For Nisha Sharma, celebrations began after her marriage was called-off. Congratulatory crowds, complimentary callers, laudatory letters, awards aplenty have become part of her life. Ever since, a fortnight ago, this 21-year-old software systems student from Noida, in Delhi's neighbourhood, called up the police to report her greedy groom's escalating demands—he'd ordered another Rs 12 lakh, over and above the electronic appliances and luxury car already promised to him as dowry. This, minutes before the wedding, with 2,000 guests already in to bless the couple. The groom, Munish Dalal, was arrested, and Nisha's been at the receiving end of adulation since then. "I'm overwhelmed by the public support and the appreciation," says her father Dev Dutt Sharma. He adds: "Over 20 marriage proposals come in for Nisha every day, from fathers who insist their sons want to marry a bold girl like her. Also, organisations like Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasabha and Delhi's Urdu Academy and many other associations are honouring Nisha with awards and cash prizes. They say Nisha is a role model!"
Our role models and icons are a reflection of our own aspirations. And if so many in India are approving and applauding Nisha Sharma today, then perhaps there are more committed soldiers in the crusade against dowry than we ever had. Men and women who aspire to be winners in the battle against this rapacious killer that burns thousands of brides every year: why, at the last count three years ago, 7,000 women were killed for not satiating demands of dowry made on them. Many more women were, and continue to be, tortured—physically, verbally and emotionally. Yet, we would be a hopeless people if we refused to count the brave few like Nisha who dare protest against dowry, and the many more who support, admire and want to emulate such protests. For, if the stories coming in from the across country are any indication, then Nisha's sorority, and its well-wishers, are on a significant increase.
Unknown to each other, Ludhiana's Geeta, 19, and Anupama Singh, 21, of Nandnagri on Delhi's outskirts, are perhaps the freshest entrants into Nisha's courageous clan. Both were married on May 14, barely three days after Nisha captured news headlines and our imagination. And both bid feisty farewells to their haggling husbands within hours of their marriage.
Geeta, unlettered and unafraid, removed her wedding finery and refused to leave with her groom Vinod, a factory hand in Delhi: "I didn't want a man who wants money more than me," she said. The ceremony over, the groom's side asked the girl's family to pay up another Rs 10,000 and the fare for seven taxis that brought them to the wedding. Geeta decided to annul the marriage and found unstinting support in her neighbours. They joined forces and "got an agreement from the groom's side in front of the police that the marriage did not exist". Importantly, they ensured that Geeta's family was paid back every penny spent on the groom.
Just like the elders of Nandnagri rallied around Anupama's family to get them back the Rs 1 lakh that had been wasted on her groom. Yoginder, a crpf constable, they thought, would be a perfect match for Anupama, a textile design student. A motorbike and Rs 51,000 had already been gifted to the groom at the engagement. And it seemed like a marriage made in heaven, till hell broke loose on the wedding day—a sozzled-out-of-its-senses baraat arrived at 11.30 pm, five hours behind schedule, misbehaved, and the inebriated groom slurred and stumbled through the ceremony, refusing later to leave with his bride without an additional Rs 8 lakhs. That's when Anupama's father, Kehar Singh, dragged Yoginder into a room and left him to the mercy of the family's women. Anupama took the lead in thrashing the groom, joined energitically by her mother, younger sister and aunts."This happened because we complied with all their demands right from the beginning," fulminates Anupama, adding: "We should have told them off at the start itself."
But, perhaps, it is never too late to stand up against dowry. For those who might quibble over Nisha, Geeta, Anupama being quite content to be getting married with dowry till the demands spiralled, would they rather have had these girls not protesting at all? "Considering dowry continues to kill and maim so many women, and few can say no to giving it, girls like Nisha who are today finding courage to say no to dowry—at whatever point in their marriage—should have our unqualified support. We intend to take their stories to the smallest villages and make examples of them," argues Poornima Advani, chairperson of the National Commission for Women. Kumud Sharma, sociologist at the Centre for Women's Development Studies, adds: "The menace of dowry has definitely increased with time. Even anti-dowry legislations haven't seen any tangible returns. Yet, two decades of concerted efforts by the women's movement has made a mark somewhere. The media and the public today empathise much more with those who take stances against dowry."
This new empathy and awareness finds its way into the conservative, congested lanes of Ballimaran in Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk. As octogenarian Shaiffudin Khan, 20-year-old Farzana's neighbour, approvingly recounts incidents that led to Farzana refusing to leave for her husband Nadeem's house: "Two years after the nikah (a social contract confirmed when the bride, through a priest, accepts a marriage proposal), May 18 had been fixed as a date for ruksat (the send-off when the father of the bride gives her hand to her husband and requests him to take care of her always). But Nadeem wanted another Rs 50,000 and a scooter to take Farzana. I am so happy she put her foot down and refused to go with him. Our daughters are not for burning."
