One morning in 1981, when I was at Calcutta, I received a desperate phone call from Delhi.
A dear friend of mine was on the line. He had exhausted all his contacts and had not been
able to urgently raise a loan of two lakh rupees. He had to have the money by noon.
Without the cash, the bridegroom's party had threatened to boycott his daughter's wedding
due at six the same evening. To save the situation, the money had to be borrowed at one
per cent per day. Incidentally, the amount of dowry negotiated with the boy's parents had
already been delivered. The demand for these two lakhs was merely a last minute blackmail
born out of greed.
A more heinous extension of such greed is bride burning. The husband
and his blood relatives get together to kill the young wife after their attempts to
extract more money from her parents have failed. The reason for choosing burning in
preference to any other method of murdering is that it could pass off as an accident in
the kitchen. Regrettably the killing of females is not a new development. It has taken
place in several parts of our country over the centuries. Not only brides but also new
born girls were killed. In some parts, the common method was to drown the baby's head in a
pot of milk. A very recent trend was to abort the foetus when it was found by ultrasound
examination that it was going to be a girl.
Although such murder of females is a social crime, its root is economic. It is
estimated that in India there are only 96 females to
100 males. Nevertheless, when it comes to marriage, this 96 per cent does not chase 100
per cent young men. Parents of the 96 would be interested in only the eligible amongst
them, meaning those of them who are either rich or are well employed. The result is that
this 96 would think of only 50 of them. The remaining bachelors who are unemployedor are
poorly placed are ignored. There is, therefore, an imbalance between the supply and the
demand. It is the natural desire of every parent to marry his daughter as well as
possible. He therefore tries to find the most eligible boy he can. If he cannot, he tries
to pay for one. If he does not have sufficient money, he resorts to borrowing.
In recent years, more and more young women are getting not only
educated but also well employed. Those who are income drawing do not have to be backed by
dowries. This change is a clear clue to the evil of not only dowry and torture but also of
female homicide. If only our economy was prosperous and there was opportunity for full or
near full employment for every one, the problem could disappear. On the one hand, most
girls would have jobs. On the other, so would most young men. In the process they would
all become eligible, and the 96 girls would no longer have to pursue the hundred young
men. It is the 100 young men who would be pursuing all 96 girls. At last justice would
bedone to our sisters.
Ours is a tragic paradox. Hinduism is the only ethos in which the
worship of female deities is common. For instance, in Bengal there are thirteen goddesses
who are specially worshipped on specific days of the year. Durga, Kali, Saraswati, Laxmi,
Jagadhatri are the more prominent ones. Hindu mythology has several hundred female
In ancient India, especially in vedic times, boys and girls were looked
upon as equals. The girl was as educated as her male counterpart. She studied the Vedas
and did not marry until her studies were complete. The names of Gargi, the scholar,
Leelavati, the mathematician and Bhamaiti, the grammarian are so easy to recall.
I am reminded of the well known shloka yatra naryast pujyante,
ramante tatra devata. Which means, Gods reside where women are worshipped.
The freedom enjoyed by the women in ancient India is evidenced by the many statues and
frescoes at Ajanta and elsewhere. The dresses worn also reflect the freedom.
The girl began to be looked upon as a liability after the advent of
invasions in the medieval period. The purdah had to be introduced to hide the
womenfolk from the lust of the invader. In fact, the purdah was the Hindu
compromise of the burqa. That is the past. To get back to the future, a metamorphosis in
our social attitude is necessary. Economic prosperity with increasing employment are the
key to precipitating this revolution in outlook
Another injustice against our sisters is the incidence of polygamy, the institution of one
husband and several wives. No doubt, there must have been legitimate circumstances when
the practice was sanctified. But in India today, the situation is quite different.
Nevertheless, if it is felt that an old religious sanction should be persisted with, how
can one justify simultaneously the practice of divorce? Such a separation is
understandable when it is possible to have only one spouse. If one cannot get on with her,
it is necessary to divorce her in order to marry another lady.
On the other hand, in the context of polygamy, if one is unable to get
on with the first wife, the husband need not cohabit with her, for he can take a second
wife. Where however is the need to divorce her? Surely, she could continue to enjoy the
security of her home and upkeep while her husband and his second wife could enjoy life
more fully. The additional advantage of banning divorce in the context of polygamy is the
welfare of the children born of the strained relationship.