The Supreme Court’s move to restore power with the police for the immediate arrest of the accused in cases of dowry harassment on Friday seemed to add momentum to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s anti-dowry campaign.
On October 2, 2017, Nitish Kumar declared a war against dowry and child marriage. He exhorted people to not attend weddings involving such evil practices.
While the chief minister’s declaration was first of a kind political push, it did not really take off at the ground for various reasons, including a fear of social backlash.
“There is also a widespread concern over the “abuse” of Section 498A (subjecting a married woman to cruelty) of the Indian Penal Code,” said a senior police officer in Patna. He, however, added that with the Supreme Court order to strengthen the anti-dowry law and Nitish Kumar’s anti-dowry proclivity, the authorities will take a sterner view on the offence of subjecting a married woman to cruelty by spouse and in-laws.
Marriages in Bihar are steeped in deep-rooted traditional practices, many of which are re-interpreted to align with the changing times. The dowry system is one such evil practice that has stubbornly resisted any change. With its roots traced to medieval times, the practice, though illegal, is an established trend in present Bihar.
With its booming economy, the state’s society is ironically seen as encouraging ever-higher prices of brides among all socio-economic strata.
The jarring irony is that while Nitish Kumar might want to change the system, state administration has not been able to act against cases of child marriage and dowry harassment with a matching zeal that they displayed against liquor smugglers. Incidentally, child marriages account for over 39 per cent of all weddings in Bihar.
The drive against dowry, however, is the need of the hour in Bihar. According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), while Bihar was at the 26th position in the country in number of crimes against women in 2016, it was second – after Uttar Pradesh – in dowry-related crimes. The NCRB report pertaining to year 2016 is the latest available.
As many as 987 cases of dowry-related deaths and 4,852 cases of dowry-related atrocities were registered in 2016 in the state. The state was second only to Uttar Pradesh where 2,478 dowry deaths were recorded.
In fact, the prevalent dowry system has triggered a new tradition of abduction for marriage in Bihar.
“The abduction of boys for marriage is a direct consequence of social evils like dowry. It is a rearguard action from the bride’s family, which finds itself under a great material load of arranging decent marriages. In a traditionally patriarchal society like we have in Bihar, marriages have long become a money-minting enterprise for the boy’s parents. So, families without wherewithal to arrange decent dowry go for desperate measures like abducting a suitable groom for their daughter’s marriage,” a senior police officer in Patna said.
The Supreme Court’s verdict can give the much awaited impetus to anti-dowry campaign in Bihar.