Almost every day, come rain or shine, one would find retired school teacher Mahesh Chandra on his bicycle heading off towards different villages of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, armed with anti-dowry pamphlets and posters. While travelling, he stops and raises slogans to build awareness against the prevailing dowry system in our society.
Whether he was a victim of dowry is the first question that springs up upon encountering him. “We all are,” he firmly answered.
As a daily reader of Hindi newspapers, Chandra would see countless stories about crimes being committed in the name of dowry – including harassment, murder and suicide.
“I felt helpless. Then, one day, dowry led to the killing of my neighbour’s daughter after the very first month of her marriage. We burned her pyre at the doors of her in-laws, who had already deserted the village. Everyone was full of rage, and ready to burn down the house. At that moment, I realised that this was not the solution. So, from the next day, I took out my bicycle, visited different localities and started making people aware of this evil called dowry,” he said.
It has been almost two years since Chandra hit the road with the goal of educating those who cross his path about dowry. “Some 22 other individuals have joined me in my efforts. All of them are victims of dowry in one way or the other. People from as far as East Champaran are part of our group. As our group expanded, everyone started to address us as Samaj Sudharak (social reformers), and that’s what we aspire to be every day,” he added.
Giving insight into the workings of the group, Chandra said, “We are not registered as an NGO or even a trust. We are just a bunch of individuals who want to put a full stop to this evil practice. At the end of every month, all the members come to my residence in Khabra, Muzaffarpur. We plan on which village/towns are to be covered next. Sometimes, we conduct talks regularly in different vicinities against dowry. All our 23 members carry plank cards, showcasing the horrors of dowry deaths. They also distribute pamphlets and posters, for which we pay from our own pockets as per everyone’s convenience and capability.”
“We do acknowledge the fact that all of us have our individual lives and cannot afford to be involved 24/7 in this. So, we all pledged to devote at least one hour daily. I know that there are legislations against dowry, but dowry deaths are still a common phenomenon. Maybe the legislation against dowry holds the same fate as other laws in our country, enacted for the betterment of society but only remaining on paper. I know it’s an uphill battle, and we are already on our way.”
As per NCRB data, India recorded 19 dowry-related deaths per day in 2020. There were 7,167, 7,141 and 6,966 dowry deaths in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.
It is possible that the slight dip in dowry-related crimes in 2020 could be attributed to the pandemic when there were probably more existential and immediate things to worry about. However, we cannot negate the experiences of women and the hostile environment and abuse many lived through in such uncertain times.
The Dowry Prohibition Act was enacted in 1961, but after six decades, dowry is still a socially accepted custom and the laws meant to protect women lack teeth. Thinking of dowry only as a rural phenomenon would be naive. This menace ravages the metropolitan elite and urban middle caste/class families in varying degrees.
It is telling about the nature of Indian society, where education, civility and upbringing do not act as a deterrent from partaking in such evil practices. Rather, they go on to reinforce one’s caste pride, social position and various forms of patriarchal violence against women. In 2020, a staggering number of 109 dowry deaths were reported in Delhi. Moreover, the highest dowry related crimes are committed in the supposedly most literate state of India, ie Kerala. These statistics paint a bleak picture of modern India and the position reserved for women in our society.
But what’s the way forward? There are legislations, and awareness is slowly building. Still, in the larger frame, it all seems futile until the toxic masculinity attitudes stemming from a patriarchal way of life are challenged.
As Chandra stated, “It’s an uphill battle, and we are on our way.” To find a solution, we all have to join him in one way or the other for his daily rides.
Farhan Siddique is a law student, and Priyank Mani is a social worker.