Dowry – A Historical Perspective of Evolution of a Crime


[In this series, as I review the book ‘Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime’ written by Prof. Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Professor of History, City University of New; I shall delve into the historical perspective of Dowry and Female Infanticide as Veena has found out by reviewing govt. policies and other historical documents. I will also take you along a journey to understand how ‘Dowry’ which was a women’s rights initiative in ancient India, became a dreaded crime and how Female Infanticide was tagged along by some rulers for their political gain. In this series “Dowry” we will understand the imperial origin of a cultural crime]


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Part 1

Veena Talwar Oldenburg, a Professor of History and a noted Anthropologist, started this book by mentioning her personal life, how his first marriage in a Punjabi family could have easily ended in her murder rather than annulment and how in 1984 some front-page media reports of bride burning raised an alarm about the issue at the international level. As a cultural researcher, she took up the study of the origin of Dowry Death as a crime. She observed that in traditional India, Dowry was a woman’s rights initiative that ensured women got their share of the parental property in the form of dowry for the time of need. In her study, she has tried to find out the history of the evolution of dowry as a crime in a different era.

Dowry Burning Myths and Facts

Dowry death often reported and found to be as the burning of the brides from kerosene stoves (a commonly used oven in 1980’s India). But not only the brides or women there are reports of men getting burnt from these stoves as well. This signifies that some men might have already been helping their wives in cooking or they got burnt while saving those women.

Even though there might be many newspaper reports of women being burnt from these kerosene stoves, Veena also verified that these were prone to explode and even the manufacturers had said so. Coupled with this was women wearing nylon or silk saris in those days and were more prone to these accidents. All these factors led to more number of accidents but that does not mean all were killed by the in-laws.

Veena observed that most of these burning cases were either not reported or even if reported got early closure due to lack of evidence. In most of these cases, the mothers-in-law were blamed the most. She mentioned that the husband needed to be guilt-free for future marriage and employability. In her opinion, the next marriage would often entail more dowry for the groom.

While remembering tales from the late 1950s, Veena commented, “Incidents of bargaining over dowry were not unheard of, but such behaviour was customarily considered shamefully and unambiguously wrong”. She referred to a Hindi movie Dahej (Dowry) that showed the ills of dowry system in late 1950. In 1961, the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed and she observed that dowry death started occurring in the 1980s. Her anecdotes here are mostly taken from the newspaper reports. She also interviewed real victims of dowry abuse and spent a few months with a women’s group to understand the issue. Her research was on a ‘custom’ that was initially started as a women’s rights initiative to give them their parental property rights, turned into a nightmare and a crime like killing young brides.

Punjab and Dowry Problem

While discussing dowry death as a crime, Veena says, it is a ‘cultural crime’ “linked to a high caste Hindu cultural practice of dowry”. She says, that very often dowry death is related to ‘female infanticide and the neglect of girl children’ that she wanted to investigate as well. Her research was focussed on Punjab and customs prevailing there as she found ‘Punjabi men reconfigured patriarchal values and manly ideals’.

Her observation was that in pre-colonial Punjab, dowry – a ‘custom’ in favour of women’s rights, neither caused impoverishment of Punjabi peasants nor led to any violence against women. That is what early colonial administrators claimed. But she says that several colonial policies made the economy more ‘masculine’ and that led to neglect and killing of girls for want of boys.

Establishment of property rights for peasants, inflexible tax demands and collection regimen and host of other colonial policies prepared the ground for gender inequality which in turn increased women’s vulnerability in natal as well as marital homes. So, in her view, the protective legislation (Dowry Prohibition Act) passed in favour of women didn’t take care of the ravages of ‘masculine’ economic policies.

Veena studied the historical perspective of Dowry death in Punjab province for two reasons. One, the lower-middle-class and high-caste Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs were more frequently implicated in these cases, and two, most media, feminists and NGOs attention was in this region.

