Initially, police had no reason to consider the death of the 24-year-old girl suspicious on June 21 until her family filed a complaint under the country’s “dowry death” law.
The law allows charges to be brought against people for the death or suicide of a woman within the first seven years of marriage in which the family had promised a dowry—a gift given to the groom’s family upon marriage of a couple.
Dowry has been banned in India for more than 60 years, but the practice persists – and not just in rural and more traditional parts of the country.
Kerala Inspector General of Police Harshita Ataluri said investigators were yet to ascertain whether Nair died by suicide or was murdered.
Police arrested Nair’s husband Kiran Kumar under India’s dowry death law. He remains in custody but has not been charged.
Kumar’s counsel BA Alur submitted that Kumar did not commit any dowry-related offence.
“There is nothing on record to show that this gentleman either committed murder or dowry death,” he said.
Traditionally, dowry referred to a gift in the form of cash or goods that parents gave to their daughter to provide her with greater financial security in her marriage.
But now experts say that families are transferring cash, gold, car, immovable property or other property to the groom’s family under the condition of marriage.
And some families are extremely unhappy with the deal.
an illegal practice
India’s dowry system in one form or the other dates back thousands of years, when women unable to inherit property under Hindu laws were provided with a registered dowry in their name during marriage.
But in spite of harsh punishment, the dowry system still has made deep inroads in the society as an integral part of marriage.
The information was based on the 2006 Rural Economic and Demographic Survey – the most recent source of dowry data covering 17 major states.
Recent crime statistics show that dowry is still being given.
Of the 3,516 dowry deaths attempted in court in 2019, only 35.6% received criminal convictions. Experts say it may be difficult for families to prove that harassment for dowry caused the woman’s death.
Thousands of cases are still working their way through the courts; By the end of 2019, more than 46,000 cases were yet to be heard. Activists say the large number of cases shows the laws are highly ineffective, and have been for a long time.
“It is legally banned, but it is a socially accepted practice,” said Sandhya Pillai, trustee of Sakhi Women’s Resource Center in Kerala. “No one feels that giving or taking dowry is not right, whatever the law may be.”
‘He loved to dance’
Nair’s brother Vijit Nair said that his sister was once a “bright, courageous and active girl”.
“She was a very active woman, not only was she studying medicine, but she was also a part of the National Cadet Corps and represented the state in national camps,” he said, referring to her participation in the youth wing of the Indian Armed Forces. Said happened. forces.
“She loved to dance, she loved to travel and fly.”
He said that after marriage he changed.
“She was banned from using social media, from calling her parents, from flying, everything because of this one thing – this dowry.”
She said that her husband Kumar was not happy with the car that his family had given him. “We gave him a nice car, but he didn’t stop asking for a bigger and more expensive one,” Nair said.
Police Inspector Ataluri said Kumar was embarrassed by the make and model of the car found and was not happy with his wife’s dowry, which included gold.
Nair said that his family wants his sister to be financially secure.
“We gave so much for him – what I earned by working, my father’s life savings of over 20 years, we gave it all for his life security,” he said. “And only a year passed (after her marriage), and we lost her.”
Kumar’s counsel said that the allegations of dowry dispute are “false and baseless”. CNN has attempted to reach Kumar’s family for comment.
Nair was not the only woman to die under suspicious circumstances in Kerala in June – families of three other women have also filed police complaints over dowry.
According to the complaint lodged with the police, 22-year-old Archana died on the same day that Nair was killed, which identifies her by only one name. The police have registered a case under the criminal section of causing death of the woman within seven years of marriage.
A day later, 19-year-old Suchitra Tiyal was found dead in the house she shared with her husband, according to a complaint lodged at the Vallikunnam police station. Police say they have not made any arrests and have not denied Tiyal’s family allegations that it was dowry death. CNN contacted Tial’s family for comment, but did not hear back.
Although the deaths have not been conclusively classified as dowry deaths, they have caused widespread shock and anger in Kerala, with many demanding an end to the controversial custom.
“We cannot say that literacy has not contributed to women empowerment – much progress has been made for women’s rights in various social spheres,” Pillai said. “At the same time, we have this deep-seated patriarchy that we have not been able to overcome despite high literacy rates.”
Nair’s brother said that there was no question that dowry was expected for his sister’s marriage.
Vijit Nair said, “If you are a girl with a good education, and you are from a good family, it doesn’t matter.” “If you want to marry off your daughter, and you don’t pay a dowry, you won’t find a good, educated man. That’s the system in Kerala.”
shame, stigma and silence
Experts say that this controversial custom is difficult to curb as it is linked to one’s prestige and social standing.
Pillai said, “People fear that they will be humiliated if they do not display money at their daughter’s wedding.”
The custom has also been generalized under the guise of “gifting” – which is traditionally considered “dowry” and which can be classified as a voluntarily given gift from the bride to the groom’s family, among Blurs the line.
Shahida Kamal, a member of the Kerala Commission for Women, described it as a “loophole” in the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. She says that gifts such as gold, land or cars gifted by families are not covered under the provisions of the Act. “Here begins the dilemma of pretending to be a wealthy family and satisfying the groom’s family in any way possible,” he said.
Professor Praveena Kodoth, who researches gender, migration and human development at the Center for Development Studies in Kerala, said many women in marriages where dowry is creating disputes say nothing because of “shame and humiliation”.
Nair said that her sister was physically and verbally harassed by her husband during their marriage. When her family found out, “we brought her back home and never wanted to send her back to her husband’s house again,” she said. Nair said he convinced her not to report the abuse to the police.
Her brother said that she was doing her practical exams in school, when her husband found her, apologized and asked her to return to his home. He agreed.
“After that, he hid everything from us. We believed he was fine,” Nair said.
He believes that his sister did not want to inflict more pain on his family, or bring any burden or shame to them.
Pillai says that feelings of guilt are common among women – especially if the woman’s parents are elderly, or are struggling to pay enough dowry.
Kumar’s lawyer says Kumar denied the allegations of abuse, adding that there was no physical abuse or abuse by Kumar during the marriage.
struggle for justice
Pillai says the Sakhi Mahila Kendra receives hundreds of calls every month from women seeking help, but many do not speak up.
“We need to keep talking about these subjects seriously in the society,” Pillai said. “That is the only way people will start facing them and not forget the plight of our daughters.”
But there are also systemic frameworks that address the inherent power imbalance between men and women that need to be addressed, Kodoth said.
For example, state banks insist on granting loans to facilitate marriage for women, but do not offer similar loans for grooms, encouraging families to push their daughters into marriage at an early age. can.
“As a society, we need to reform the prevailing marriage system,” he tweeted. “Parents have to realize that the barbaric dowry system degrades our daughters as commodities. We should treat them better, as human beings.”
Vijayan said that more stringent steps will be taken to help women in Kerala.
Since then, a round-the-clock women’s helpline has been set up, and Vijayan said the school curriculum will be revised to remove material that is derogatory towards women.
“Steps will be taken to transform our schools and colleges into places that embrace the idea of gender equality and equal rights,” he said.
Kodoth says that the dowry system persists across the country because patriarchal values are deeply embedded in Indian culture, systems and daily life. She says it is important to teach children to embrace gender equality from an early age because the dowry system can be challenged only when there is a “social renaissance”.
Nair’s brother says that he is committed to get justice for his sister.
“We need to keep her story alive,” he said. “I want justice for my sister. I will fight for her till my last breath.”
CNN’s Isha Mitra contributed reporting from New Delhi.