed rapid surge of incidents in recent years. Table I (abbreviated from National Crimes Bureau reports, Home Ministry, Government of India, 1995) summarizes the above statement. Twenty one states and union territories are included in the Table. The number of dowry-related deaths is included for each region and the regions are ranked by the concentration of deaths based on per million Hindu population. Numbers obtained from 1987, 1990, 1992, and 1994 are shown but the ranking is based on a six-year average (from 1987 through 1994).

From Table I, we observe the following:

(i). The incidence of dowry deaths has surged since 1987 (reason could also be more press coverage and uncovering of facts by feminist organizations and lawyers).

(ii). The numbers are mostly the highest in the "Hindu-Hindi Heartland" areas that are traditional strongholds of BJP and Congress.

(iii). The traditionally incidence-free non-Hindi-speaking south Indian and eastern states (such as West Bengal) have seen rapid rise of dowry deaths since 1987

At the same time, surprisingly, some places are almost incidence-free. This could be attributed to the following reasons:

(a) Preponderance of non-Hindu religions that forbid dowry- and caste-based marriages;

(b) Retention of an ancient (pre-Brahmanization) Hindu social system of dowry-free marriage (visible in Assam and Tripura);

(c) Presence of tribal societies that have dowry- and caste-free social systems (e.g., the far-eastern areas).

It is important to note that the numbers cited in Table I are usual conservative Indian government estimates coupled with the fact that many deaths are never reported. This lapse is due to the ignorance, inaction, or apprehension (of police atrocities) by the relatives of the deceased. Jethmalani asserts that 15000 dowry deaths are occurring every year in India (Jethmalani, 1995).

In most cases, mainly because of inaction of the police, first information reports (FIR) are not entered. Parents of the killed bride are not properly heard by the administration or justice system. This is more so when the criminal or his family has connections with ruling political parties. The legal system in India is a degenerate relic of the colonial British system and is pathetically slow. Any case in lower courts (where these trials, if any pursued, are held) would take at least five to ten years to complete. By that time, if the litigating parents can keep their money and optimism flowing to sustain the proceedings, chances are that the FIR, post-mortem and other reports will have been tampered, witnesses will have been bribed or threatened, judges will leave on vacation or retirement, and the criminal on bail will be unavailable. Finally, the criminal will either go free upon the benefit of the doubt or get a light sentence upon the lack of enough evidence (usually seven years in jail -- he will actually serve two to three years). Then he will come out, and remarry with another batch of dowry. It may be pointed out here that it is cheaper for an Indian man to kill his spouse and obtain a new one with another dowry than to divorce his wife and pay her maintenance (Banerjee, 1995).

Incredible as it may sound, in some cases, the convicted husband will be requested by the parents of his killed bride to marry her sister. The latter is an example of the severity of the problem. The sister and her parents have no place else to go but the abuser/killer man. The death of the woman has left a permanent mark of misfortune on her family resulting outcasting/abhorrence by other prospective bridegrooms for her sister. The surviving sister can't remain unmarried -- the patriarch society and the upper caste rulers would not permit that -- besides, an unmarried woman with no financial, social, or political influence will be a sure target for neighborhood hecklers. But the incidence of the "untimely death" of her older sister prevents her parents to find a "clean" groom for her. Now, here comes the widower willing to remarry with a batch of dowry probably a little lower than the first time. And, he will now probably be more "forgiving" to the bride's family he already knows so well. So, who should the family turn to but the "closely related"?


V. Some Known Cases

KANCHANBALA (Jethmalani, 1995): This is the cause celebre case that perhaps got the maximum media attention in India and abroad. This case, more well-known as the Satya Rani Chadha case, for the first time involved Indian women’s organizations under an umbrella group Solidarity with Women. Disenchantment was expressed at the Supreme Court forums on how dowry cases were being investigated and dealt with by the Indian police and judicial systems.

