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Irony-clad claws

In 2002, I walked up the narrow stairs to the office of Shakti Shalini, a women’s organisation in Jungpura, New Delhi. I did it unenthusiastically, as a matter of form because I was making a film about feminism and Shakti Shalini had emerged out of the feminist agitations against dowry in the 1970s-80s. Despite the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, the practice persisted. When the law was adhered to, dowry demands were often disguised as pressure for financial ‘help’ after marriage, with an underlying threat of divorce. If unfulfilled, harassment would often result in death by ‘accidentally’ exploding kerosene stoves, or apparent suicide. The anti-dowry movement resulted in two amendments.

304B — which recognised such deaths as ‘dowry deaths” and 498A wherein dowry harassment complaints merited
automatic arrest.

The two women who ran Shakti Shalini, were among the ordinary middle-class parents, who, having lost their daughters to dowry deaths, had become activists committed to helping other famlies.

Why was I reluctant to interview them? I was young, and I felt the issue of dowry was old, so ‘done’. I wanted to talk about new, emerging feminist issues which weren’t as discussed.

The two women were a study in contrasts. Satyarani Chadha was emotional, full of regret — “had I not married my daughter to that boy, she might yet be alive.” Shahjahan Apa, seemed to have moved on philosophically. “When the storm of the women’s movement came and we saw our prisons clearly, who would not rush towards freedom?” she said. I talked to girls at the shelter, saw picture upon picture of burned bodies, portrait after heartbreaking portrait of sweet young women, each of whom was now a case number.

It was a humbling and enlightening moment. Change is not neat. New issues arise before old ones are resolved and the two must be tackled in tandem. The limited window of our experience cannot show us the world. If we don’t step out of our context, we are trapped in it forever.

At the time, 6,000 dowry deaths were recorded annually. The law hadn’t been enough. Yet, without a law, there wasn’t even that tenuous port in a storm.

Shahjahan Begum died in 2013. Satyarani Chadha won the Supreme Court case of her daughter’s dowry death, this March, after 34 years of legal battle. Her daughter’s killers though had long vanished. She died on July 2. Two days later, the Supreme Court passed judgment against 498A on the basis of its misuse in some marital cases.

Is the law misused? Of course. Murderers get away with murder, because the police don’t use the law properly.

Terrorism laws are misused with false complaints or poor evidence and young men lose their youth to jail. Would anyone agree these misused laws themselves should be removed? Satyarani Chaddha had received only a kind of token justice, but she never said the cause of her daughter’s death was the Dowry Prohibition Act and that it was better to have never challenged dowry. The real issue lies in how the criminal justice system deals with these cases.

Over 9,000 dowry deaths are now recorded annually. About 10 per cent of the roughly 10.5 lakh dowry cases turn out to be false. For the remaining 90 per cent, without 498A, the battle for justice in an unequal society has become even harder.

Numbers are a partial truth, because each injustice has deep meaning for the individual who suffers it. But, removing 498A symbolises a lost opportunity for addressing the issue of reforming attitudes and procedures within the criminal justice system. Without it the powerful will always misuse the law against those it is meant to protect.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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