[In this series titled Dowry on the historical perspective of India’s Dowry System, I am discussing how Prof Veena Talwar Oldenburg has found out the history of the evolution of Dowry as a crime from a women’s rights initiative. She has written this history in her book titled ‘Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origin of a Cultural Crime’ published by the Oxford University Press in 2002]
In my previous article of this series, I have shown how the British government has created a masculinization of the economy through different colonial policies. In this article, I will show you how that has led to a son-preference and female infanticide as found by Veena Talwar Oldenburg in her study.
The Start of Son-Preference
Sons became key to agrarian Punjabi society when acquiring land during auction or sale, or for recruitment in the British government army or finding a job in an ever-growing retailer marketspace. Around this time, the British govt had flooded the Indian market with British goods and also opened the floodgates of trade with Europe mainly for their own benefit. While the peasant families continued to suffer in poverty, these new job roles for males, enhanced the ‘male value’ in society.
Due to this ‘enhanced’ value of sons, some families started demanding a ‘price’ for their son’s qualifications or job roles (earning potential). The competition for best-qualified and best-employed groom increased as their number was very less. The mothers and daughters knew that a good dowry amount was needed to secure the ‘catch’. So, the idea that a groom’s family could demand dowry slowly picked up. With several oppressive colonial policies, as a hardship on families grew, these demands started growing and continued even after marriage and also led to the killing of the bride. This was never a ‘dowry’ problem, but the problem caused due to the relationship between power and gender has reorganized under different imperial strictures.
The ’Son Preference’ was thus a strategic and moral need for peasant and warrior Punjabi families for long-time survival. Daughters due to their reproduction role had to be married off at puberty and were sent to their husbands’ village. Even though both sexes were needed, sons were needed more. So, even though the British have brought a strict law to restrict female infanticide in 1870 and outlawed the practice with heavy fine and imprisonment, it didn’t stop. This was mainly due to other policies that forced a masculine economy on agrarian Punjab.
The John Company
The British East India Company was initially only granted permission to trade in India. However, soon they saw an opportunity to ruling the country due to her internal conflicts. However, there was strong opposition in British parliament itself against a trading company ruling any part of the world. So, the East India Company had to show enough reason to mould the opinion of the Brits in their favour and found an easy way to convince the British parliament about the ‘need’ of civilizing Indians. They projected dowry as a social evil that existed in ‘barbarian’ Hindus and linked female feticide to it to show how severe the dowry problem was.
In my previous article, I have shown how the masculinization grew in agrarian Punjabi families and how female infanticide has resulted from the skewed British policies of land revenues and other trading policies. So, the cattle that were once considered as the most valuable asset to a family, the focus soon shifted to land and sons became the most valuable gender in India.
After acquiring Punjab in 1849, the East India Company has found a need to convince the British parliament about the company being the ruler of India. However, British parliamentary rules prohibited any other entity from becoming stronger than Britain itself and hence there was a strong voice against the company functioning as a state. But then the company was successful in relating the female infanticide to India’s dowry system and completely drift the focus away from their own policies that had created extreme son-preference in Indian society (details is given in the previous article) and hence could establish the need of remaining in political power.
The East India Company had many other Indian systems to highlight as barbaric customs. The Caste system and the Sutee customs coupled with female infanticide were shown as barbaric Indian customs and hence it became a duty of every Britons to civilize Indians. After the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, however, the company was no longer given the chance to be the ruling power and that was shifted from John Company to the British Crown.
The Aftermath of Punjab Battles
When British conquered Punjab after two hard battles in 1845 and 1849, they projected that they needed to rule Punjab to end the Sati (or Sutee) custom that was rampant in that area. At that time, Punjab was literally in shambles after the death of Maharana Ranjit Singh. The state was not only rich in revenues and natural resources, but Punjabis was also a valiant and most important people for any warfare. So, acquiring Punjab meant acquiring a lot of wealth for the British.
So, in spite of the fact that female infanticide was a known crime to the British even in 1789 (Jonathan Duncan), they found some incidents in high-class Rajputs and linked hypergamy and dowry to Female infanticide. However, in her analysis Veena has also shown how they have ignored the female infanticide issue among lower-class Hindus like Jats who received Bride Price and Muslims who didn’t follow the dowry system.
Investigations of Female Infanticide
When the British Government formed a committee to investigate the problem of female infanticide, and the government officials visited every village where female infanticide was suspected (low sex-ratio). This was drawn based on their census reports. Officials spoke with village headmen or caste supremo to understand the problem and why it was practised despite there being a law preventing female infanticide (1829).
The murders took place either immediately after the birth (by chocking the children to death) or afterwards through negligence. However, what feminists blamed patriarchy and men for killing those children were not true. In those days, men didn’t have access to the rooms where women gave birth to children. It was the women of the family that decided which girl would live and which one would perish.