Kanchanbala, a twenty-year old graduate from a middle class family was married to Subhas on May 4, 1978 in Delhi. Her husband and in-laws were not satisfied with the dowry provided at the time of marriage. They started to torture her when she became pregnant. On March 15, 1979, she visited her parents' home where Subhas demanded that he be given a scooter (a mini-motor cycle) on the birth of the baby. Presumably, the parents declined. On March 17, 1979, Kanchanbala died of burn injuries in the kitchen of her husband’s home in Delhi. There were no eyewitnesses.

Kanchanbala’s old mother Satya Rani Chadha started a lonely and uphill battle against the husband and in-laws who she believed killed her daughter. After years of usual delay by lower courts, upon the involvement of women’s organizations, a Special Leave Petition was filed directly to the Supreme Court of India. Finally, on January 10, 1985, the case began to be heard and the husband and mother in-law were summoned on charges of abetment to commit suicide punishable under Section 306, Indian Penal Code. On January 1, 1991, a charge under Section 306 was framed against the husband and mother in-law. Other in-laws were acquitted.

MEENA KUMARI (Jethmalani, 1995): Meena was burned to death by her sister in-law in collusion with Meena's mother in-law and husband. This happened when Meena's parents refused to meet the constant dowry demands. In her dying declaration, Meena indicated how she was mentally and physically tortured by her new family. She was also accused of sexual relations with other men. Meena's husband and in-laws have been acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence.

SUDHA GOEL (Jethmalani, 1995): Sudha was married to Laxman Kumar on 16 February, 1980 in Delhi. She was subjected mistreatment by her husband and in-laws since the very first month of her marriage for non-payment of 'sufficient' dowry. Sudha was burnt to death on December 2, 1980 when she was eight months pregnant. Her neighbors rushed in upon hearing her screams and found her aflame. Sudha, like many other dying women, refused to incriminate her husband. However, upon her dying declaration that her mother in-law Shakuntala Devi poured kerosene on her and set her ablaze, the latter was sentenced to life imprisonment.

TRIPTA SHARMA (Jethmalani, 1995): Tripta was an employee in the Ministry of Defense. She was married to Jeetender Pal Sharma, an employee of the District Statistical Office, Government of Haryana, on 22 November, 1983 as per Hindu rites. After the marriage, the husband and in-laws began harassing and torturing her for not giving her full salary to them. The couple had two sons -- the younger one was born just two months prior to the death. Tripta was found dead in the early morning of 30 May, 1986. Her body was badly burnt. An autopsy was performed the same day by Dr. S. N. Agarwal at 4.45 P.M. who found Tripta’s body to have a 100% burn and the tongue protruding. The cause of death was determined as shock resulting from excessive thermal burn. However, at the trial, the prosecution did not produce this important witness although other minor witnesses were produced. As a result, the husband who allegedly committed the murder, got acquitted. It is a subject of much speculation how an erudite judge can afford to bypass key witnesses and/or evade circumstantial evidence.

VIMALA DEVI (Banerjee, 1995): Twenty two year old Vimala was burned to death in 1994 after seven years of her marriage (she was married at the age of fifteen which is a punishable act under the Child Marriage Restraint Act -- the husband is to be imprisoned in these cases; however, in most Indian families, birth certificates are not registered). She sought help two times at the Shakti Shalini shelter for battered women to cope with abusive and persistent demands for dowry. After counseling and reconciliation with her husband, she was sent back to her marital home. Vimala's death after seven years of marriage demonstrated the calculation and premeditation behind the murder.

Apparently, the husband Babulal was knowledgeable about the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 (see above) and thus knew how to evade the stipulations of the law. This type of knowledge acquired by abusive Indian men through experience and advisement of lawyers has made the situation even more complicated -- further, these men are taking advantage of the legal and political ignorance of the women.

Vimala's tragedy epitomizes the enormity of the problem. The hospital where she was taken was incompetent in properly registering Vimala as a burn victim, the police mishandled the case by not conducting a post mortem, they were reluctant to pursue an investigation against Babulal and his family. Babulal and his family were acquitted due to 'lack of sufficient evidence'. His crime of marrying an under-age girl became irrelevant.


