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story.lead_photo.caption Family members facing dowry harassment charges — wrongfully, they say — gather on the courthouse lawn in New Delhi in a weekly meeting of a support group that says lying wives and manipulative daughters-in-law are the problem. - Photo by The Washington Post / RAMA LAKSHMI

NEW DELHI -- Roughly 8,000 women in India died violently in 2013 because their families were unable to meet the demands for higher dowries, according to government statistics.

Such deaths have been a longtime problem in India and explain why the country passed a series of laws against dowries in the 1980s to protect against such violence.

Yet in July, India's Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling that questioned the propriety of the laws and said they are used unfairly by "disgruntled wives" to prosecute their husbands and in-laws.

Anti-dowry statutes "are used as weapons rather than shields," the court concluded. "The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision."

The judges then instructed the police to follow due diligence before making arrests.

The ruling threatens to undermine hard-won battles by the women's movement in recent decades, advocates of the law say. But it has given a boost to the growing number of families who are saying the dowry laws unfairly favor female complainants.

Husbands and mothers-in-law who claim to have been wrongfully accused of extortion under the dowry law recently gathered on a hot afternoon on the courthouse lawn in New Delhi. They carried bags full of legal documents and brimmed with tales of lying wives and manipulative daughters-in-law.

The questions poured: Will I be arrested? What if she drags me to court? Do we return all the gold jewelry?

"Print out a copy of this month's Supreme Court ruling," counseled Amit Lakhani, a senior activist of a growing nationwide support group called Save Indian Family, which blames Indian women for destroying families by misusing anti-dowry laws. "If the police come to arrest you, read out the ruling."

Dowries were officially outlawed in 1961, but over the years the number of brides who were killed by their husbands and families over dowries grew because brides' parents could not feed the continuing demands of their husbands' families, even after the weddings. Many of these deaths were reported as suicides or as "kitchen accidents." Stronger laws were introduced in the 1980s to protect married women from cruelty and battering by husbands or his relatives.

Despite the laws, the practice of dowry-giving remains entrenched and has grown because of rising middle-class consumerism and affluence, analysts say.

"Ninety percent of Indian marriages are arranged by parents. There is some form of dowry in all of them," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research and author of the book Brides Are Not For Burning. "Every groom has a price tag for dowry, depending on his occupation and his family's economic status. The middle class is under pressure to give bigger cars, bigger home theater systems and bigger everything."

Parents of brides now keep the bills and photographs of dowry transactions as evidence, said Varsha Sharma, a senior policeman in the crime-against-women division in New Delhi.

More than 220,000 people were arrested on charges of dowry harassment in 2013. The conviction rate last year was 16 percent, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau.

In the New Delhi prison, there is a cell named "mother-in-law, sister-in-law barrack" for women arrested on charges of dowry cruelty. Even sisters living abroad for decades are arrested, the court noted this month. In 2011, the court likened the dowry law to "legal terrorism."

Kaushal Yadav, a lawyer in the high court case, said arrest was often swift after a married woman accused relatives of extortion. No longer.

"For the first time, the Supreme Court has said the police and lower-court magistrate will be held accountable if they arrest without adequate justification," he said.

But the supporters of the dowry law say the tone of the ruling hurt.

"How can the Supreme Court use words like 'disgruntled wives' to describe women who complain and seek legal action?" Kumari asked. "Should the court create conditions for social change or blame the victim?"

Activists who work with victims of dowry harassment and domestic abuse face a quandary.

"Every law is misused in India -- why single out just the dowry law?" asked Tulika Dutta, an activist. "Unfortunately, the misuse tarnishes the case of genuine victims of dowry, too."

Leela Om Prakash, a domestic worker, lost her 24-year-old daughter last year after the husband's family made repeated demands for gifts and money.

At the time of the marriage in 2011, "the groom's parents said: 'We don't want any dowry. Send us your daughter with just three sets of clothes,'" Prakash said. But she still gave the groom's family a cupboard, a TV, a sewing machine, a juicer, a kitchen stove, an ironing machine and jewelry. Later the groom's family demanded a motorcycle and then a down payment for a home loan. When Prakash could not deliver, her daughter was killed, she said.

"She had been strangulated with a nylon rope," said Prakash, 55.

Her son-in-law and his mother are in prison on charges of dowry murder but have claimed in court that the death was a suicide.

The Supreme Court's ruling comes at a time of unprecedented public debate about women's safety amid growing instances of rape.

But families at a meeting of the Save Indian Family group criticized the direction in which India's women's movement is headed.

"The modern Indian woman does not want to live with her husband's parents anymore, and she uses the dowry law to build pressure," said Sanjeev Kumar, a teacher facing dowry charges.

Kumar's mother waves a dowry list. "Our daughter-in-law is lying. She has inflated the list of dowry her parents gave at the wedding," she said. "But the police only listen to her, not us."

Some at the meeting said the National Commission for Women was acting like the "National Commission for Wives." A man wore a T-shirt that said "The Wedding Gift," showing a knife with the dowry law written on it.

The group recently started a national help line to counsel those caught up in dowry cases.

The meetings serve as group therapy, said Lakhani, 36, the group activist, who is also facing trial for dowry harassment charges by his wife. He said he never asked for dowry, and the marriage fell apart because his wife was temperamental.

Some husbands are accused of dowry torture by their wives' families to cover up the stigma of a divorce, said Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, who is making a film about dowry law misuse titled Martyrs of Marriage.

Even after everything, Prakash says, she does not regret giving a dowry.

"Parents give dowry because they want their daughter to be pampered and respected by her husband's family," she said, leafing through her daughter's wedding album. "Even if I drowned in a sea of debt, I was willing to give whatever I could just to see her smiling. Instead I saw her dead.

"I want justice. The law is my only hope now."

A section on 08/03/2014

Print Headline: Darkness in dowries

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