She has conducted this study in late 20th Century (between 1985 – 1992) by interviewing activists, victims, NGOs, from newspaper reports and most importantly classified documents of colonial Punjab govt. She found the then-existing analyses of dowry murders being ahistorical and counterintuitive. Also, the scholarly treatment of female infanticide was unsatisfactory for various reasons. She understood that the custom of dowry has corrupted over time and so she wanted to understand when and how this corruption happened.

The Colonials and traditional Hindus give two contradictory explanations behind dowry deaths – the colonials point finger at the Hindu tradition of dowry and high marriage expenses, while the traditionalists blame ‘westernization’ that led to excessive greed for materialization. This is one of the reasons, Vedic India was against materialism as it increases the crime rate. In this context, Veena said, in Europe even though the custom of dowry has disappeared, violence against women is still prevalent. So, this makes a clear case of study whether dowry death is a crime of imperial origin (in other words westernization effect).

Female Infanticide as Pre-emptive Dowry Murder

The British had uncovered that female infanticide was rampant even in 1851 Punjab and they attributed the crime to high-cost Punjabi weddings. Their documents stated that this high cost led to the impoverishment of the peasant families so, preferred killing their daughters to save future expenditure. This was because the peasant families “wanted to marry off their daughters in style.” It was indeed a logical explanation. So, this explanation saw infanticide as pre-emptive dowry murder.

The female to male sex ratio is a major indicator of sex-selective murder. By studying the figures from the colonial British era and modern India she found that some communities like Skihs who received Bride Price or Muslims who didn’t follow the Dowry system also had a low female to male ratio (even after considering natural sex ratio at birth which is skewed against girls). So, it is understood that female infanticide was neither a Hindu practice nor a lower-caste or upper-caste problem. So, she found that established explanations of both crimes of dowry murder and female infanticide (as a result of dowry or high marriage expenses) were unsatisfactory though it might seem to be a logical explanation.

Question is, in a war-torn region like Punjab, why such a distortion in sex-ratio observed? A region that has seen many wars in history already had a need to have warriors in all families and that almost eliminated the need for girls and created an increased need for having boys. The boy preference of the region is thus not very weird.

Dowry in Different Era

While studying colonial policies and social changes in a different era, Veena found disparate problems in different eras. In 1870, colonial rulers have passed a law to stop female infanticide. It had also restricted the dowry amount and wedding expenses. However, a continuation of a decreasing trend of sex ratio confirmed that dowry amount or huge wedding expenses had nothing to do with female infanticide.

A very interesting aspect that I came to know from this book was feminist profiling of a victim of dowry death. The narrative from Lotika Sarkar was like this –


“Such a person is always a woman . . . mostly in her twenties. She is a married woman [who has] already become a mother or is about to become a mother. . . . The woman is extremely unhappy by reason of demand for dowry. She has no other reason or causes for unhappiness, except that, resulting from, or connected with, the demand for dowry. The demands are persistent, determined and oppressive”.


But she said that even after the introduction of IPC 498a in 1984, the related violence didn’t diminish. Even though she didn’t consider frivolous complaints, she raised a question if the reported violence were primarily caused by dowry demands at all.

For the community that was not in friction with the custom of dowry as they believed in women’s rights and giving them their right in parental property, the new law of IPC 498a didn’t really make any change.

In her investigation of dowry as a problem, Veena started by defining dowry. Dowry, (Dahej in Hindi and Daaj in Punjabi) became a different problem in different ages. British colonialists in mid-nineteenth century benighted this as Hindu caste problem. Marxists saw it as a retrograde economic system and feminists saw this as discrimination as females were given dowry (movable assets) but not a share in the family property (immovable property like land and house).

To understand dowry as a problem, Veena wanted to study if there was any associated ‘violence’ due to dowry, before 1980. From the Punjab government reports she wanted to find if there was any such violence reported. She found some British govt. reports about the killing of females (female infanticide) but not that of brides. British has said, that due to the payment of high dowry and the high cost of marriage many peasant families had to kill their girl children. Thus female infanticide was projected as a pre-emptive dowry murder. So, in her research, she had to study both dowry death and female infanticide in the colonial period.