VI. Epilogue

Our above discussion is neither claimed to be all-inclusive nor it is made known to the western world for the first time here. It does not single out Hinduism as a symbol of oppression on women as this is a global phenomenon encompassing all major religions and beliefs. The article does not cover all the various sociopolitical and religious aspects of the immensely complex issue nor does it take into account all the landmark cases and works of Indian feminist groups such as SEWA, Jagori, Manushi, and WARLAW that have changed the course of modern Indian history of oppression on women. The present article only highlights some social, political, and religious cornerstone areas for this rapidly escalating problem. It is certain that a great deal of scholarly articles will be written on this subject. However, this article is relevant for its frank approach where naked facts are exposed without a veil of elitist-altruist indifference. This is important because we need hard facts, and we need to see the real criminals behind the slaughters -- man's greed, the caste system, the male chauvinist, the social and religious bigotry, and the conservative political status quo sponsored by the corporate world.

The social and political power in India must be taken away from the oppressive conservatives and transferred to the oppressed especially progressive women. Since after the elections held in mid-1996, there has been a near-hung parliament -- Congress, BJP, and the left forces more or less equally share the 540-member-strong 'lower house' or 'lok sabha'”. After a very short stint in power, BJP had yielded in favor of the left-democratic coalition -- however, the conservatives’ power game is very much on with help from forces from outside and within. Chances are, there will be another election in the near future. Given this scenario, more progressive and woman politicians could be elected to speak and work for the suffering citizens. A needed alliance of the progressive forces in the parliament and various state legislative assemblies would change the present profile of Indian political system that works for the affluent men only. All-important states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (the "California" and "Texas" of India, respectively, as far as number of seats are concerned) have been experiencing a shift of power in recent days. Both states have seen a legislative government run by left-of-center parties representing the backward and oppressed castes -- however, the conservative backlash has been much pronounced in recent days, and Uttar Pradesh now has a coalition government run by BJP and a splinter group of the “untouchables” -- the latter group by having been lured to “share power” has been effective for BJP to grab political authority in the prized state. It seems the downtrodden of India still have a long way to go before any meaningful social changes are accomplished. This is more so because it is apparent that (1) aside from the Congress and BJP, many male legislators and parliamentarians from the 'backward caste' parties are against women's representation in politics, and (2) in India, even if a woman is elected, her husband or other male relatives pull the strings behind the curtain and thus a true representation of women is often not achieved.

Many activists are working ceaselessly to help the oppressed Indian women. These brave soldiers will keep the torch of social justice aflame. Let's not forget to send them our heartfelf salutation. They need material support too. At the same time, we need to be careful about those who claim to do a lot for Indian women in need, but deliver very little.

Outcasting the depraved caste system will be one of the final goals. We must stop oppression and brutality in the name of religion.

Goddess Kali, the mighty demon slayer, dances on the pyre-ground in total darkness -- she dances a fierce dance with her cohort “yoginis”, sorceresses, and imps. Kali is dark, naked, and frightening. She has the cut-off head of a man in her one hand and a bloody ax in the other. She has set out to destroy anything that is oppressive, degenerate, and vile. She is the destroyer of human greed.

Let us invoke Goddess Kali.



(1) On June 15, 1975, Justice Sinha of the Allahabad High Court issued a verdict overturning Indira Gandhi's election from her parliamentary constituency. The judge declared that Mrs. Gandhi resorted to unconstitutional measures to get elected over her opponent. However, upon using a loophole in Justice Sinha's verdict allowing Mrs. Gandhi to temporarily stay in charge of a caretaker government, Mrs. Gandhi amended the constitution with her necessary two thirds majority in the parliament -- the infamous 42nd amendment; proclaimed emergency rule in the country citing an “internal threat” to the nation. With the special and unprecedented power acquired through the constitutional amendment, Mrs. Gandhi imprisoned all the national leaders. A large number of student leaders and workers were also arrested. Many of these students were physically and mentally tortured in jail by the police. The press was completely censored. Mrs. Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi carried out a massive drive to reproductively sterilize poor men and women against their will. The veteran socialist leader Jay Prakash Narayan who led the pre-emergency movements against the corrupt and dictatorial government of Mrs. Gandhi heavily suffered in prison -- he soon died of a kidney failure.