Secunderbad's Suchitra Koteshwarao, 21, was eight months pregnant when she overheard her husband plotting to have her murdered. It was only then, after over two years of harassment for dowry, that she decided to run away to her parents. Her father had negotiated well before she was married to Pentukar Kateshwarao, a government clerk, in 2001: he had demanded Rs 3 lakh as dowry, a sum bargained down to Rs 2.10 lakh. But Koteshwarao was unemployed, and began pressuring Suchitra for money within days of their wedding, for his mother's last rites and setting up a business. After the birth of her child, a depressed Suchitra attempted suicide. But better sense prevailed: "I tried to go back one more time but they beat me up. My parents told me that if I die, he'll soon get another wife, but they'll lose me forever." Last month, Sucihtra initiated her divorce proceedings, and is determined to fight to have her husband punished and her dowry returned.
Chennai's Zabin Begum, 28, meanwhile, has decided to fight against dowry for more than just herself. Dissatisfied with the traditional "30-30" bridal payment (30 sovereigns of gold and Rs 30,000) her parents had made at the time of their marriage in 1998, her husband started abusing her physically. Even when she was pregnant, she was kicked in her stomach, fed medicines to abort her child and eventually abandoned one day. It was then, in 2000, that she approached the All India Democratic Women's Association (aidwa) and filed a case for dowry harassment under their guidance; the case is still on. And two months ago, Zabin launched a monthly magazine Paadukavalan (The Protector), which will focus on women's issues: "I was a shy girl. Now I speak at anti-dowry conventions. Dowry harassment has made me what I am today."
And there are many more such unbroken spirits that survive dowry torture, and fight back.Mary Sheila Pareira, 26, an engineer from Chikballapur, a town close to Bangalore, called-off her engagement with Ivan D'souza and filed for Rs 15 lakh damages. The couple had lived-in together for a year, before they were formally engaged at a church ceremony in 2000. But before the marriage could be solemnised in January 2001, Ivan demanded Rs 5 lakh. The relationship was broken, pushing her to start a fight: "I know it will take a long time, but I will see justice done." Nidhi Joshi, 30, a journalism teacher in Bhopal, is equally charged. She recently filed a case of dowry harassment and divorced her husband after living through a seven-year-old extractive marriage. Her husband, an engineer and mba, had demanded her father provide him a house: "But I put my foot down. My husband was qualified, why couldn't he build a house himself? I want him penalised heavily, so that no one else dares to do such things again."
But it isn't only about bravado all the way. Breaking free of the claustrophobic matrimonial home is not always an exhilarating experience, and yet worthwhile. After returning to her parents four years ago, Lucknow's Bharati Seth became a door-to-door salesperson to sustain herself and her child. Currently she's out of a job. It's a difficult life, but one she prefers infinitely over when she was with her lawyer husband. He took her jewellry, abused her physically, ill-treated her during pregnancy, and wouldn't keep her unless her parents constantly fed his demands: "After a point I decided not to go back to him. I'll face any odds but will not go back to being insulted for dowry."
In a recent survey by aidwa in Chennai, 87 per cent of the respondents—100 unmarried men and women (18-30 age group) and 120 women married in the last five years—said giving and accepting dowry is wrong. Statistics that find face in Pinki of Punjab's Panchkula and Manju Kumari of Kaniyapuram in Kerala. Pinky, a gutsy 18-year-old seamstress turned away her greedy baraat about three months ago: "Although I felt very bad doing it then, I know it was the right thing. They wanted a scooter and misbehaved at the wedding. If this was their attitude before marriage, imagine what it'd be afterwards." As enraged by her fiancé's zooming dowry demands, Manju, 21, broke-off her engagement recently. Vijarajan hadn't thought fifty gold sovereigns plus landed assets worth Rs 10 lakh were sufficient dowry for a Gulf-employed groom like him. "He asked for more, my mother had half-a-mind to borrow and unburden herself," recalls Manju, "But I decided a man who hasn't qualms disowning a girl he vowed to wed in front of 250-odd relatives for money, would do worse later."
Lucid thinking that is catching on, observe experts. Ranjana Kumari, author of Brides Are Not for Burning and director of the Centre for Social Research, which runs six counselling centres for women victims of violence in Delhi, says that mindsets are changing. Avers she: "Ten years ago, very few girls would come in with complaints. Today we receive about 60 to 70 complaints of domestic violence in a month, many of them dowry related. Earlier, the complainants would come in as victims. Today many come in to assert their rights. Also, now they come with supportive paternal families." Dona Fernandes, convener of Vimochana, a women's self-help group, also appreciates the change, but qualifies: "I do admire the courage being shown by Nisha and girls like her, but I will be happier when young men refuse to marry girls from families that offer dowry. They should also have the courage to say they aren't for sale." Till then, however, let's applaud these gutsy girls, a few maybe, but a significant few.
Soma Wadhwa with Chander Suta Dogra in Ludhiana, S.Anand in Chennai, B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore, Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad,Sutapa Mukherjee in Lucknow, K.S. Shaini in Bhopal and John Mary in Thiruvananthapuram
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