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Wedded to greed in India

Times Staff Writer

Patna, India

The beatings stopped only after she fled the house. For four years after she married a local shopkeeper, Rubi Devi’s in-laws constantly bullied her for not bringing a bigger dowry, then tortured her when she failed to pony up more gold, more cash, more goods.

“My mother-in-law and sister-in-law would beat me up. They would grab me by the hair and drag me around. They used to hit me with whatever they could lay their hands on” while her father-in-law pinned back her arms, Devi said, her henna-patterned hands trembling and her cheeks hot with tears.

This year she decided she could endure no more, and bolted for her parents’ home here in eastern India, another victim of dowry harassment and violence in this country.

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Yet Devi, 27, is one of the lucky ones: Her name was not added to the list of thousands of wives who are beaten to death, burned alive, electrocuted, poisoned, pushed out windows or otherwise killed horrifically every year because their husbands’ families are dissatisfied with the dowries they bring to the marriage and continue to demand more.

In 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, a woman was killed over dowry every 77 minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The total of such homicides was 6,787, but experts suspect that the true figure is much higher, because many dowry killings are not reported. Even when they are, most of the killers go unpunished.

The practice of dowry in India goes back thousands of years. Its original intent, scholars say, was to protect women, who by bringing property and belongings to the marriage could enjoy some creature comforts and not have to depend entirely on their husbands.

But somewhere along the line, what was supposed to be security for the bride came to be seen as a boon to the groom and his family, a way for them to augment their wealth.

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India’s vaunted economic boom since the mid-1990s, which has seen incomes grow and living standards rise for many, has not stemmed the tide of dowry-related violence.

If anything, some say, it has exacerbated it, as a new acquisitiveness permeates society, with more consumer and luxury goods showing up on store shelves and in TV commercials. From 1995 to 2005, the number of recorded dowry deaths jumped by 46%.

“ ‘India rising’ has added to ‘dowry rising,’ ” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a New Delhi-based think tank devoted to women’s issues. “It’s getting worse.”

Demanding dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, but the prohibition has rarely been enforced. The problem cuts across all social and class lines, affecting rich and poor, educated and illiterate, urban and rural.

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In July, a senior government minister, Arjun Singh, was caught up in a scandal when his grandson was accused of demanding a Mercedes and an apartment from his in-laws, who said they already had shelled out $150,000 for the wedding. Last year, former cricket star Manoj Prabhakar was forced to appear in court after his wife accused him of repeatedly battering her because he considered her dowry of cash, jewelry and a car to be insufficient.

“The trend is set by the rich and famous,” Kumari said. “They’re the ones who start with, ‘Nothing less than a Mercedes or an apartment or [money] in the bank,’ and it percolates down.”

The increasingly high cost of weddings and demand for large dowries is a contributing factor in the high incidence of abortion of female fetuses, experts say. The government has banned sex determination tests, but the practice continues, leading to an alarming shortage of young girls in parts of the country.

Dowry killings, too, are so common that there is even a commonly-used term for the phenomenon, “bride burning,” because many newlywed women die from being doused with kerosene and set on fire. The husband’s family then reports the death as a “kitchen accident” -- since many households use kerosene stoves.

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A generous dowry, critics say, has become the price a girl’s parents must pay to land her a “good” husband in India, where most marriages are still arranged. Kumari said the search for a suitable boy nowadays often resembles a bidding process in which the young man’s parents weigh competing offers and play interested families off each other.

A few years ago, the Times of India listed the expected price tag on grooms from different professions; the more prestigious or lucrative the job, the bigger the dowry a man’s family could demand. A businessman with an MBA could fetch 1.5 million rupees (about $37,500 at today’s exchange rate), and a member of India’s storied civil service could ask for 2 million rupees ($50,000).

And what used to be simple dowries of livestock and everyday household furnishings have given way to packages of cash, jewelry and big-ticket items, often just to help the groom and his relatives keep up with the neighbors. In many cases, the bride is hounded for more well past the wedding day.

“Whatever the latest consumer goods are in the market is what gets demanded,” said Neelu, a women’s rights advocate here in Patna, the capital of Bihar state, who goes by only one name.

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“Cars, refrigerators -- now there’s a demand for computers, too.”

Rita Kumari’s lower-middle-class parents scraped together 75,000 rupees ($1,875) for her bridal send-off three years ago -- a fortune in a country where annual per capita income hovers around $500 and even more so in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. They threw in jewelry and furniture as well, and celebrated her betrothal to a Patna salesman.

But after only a month or two of marriage, said Kumari (no relation to Ranjana Kumari), her in-laws began harassing her for an additional 100,000 rupees, nearly $2,500, saying they needed it to fix up the family home and set up their son in business. When she told them that her parents could not afford such an amount, Kumari’s husband, his parents and two brothers, who all live under the same roof, began pummeling her with their bare hands, she said.

“It was greed, not need,” Kumari said of the escalating dowry demands. “I was the vehicle.”

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Desperate, Kumari’s parents tried to appease her in-laws by buying them a color television, a gold chain, a cellphone. It was not enough, and the beatings continued. Kumari, 28, fled her husband’s house in April.

She was afraid to go to the authorities. India’s police are notoriously corrupt, and critics say that many officers are men who dismiss complaints of dowry violence, if only because they probably were beneficiaries of dowries once themselves.

When complaints do get filed, whole families often are named as abusers. In fact, the central Tihar Jail in New Delhi is home to a “mothers-in-law wing” full of women accused of murdering or torturing their daughters-in-law over dowry.

But convictions are sporadic. In 2003, Delhi courts registered a conviction rate of just 28% in dowry-related deaths; by contrast, the rate in sexual harassment cases was triple that figure.

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“There are now prosecutions, but [dowry] is so rampant that only some people complain,” said Kiran Walia of the Delhi Commission for Women.

Many victimized wives see no alternative but to stay in their husbands’ households, the only option they believe is available to them in a society that stigmatizes divorce.

“The culture is such that whenever a girl gets married to a man, however bad he may be, her inclination is to stay with him till the end,” activist Neelu said.

Devi, who fled her in-laws’ home in January, said she would be willing to be reunited with her husband, as long as they lived separately from his family.

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Kumari feels the same. Although her husband joined in beating her, she blames his parents, especially his mother, for instigating the violence and egging him on.

But Kumari is also firmly aware of the real issue at the root of her troubles.

“This is all because of dowry,” she said. “And the only solution is for the dowry system and practice to be abolished once and for all.”

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henry.chu@latimes.com


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