(2) The BJP and its parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been keeping double standards when it comes to freedom and equal rights for the Hindu women. They are ardently opposing the practices of polygamy lawful in the Islamic Shariat, but are keeping silence about the unlawful polygamy still practiced secretly in some Hindu societies. The Hindu fundamentalist group is vociferous against the Islamic domestication and inequality for women but is quiet about the Devdasi system that causes lifelong social and sexual enslavement of young girls at certain Hindu temples. The BJP argues against the Shariat law that by not yielding to the uniform civil code it creates a dilemma for the Indian administration, yet it fails to mention the sacramental Hindu marriage system that does not even legally register the marriage thus creating a lot of problems for the Indian governmental branches -- the populace at the receiving end is always the women.

(3) The Shiv Sena is strongly alleged by non-partisan and progressive Indians to have masterminded the carnage of Muslim slum-dwellers in Bombay in the early nineties -- their avowed “ethnic cleansing” coupled with pro-Nazi rhetoric has created enormous scare among the poor minorities of Bombay resulting mass exodus. Shiv Sena and RSS are both fiercely anti-Muslim but unlike the RSS or BJP, Shiv Sena is not as sophisticated. In the Hindi version of their Marathi-language mouthpiece Saamna (November 18, 1993), an editorial on the controversial Kashmir issue proclaimed that “it is time to disrobe (Pakistani prime minister) Benazir and (U.S. president) Clinton should be told exactly what lies behind her blouse”; the same issue of the paper asserts that the demolition of the Babri Mosque (an ancient mosque destroyed by Hindu fanatics in December 1992) was essential not just to assert Hindu identity but to preserve democracy and human values in society.

The most well-known past RSS chief M. S. Golwalkar eulogized the Nazi Òrace prideÓ (M. S. Golwalkar. 1938. We or Our Nationhood Defined. Bharat Prakashan, Nagpur): "German race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races -- the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole -- a good lesson for us in Hindusthan (Hindu land or India) to learn and profit by."

(4) Rama is also the convenient icon of BJP to stir up Hindu sentiments which recently resulted in massive bloody riots.

(5) Calcutta was the capitol of India until 1911.

(6) Andhra Pradesh High Court v. T. Punniah, 1989.

(7) Dower or Mehr are terms for dowry used in the Muslim communities of India.

(8) WARLAW: Women's Action Research and Legal Action for Women. Express Building, 9-10 Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi 110002, India.

(9) Manushi, a journal dedicated to the cause of Indian women. Manushi Trust, C/202 Lajpat Nagar - I, New Delhi 110024, India (Contact: Madhu Kishwar. E-mail: madhu@manushi.unv.ernet.in)



Banerjee, Ritu. "Bride burning and the law: Vimala Devi's tragedy." Souvenir of the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, Harvard Law School, September 30, October 1 & 2, 1995.

Dutta, Bhupendranath. Bharatiya Samaj Paddhati (in Bengali), Vol. 3. Nababharat Publishers, Calcutta. 1984.

Jethmalani, Rani, ed. Kali's Yug: Empowerment, Law and Dowry Deaths. Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, India. 1995.

Kapadia, Sita. "A tribute to Mahatma Gandhi: His views on women and social change." Souvenir of the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, Harvard Law School, September 30, October 1 & 2, 1995.

Kishwar, Madhu. "Gandhi and women." Manushi, New Delhi (cited in Kapadia, 1995).

National Crimes Bureau, Home Ministry, Govt. of India. From: Souvenir of the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, Harvard Law School, September 30, October 1 & 2, 1995.

Sarkar Shastri, Gopal Chandra. A Treatise on Hindu Law (cited in Dutta, 1984).

Tendulkar, D. G. Mahatma, Vol. 4, p.55. Jhaveri and Tendulkar, Bombay. 1952.

Table I. "Geographical distribution of dowry deaths in India" (a partial list) -- Source: National Crime Bureau report, Home Ministry, Government of India, 1995.

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