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Dowry murder as a legacy of British policies

By Rashme Arora

Historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg's new book maintains that the British revenue system, which put land exclusively in the hands of males, weakened the social and economic position of Indian women and encouraged practices such as dowry and female infanticide. An interview

Historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg's provocative book Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime effectively argues that dowry killings and the practice of female infanticide received a sharp fillip when the British decided to make individual peasant ownership the centrepiece of their revenue policy.

She argues that dowry, which served as a woman's safety net in pre-colonial times, was transformed into a deadly noose during the days of the British Raj. The practice continued after India attained independence.

Oldenburg teaches history at Baruch College and the Graduate Centre of City University, New York. She is the author of The Makings of Colonial Lucknow.

You blame the British for the accentuation of the entire problem of dowry?
Prior to the entry of the British, land was not seen as a commodity which could be bought and sold. The customary entitlements to the produce of land translated into a lack of titular rights in the ownership of land. Notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it. Kings showed concern for their peasantry. During the reign of Ranjit Singh, when the rains failed for a year, tax collection for one year was waived. The product of the land was shared by all the villagers.

Putting landed property exclusively in male hands, and holding males responsible for the payment of revenue, had the effect of creating the Indian male as the dominant legal subject. The British further insisted that the peasants pay revenue twice a year on a fixed date. Their inability to pay would result in the land being auctioned off by the government to recover their revenue arrears.

Not only were land holdings fragmented but this helped create a situation where a brother was no longer willing to give to a brother. Peasants, during a bad year or when the harvest was late, were forced to use their land as collateral to borrow from the moneylender in order to pay their taxes. Chronic indebtedness became the fate of a large number of peasants in the Punjab who possessed small holdings. In pre-colonial India, farmers used to take unsecured loans not just for dowry, but for janau ceremonies and so on but during the British raj they took loans against titles of property and so ended up being little more than 'unpaid workers'.

Earlier, to cite the example of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, kings would allow 10 per cent of the revenue to be retained by the village panchayat. This money would be utilised for watering dusty roads, to oil the lamps every evening and for the maintenance of the chaupal. The villagers functioned on a system of reciprocity which operated like a social glue. After this changeover, a brother was no longer willing to share with a brother.

The British determination to rationalise and modernise the system of revenue proved very hard on women. Women, who had been co-partners in precolonial landholding arrangements, now found themselves denied all access to economic resources. They became homeless and completely dependent on their husbands. If a woman was faced with marital conflict, she was left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.

Basically what you are saying is that the entire economy had become 'masculine'?
Precisely. This was one of the key factors that made male children
more desirable. The demands for recruiting Punjabi peasants who would be employed with a cash wage, awards of land and pensions, saw more and more families practising selective female infanticide.

The newly enhanced worth of sons saw families demanding cash, jewellery or expensive consumer durables and the situation has steadily worsened. But rather than call them `dowry problems' it would be more accurate to describe them as a 'groom price'.

Therefore, I maintain that the pre-colonial logic for female infanticide was unwittingly strengthened by imperial and land-ownership policies even though the British outlawed this practice in 1870. The British charged heavy fines and apprehended and imprisoned culprits perpetuating such a crime. They did not think it worth their while to examine the social effects of their own methods of governance that led to an intensification of these problems.

Are you saying there was no practice of dowry before the British arrived in India?
No, I am not saying that. Dowry or dahej as it is called in Hindi has become a convenient foundation on which explanations for the discrimination of women are being pinned. I see dowry as one of the few indigenous, women-centred institutions in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society. In the late-19th century and even today, dowry is their economic safety net and is a material resource over which women had at least partial control. It was an index of the appreciation bestowed upon a daughter in her natal village. In 49 separate volumes of customary law covering colonial Punjab, which today comprises Pakistan and Indian Punjab, Haryana, Jammu, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, dowry has been described in the 1870s as a collection of voluntary gifts comprising clothes, jewellery, household goods and cash bestowed on the bride by family and friends at the time of the girl's wedding. Nowhere was it described as the prerogative of the groom to make demands on the girl's family. But the British at that time had not granted their own women property rights, so it was highly unlikely they would do so for Indian women.

This dowry-infanticide blight was created to justify the annexing of India to their Parliament. The British wanted to paint India as barbaric and all the local customs such as sati and wasteful expenditure on marriages helped highlight this point of view. The East India Company was on a civilisational mission.

The problem of women was made worse by the British decision to codify all customary law. A key word like 'local' which meant 'village' as a geographical locality, before customary law, was transformed to mean 'caste' or 'tribe'. This shift in terminology had implications for women, since people were now identified by patriarchal lineage rather than localities. The whole attempt was to translate social and customary practice, which was flexible, into legal codes from which women were excluded.

Even more significant was that the colonial administration replaced the indigenous version of democracy in which villagers had representatives, with mechanisms of direct control. The British courts replaced the authority of the village panchayat with the patwari, the man who kept village records, by making him a paid employee of the State. This conferred enormous powers to someone who had earlier been an amenable servant of the farmers.

Why has modern, independent India failed to get rid of the problem of dowry?
For one, the naming of dowry and the returning of dowry as being the key reason for marriages going awry is falsifying the woman's situation completely. 'Dowry demands' is a cultural oxymoron that bears no resemblance to the historical meaning of dowry. These cases should be seen as blackmail, extortion or fraud -- crimes common in all societies. Instead they are given cognisance only as 'dowry demands'. The only hope of redressal for a failed marriage is dowry retrieval.

A woman's pain, her hopes, her virginity, the pain and psychological trauma she suffered in a failed marriage, are seldom brought to the forefront in situations where women go to court. Rather, everything is put under the straitjacket of it being a dowry case.

Dowry deaths, as have been proved in several studies, indicate (to quote Ranjana Kumari's study published in 1999) that out of 150 cases, 68 per cent were of girls belonging to Hindu families, 17 per cent were Muslims and 15 per cent were from Sikh families. The latter two were disproportionately higher given the population break-up in Delhi. Only eight per cent of these deaths were of upper-caste Hindus, the remaining belonged to lower-caste urban families. The cultural flavour of crime and violence is preserved by calling extortion and murder dowry deaths.

InfoChange News & Features, January 2003