However, surprisingly enough none of the women were interviewed by the British officials during these investigations. There were social barriers against talking to women as well. The caste headmen or village heads (all males) who were interviewed on this, told their own stories behind those murders and most often the blame was on the customs so that they (village headmen) were not implicated (remember British laws prevented infanticide with fines, imprisonment and even death by hanging).
However, in 1808 Alexander Walker, a British resident of Baroda, has quoted from Hindu Purana (Vatim Buwant Purana) where it was clearly mentioned that killing an embryo is a heinous crime of the highest degree. If we study other Hindu religious texts, Shastras and Puranas we will also get confirmation against any kind of murder. Then the question is, how did the British investigation and reports found cultural reasons behind the female infanticide? To understand this, we need to understand how Caste became a factor here.
Caste as a Culprit
In 1853, the then Judicial Commissioner of Punjab R Montgomery, in his Minute on Infanticide gave detailed description of extravagant costs associated with Hindu marriages and linked female infanticide to dowry and high cost of marriage. Since by then it was an established theory that sounded very logical as well, it soon became the only theory that was replicated in all British reports and was impossible to refute.
What Veena observed was that British bureaucrats carefully kept reports about female infanticide, famine and revenue issues separate and no one could realize that infanticide was also related to economic factors. So, instead of High British revenue, policies to strip peasants of their land possessions and bring them under eternal debt, creation of a ryotwari system and killing the indigenous industry and bringing costly British imports to further impoverish the region was never discussed. All focus was summarily given to the high cost of marriage and dowry system that has led to killing female infants.
In this context, Veena observed,
“the ulterior motives of the colonialist and the informant colluded to create a formula in which the culpability of particular castes rather than the responsibility of particular individual was hammered out.”
Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Historian
It was noted by the British that Dharam Chand Bedi, Grandson of Guru Nanak ji ordered that “No Bedi should let a daughter live” following a mishap in his personal life. Traditionally (or even today), women married in castes higher than or similar to their own. Bedi daughters were mostly married to Khatris. His decision was following a tiff during his daughter’s marriage and he wanted to teach a lesson to Khatri’s going forward. It was reported to the British by village headmen that they followed the tradition of ‘killing’ their infant daughters following that dictate.
Since this crime was wrapped in tradition, the need of keeping the land in the family, the need for security in an era of high indebtedness etc. never came forward. Since the British didn’t isolate these village headmen and women and punished them as murderers, this crime was successfully wrapped under the disguise of ‘tradition’. When such heinous crimes like ‘dowry murder’ and ‘female infanticide’ were successfully termed as tradition, the British govt. continued to suck Punjab and Haryana through their even harsher land and revenue policies. This led to further impoverishment of the peasants, many lost their own lands and went into eternal indebtedness. Only traders, who traded in European goods, lent money in high interest and wanted to forcefully pre-close all loans, became richer.
So, we find that even in an 1852 report, Major Edwardes, one of the investigators into the female infanticide, happily concluded that religious beliefs and ‘traditions’ made the Punjabi people kill their daughters. However, Veena observed that about one and a half-century before Edwardes report, Guru Gobind Singh (the last Sikh Guru), has clearly given direction not to kill any girls.
Upon investigation into the Dharam Chand story, Veena found that it was told by a village headman and there was no one else who corroborated the same. So, there was no evidence that it was indeed true. Also, the Dharam Chand story didn’t have any dowry mentioned in it. So, where did the British get the dowry angle if it was not a desperate attempt to force their own theory upon us?
Dowry was not a problem in 1852, so much so the high land revenues and forceful acquiring of lands were. So, Punjabi families needed sons to protect their financial interests.
There is also an irony in this British report. British officers who found dowry and hypergamy in upper-caste Hindu and Sikh families ignored female infanticide among lower-caste Hindus like Jats (who received a Bride price for marrying off their daughters) and Muslims, who married their cousins and didn’t practice dowry. In fact, when Edwardes took a census in different Punjab districts, it was found that the female to male ratio was worse in these communities than those who practised hypergamy and dowry.
Edwardes however just ignored these results saying those data were mistakes by the person who took the data and never believed that Muslims and Jats too killed their daughters and the root cause of dowry or marriage expenses were not valid. However, Veena also found that a daughter after two sons were often preferred and three consecutive sons were not preferred.
Historians like Phillip Oldenburg (1992) and Peter Mayer (1999) also had similar observations that a son was needed to increase the strength of a family in fights with neighbours over water rights (for agriculture) or for joining the army in good ranks. Thus was created and sustained India’s need of son preference and that eventually grew female infanticide in those early years.
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