The Untold History of Linking Female Infanticide to Dowry


[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]

PART – 1 2 3 4

Part 1 – Dowry – A Historical Perspective of Evolution of a Crime

Part 2 – The History of Starting Son preference in India

Part 3

When the British first noticed Female infanticide in India way back in 1789, one of their East India Company officials tried to casually link all violence against women to the dowry system. But that was a casual attempt. But this grew support within the company as behind this was a great possibility of a ‘civilising mission’ of British to civilize Indians.

In 1813 the ‘civilising mission’ got a boost when the British parliament passed The India Act 1813 to include Christian Missionaries to civilize Indians and mainly to liberate Indian women.

As a result, James Peggs a Christian Missionary created the entire gamut of ‘Hindoo social evils’. This was also presented in the parliament and was first seen in the public domain as ‘Sutees cry to Britain’. Then the female infanticide was added to it. The original document of 110 pages was then fattened to 518 pages in 1832 and was renamed as “Cries of Agony: An Historical Account of Suttee, Infanticide, Ghat Murders, and Slavery in India”.

 That was the start of interference of evangelical British religious leaders in India’s affairs, mainly to liberate ‘hapless Hindoo women’ from the clutches of Hindoo patriarchy. As a result, we still see Christian Missionaries from around the world fund India’s feminist NGOs even today.

After British conquered Punjab in 1849 and found out instances of female infanticide, they made it big. Punjabis started blaming their tradition and openly condemned the same while continued practising infanticide secretly. Blaming the tradition was however more for suppressing their own guilt rather than upholding any tradition as Indian religious texts prohibited infanticide. I have already explained earlier how a faulty British colonial ruling has led to more demand for male children in this article.

R Montgomery, the Judicial Magistrate of Punjab issued a circular to all commissioners of Punjab to investigate the extent of female infanticide situation in their area and suggest effective measures to curb the same. His circular was instigated by Major Lake, the deputy commissioner of Gurudaspoor district, who first brought the attention of Punjab government to high rate of infanticide among the Bedee caste of Punjab. So, the study was focussed from beginning on the Hindoo caste system. Infanticide in these British documents was described as ‘a crime to which some specific castes were addicted to’.

By that time (around 1851) Mr C Raikes was transferred to Lahore. Raikes was famous for his success with Rajputs in Rajasthan and claimed to have stopped female infanticide in Rajasthan completely. In all these previous ‘studies’ the British did, they found a mixture of caste pride, dowry and hypergamy responsible for female infanticide. The theory was simple and seems very logical. Higher caste people wanted to protect their caste pride and so wanted to give more dowry. Which in turn made the peasant families poorer. Hypergamy as stated also a result of dowry system as women had to pay less dowry for marrying a man with other wives. This British theory deeply rooted in Indian customs could easily prove to others that Indian customs of paying dowry during a daughter’s marriage made the peasant families poorer rather than anything else.

As described in an earlier article in this series, where I have elaborated on how son preference started in India, I have shown how Veena Talwar Oldenberg also investigated into the British land policies and proved that dowry was not a major problem in India in 1851 than other land reform policies. British, however, were successful in hiding the fact that their policies were making the Punjabi agrarian families poorer rather than the Dowry system. Dowry was also represented as the main reason behind farmers defaulting on their revenue payments. This way British East India Company could easily circumvent investigation upon their revenue policies by the British parliament.

So, when such models were established elsewhere in India, it was easy for them to replicate the same in Punjab. Major Edwardes and Major Abbott were two independent researchers working on finding the reasons in Punjab.

For this, Major Edwardes spoke with community elder and village heads to understand the customs of the Bedee caste. Edwardes heard about female infanticide in the Bedee caste and came to know this story from a village headman that Dharam Chand Bedee, the grandson of Sant Guru Nanak ji (the founder of the Sikh faith) was marrying his daughter to a Khatri boy. There was some problem in the marriage from the Groom’s side (which was not related to dowry at all) and he decided to give an order of killing all Bedee girls to teach Khatris a lesson. That was the time when Khatris only used to marry Bedee girls. This ‘tradition’ which was not sanctioned in the Sikh faith, continued for 300 years when Bedees lost all their sheen due to losing their land ownership and losing high government posts stopped this ‘tradition’ of killing their daughters under British influence. Veena’s book has a detailed account of that history.