In traditional Indian families, the power structure was very complex and could not be defined in a binary gender-based way as feminists most often try to show. Veena found that contrary to the feminist portrayal of women being powerless in a patriarchal family and males being all-powerful, there existed no such binary power relation. For instance, she said, a mother was more powerful than her sons, an older daughter or sister had the authority to participate in family decisions and a woman gained power as she took charge of a family and became a mother of next generation.

For these women, dowry was an important asset for women for harder times. It was “an index of the appreciation bestowed upon a daughter in her natal village and the ostensible measure of her status in her conjugal village”.

From the study of Punjab Govt. reports of the 19th century, none of the reports, she said, described dowry as demand from a groom’s family. Rather it was a collection of gifts, clothes, jewellery, household goods and cash given by the bride’s family and friends. In the colonial period, the wedding expenses also included a son’s wedding expenses and many instances in govt. documents were mentioned like that.

In the colonial era, dowry items were accumulated over a period of time, not only by the family members but also by the extended kin and friends in the neighbourhood. It was a time when very few dowry items were purchased. These were accumulated through a custom of reciprocity in village communities. Cows, buffaloes, goats and camels were considered more valuable than land and these were the dowry items given to daughters.

Cash and land became more valuable by the introduction of some colonial policies that rose their value exponentially. The land became a marketable commodity in the colonial period after that land and cash took predominant positions in dowry. But dowry was always a safety net for the daughter.

Ruthless Colonization and Female Infanticide

When the East India Company, that was initially licensed only to trade in India, started ruthlessly acquiring different parts of India, they started a war and pushed the warring places like Punjab to war. This was not taken well by the British parliament and outraged British people. So they needed a suitable explanation for the East India Company to justify their actions. The easy way out was to blame indigenous culture and traditions and to show how those were harming the people in India. It was better known as ‘civilizing mission’ and Hindu culture became its prime target.

The British played this card of connecting female infanticide and dowry murder to show how barbaric Hindu customs were and to justify the mayhem they created both after acquiring the Bombay Presidency in the late 18th century and also after acquiring Punjab in 1849. So, the mayhem they caused was justified as ‘civilizing mission’ of the British.

This theory (of cleansing or civilizing the Hindus) has trumped all anti-imperial compunctions in Victorian England and East India Company gained confidence.

There is also another important evidence against the imperial policies and colonial origin of the crime of female infanticide being linked with a dowry. In 1851, the British found Sikh Bedis guilty of female infanticide (Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak was from the Bedi caste). This discovery proved huge gain for the British, as they could justify two unsanctioned (by the British Parliament) bloody wars against Sikhs, that led to the annexation of their rich and fertile Sikh kingdom just two years ago.

In the same year, however, British judiciously overlooked the female infanticide in Jats who were the favourite recruits by the British Indian Army. In fact, the British have praised Jats on many occasions. It was noted, that Jats were exonerated because they didn’t give dowry but received ‘bride price’ from the grooms’ family. Their daughters worked in the fields unlike other Khsatriya and Brahmin daughters and hence the assumption was girls there must have been valued.

So, British has always shown undeniable impoverishment of Indian peasants as a dowry-related problem. In 1858, when mortality from famines grew, and the queries about British rule in India within Britain became more intense, then the British showed the horrifying impoverishment of Punjabi peasant families as self-induced. It was easy to condemn ‘wasteful’ social expenditure – occasional feasts or gifts connected to the wedding celebration as the ‘main cause’ of their misery.

Exaggeration of Dowry and British Policies

The British have played a crucial role in making ‘dowry’ a social evil not only by exaggerating it but also through their different policies. Even though in 1853 British has brought regulations to control marriage expenses, the marriage cost continued to skyrocket due to different policy changes. They reduced or abolished customary subsidies for maintaining different community facilities connected to marriage. Also, ever since the British made the land as an important, highly valued asset over movable assets (like cows, buffaloes etc. that formed traditional dowry items), the entire equation has changed.