The British theory on female infanticide goes like this. When there is a perceived caste pride but limited economic resources, a clan will continue to kill their daughters because they need to give dowry during their marriage and they are unable to afford the same (unnecessary caste pride). Even though Dowry used to be the daughter’s right to her own paternal property and also a safety net for her own future, the definition of dowry over the years have changed. It was later perceived as a price paid to the groom for a woman who will be unproductive (in the agricultural field). [Will discuss how the concept of dowry changed in a separate article].

Now when Edwardes found that female infanticide existed even in lower caste Hindus and in Rajpoots, he acknowledged that was due to their ‘pecuniary motives’ as the marriage expenses became too high for them to afford. So, the British always wanted to approach the female infanticide problem, not as a crime committed by some people, but safely rooted it in tradition and kept it going. Another driving force behind this was to hide their absurd revenue policies that have made peasant families poorer. And soon Edwardes extends his conclusion to ‘All Hindoos’ who had skewed sex ratio to have the same cause for female infanticide.

But then this British theory miserably failed to explain the poor sex-ratio in Jats and Muslims. Both had even worse sex ratio and Jats accepted bride price (as their daughters worked in fields) and Muslims didn’t practice dowry system. It was found by historians that Muslims had twice as bad a sex-ratio compared to that of Hindoos.

To explain poor sex-ratio in Muslims, Edwardes said, that all jatis practised female infanticide under the Sikh rule in Punjab. His own census he found only 83 girls in every 100 boys.

It was, however, found that the Jats in Jallundhar district had a sex-ratio of 71 girls for every 100 boys. But since Jats by then were holding important positions in saving British borders, British had ignored this by saying, these were unreal figures and ‘universal opinion’ assured them that there was no skewed sex-ration existed in Jats. Since Jat women worked in the fields and they (parents) received bride price during daughters’ marriage, it was Edwardes perception that they couldn’t kill their daughters, and hence he took this data as an error.

But this theory was not enough to explain Muslim sex-ratio as well. British always thought Muslims to be different from Hindoos, because, not only they followed completely different customs, but also didn’t take dowry. The census in Jallundhar district by Edwardes’ team found about 73 girls in 100 boys.

That was the time when the sex-ratio in the Hindu population in Jallundhar district was found to be 83 girls in every 100 boys.

To explain this, Edwardes conceded that Muslims could have equally extravagant marriages like Hindoos but generally, they didn’t marry their daughters if they couldn’t afford marriage (understand his desperation to pin the blame on customs rather than outrageous British revenue regime).

But then these discrepancies cropped up from other districts as well. To this Edwardes commented, “Again, the custom of some (Lahoreen) Hindoos to demand dowries is altogether unknown among Mohammedans. Therefore, there does not appear to be that much of pressure that would lead us to suspect that they practice female infanticide and to doubt the general assertion that they do not. To that I deem the census, as far as the ration of female children is concerned, to be below reality, as was indeed remarked by the settlement officer.”

So, you understand how British has linked female infanticide to Indian customs for their political advantage without any reason.

In the next article in this series, we will take a look at how Dowry has evolved from a ‘right’ of women in their paternal property to something paid to the husband and his family to accept and feed a non (economically) contributing member and to feed her for a lifetime.



*For other book reviews check – Here

….To be continued

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  1. A woman’s dowry should be her character, health and beauty. Not her father’s income. I think the Bride price system is better in ensuing the minimization of daughters being financial liabilities to the poor.

    A woman of good dowry and bad character and physically unattractive isn’t worth the dowry at all.


    • You are also right that there is more to this in this article.

      British Impoverishment and the lack of morality in terms of human life including the prohibition of abortion/infanticide. Rather than if they cannot afford it give away their daughters for example to be adopted.


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