When the price of land started skyrocketing, families needed to keep the land to them and also needed to protect those lands from encroachments. So, the natural choice was to have more sons, not only to keep their asset to them but to have a protective force ready. With cash flows increasing due to the land price hike, the British simultaneously injected more consumer goods in the market. These goods were all imported from Britain and all were costly items. So, these were a natural choice for the peasants to include in the dowry items.

So these British policies redefined women’s rights in their parental property. Since the land was in the nearby location of their patriarchal home, the choice of ownership has gone to the sons and son preference has increased. But this ‘gendered’ right as evolved through British policies were recorded in the History as ‘customary’ to Indian traditions by the British historians.

The British then cleared many forests, built canals and created other facilities and made the fertile lands of Punjab a major grain-producing region. But this was all for their own colonial motive. They extracted wealth from rural Punjab, in the form of heavy taxation and exports of the product to Europe. So, they forced the people of the region to contribute to the economic prosperity of Britain but the people of the region remained poor forever.

The British never tried to bring modern industry to Punjab and any indigenous effort to import such industry was also suppressed. So, the region soon came under unprecedented poverty and a million and a half Punjabis perished in the famine of 1876-77. This has created a different power relation in households.

Veena found that the imperial rulers used the word ‘culture’ with deliberate political intent to create the linked pair of ‘civilized ruler’ and a ‘barbaric nation’. British tried to show that ‘Hindu’ culture was inferior, capricious, cruel and barbaric and fostered criminal and amoral behaviour.

With the creation of male individual property owner, British has also made them the central piece for their revenue policy. This may sound good, but behind this was a very cruel intention. British has created rytowari settlements, with peasant owners, and then made fixed amounts and inflexible dates for payment of land revenues. So, small landowners eventually were forced to mortgage or even sell their land and became daily labourers in their own land. This had worsened the situation when the Govt. continued to demand high revenue even in bad years.

With the price of land increasing, and with more peasant families becoming worse-off due to govt revenue policies, they were forced to take short-term loans. In bad years or when the harvest was late, peasant families needed to take loans at the heavy interest rate for paying their taxes (and not for paying dowry or marriage expenses). So, there emerged a section of greedy moneylenders, who would give up to 70% of the value of land as a loan but with inflexible dates. When peasants were unable to pay up, their land was auctioned and the land was snatched from the real owner. Soon, the vast majority of small peasant family had chronic indebtedness and lost their lands.

So, with faulty and oppressive colonial policies, even though land prices went up and export of foodgrains increased, only money lenders and grain traders benefited and not the peasant families. Soon, lenders started to foreclose their loans and snatch properties from the poor peasants. This became such a chronic problem for poor farmers that women’s dowry items – jewellery or cash started to be used to rescue the families.

The ‘masculinization’ of the economy (by creating land ownership for males) not only created extreme hardship for males but also created hardship for females. Feminist scholars observed, that with men not able to handle the stress and resorting to drinking and abusive behaviour, very often women were illtreated and thrown out of their homes. With their safety net (the dowry items) being consumed by their in-laws, these women became destitute. That is when feminists claim to have started a fight for women’s land-ownership. Veena observed that ‘Putting landed property in male hands and holding males responsible for payment of revenue made them prominent legal subjects. It also led to having gender-targeted families. Quoting from Selective Discrimination Against Female Children in Rural Punjab, India, Veena said, in the medically primitive days, female infanticide was the only way to achieve ‘gender-targeted’ families.

In this aspect, the then imperial civil servants, who submitted their reports to the govt. and criticized the revenue policies became important evidence. In these reports, they have warned the govt against the inflexible revenue policies that led to the extreme indebtedness of the Punjabi peasant families. But the British had suppressed these reports or buried them so that no one could get access to reality. Discordant voices from civil servants like S. S. Thorburn, Malcolm Darling, and F. L Brayne who were very loyal to British government proved that the real cause of the extreme poverty of peasant families and female infanticide and male-targeted economy were faulty rules of British Govt.


Subsequent Parts

Part 2 – How Son Preference Started in India

Part 3 – Little Know History of Linking Female Infanticide to Dowry

*For other book reviews check – Here


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