How the British created the dowry system in Punjab

Did you know that the dowry system is a result of the socio economic changes brought about by the British?

This article starts with interview of Veena Talwar, author of 'Dowry Murder, The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime’ as published in The Times of India, Mumbai as appeared on 31/1/03. Next it has excerpts from the preface and chapter one of the book.

Q. “You blame the British for the accentuation of the dowry problem.
A. Prior to the arrival of the British in India, land was not seen as a commodity which could be bought and sold. Notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it. Kings showed concern for the peasantry and, when required, were prepared to live more frugally. Ranjit Singh, for instance, waived tax collections for a year, to compensate for lack of rains. The produce of the land was meanwhile shared by all the villagers.

Putting landed property exclusively in male hands, and holding the latter responsible for the payment of revenue had the effect of making the Indian male the dominant legal subject. The British further made the peasants pay revenue twice a year on a fixed date. Inability to pay would result in the land being auctioned off by the government. As a result, peasant were forced, during a bad year, to use their land as collateral to borrow from the moneylender, in order to pay taxes. Chronic indebtedness, instance, became the fate of a large number of peasants who possessed smallholding in Punjab. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event they faced marital problems, they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.  

Q. Basically what you are saying is that the entire economy became ‘masculine’.
A. Precisely. This was one of the key factors that made male children more desirable. Also, the increasing recruitment of Punjabi peasants into the army saw more and more families practice selective female infanticide. The newly enhanced worth of sons saw families demand cash, jewellery or expensive consumer durables at the time of marriage. The situation has steadily worsened since then but rather than calling it ‘dowry problem’, we should call it the problem of paying,’ groom price’.

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

Q. Are you trying to say there was no practice of dowry before the British arrived in India?
A. No, I am not saying that, Dowry, or dahej as it is called in Hindi, has today become a convenient peg on which to hang all explanations about discrimination against women. But in its origins dowry was one of the few indigenous, women-centered institutions in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society. Historically, it was an index of the ‘appreciation’ bestowed upon a daughter in her natal village, and not a groom’s prerogative to make demands on the girl’s family.  

The dowry-infanticide blight was used to justify the annexation of India. Colonialism, it was claimed was a civilizing mission.

Q. How did the codification of customary law affect women?
A. The problem of women worsened following the British decision to codify all customary law. A key word like ‘local’ which meant village in customary law, came to be transformed to mean ‘caste’ or ‘tribe.’ This shift in terminology had implications for women, since they were now seen to belong to 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 the act that 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 on someone who was earlier seen as a servant of the farmers.

Q. Why has modern, independent India failed to get rid of the problem of dowry?
A. We haven’t realised that making a dowry demand is a cultural oxymoron that bears no resemblance to the historical meaning and practice of this institution. Dowry demand must be tread on a par with crimes such as blackmail, extortion or insurance fraud. Instead, they are put in the straitjacket of a dowry case. No wonder the law takes no note of the pain and psychological trauma that a woman suffers in a failed marriage. In other words, we will not be in a position to address the problem of dowry unless the state begins to take a wholly different view of it”.  

End of interview. Courtesy and copyright The Times of India.

Note the custom of dowry was widely prevalent in preindustrial Europe and is still to be found in several southern European countries, for which see Marion A Kaplan (1985). The islands of Mumbai were given in dowry by the Portugese to the British around 1660.

The author Veena Talwar has dedicated this book to: “For Mummy & Kaku and in memory of my father, Baljit Singh, whose intervention enabled this work”.  

We now present excerpts from preface and chapter one. Courtesy & copyright is Veena Talwar and Oxford University Press.

Preface Excerpts In 1984, on a quiet spring afternoon in New York, the phone rang in my study and a television journalist asked me if I knew anything about “bride burning” or dowry murder in my native India. I did not, but I did offer some thoughts on sati, widow burning, along with a reading list. No, the journalist insisted, an Indian documentary on this issue was to be aired as a segment of an important national weekly show, and the television channel was looking for informed comment. My own memories of an experience in the summer of 1966 were still surprisingly fresh, but they appeared dated and so utterly unconnected with dowry that I said nothing. That denial and the subliminal provocation instigated the book.  

The day after the documentary was shown, colleagues and students at the small liberal arts college where I taught besieged me with questions. I had become used to being brought to account for any Indian happening, good or bad (but chiefly bad). But never before had it been so difficult to deal with, because this time I had no satisfactory rebuttals. The burning death was perceived as fraught with deep Hindu religious & cultural significance. Dahej or dowry and its relationship to the Hindu caste system were portrayed as the key to understanding this crime. The narrator made it clear in the documentary that the Punjabi bride had been burnt to death because she had not brought enough dowry to her husband’s home.  

Culturally embarrassed, yet deeply stirred for reasons that will unfold, I knew the time had come for me to examine the alleged cultural roots of this cultural crime. My personal experience (she went through a divorce in 1966) became inevitably and inextricably meshed with my research into dowry murders. Therefore, I must disclose at the outset that I am deeply implicated in this history as one of its subjects – as a bride, as an academic and occasional activist, and as a witness to three decades of worsening violence against women- and I will rely not only on my training in the methods of history & anthropology but also on the self-conscious, feminist perspective I developed through my own encounters with pathology.  

In the summer of 1984 in Delhi, when many more bride-burnings were reported on the front page of national newspapers, I was to make my first foray into the world of feminist activism. I spent the next academic year in India to explore what had by then become the best-known fact, after sati, about Indian women. At one level I was a foreign scholar whose project had been approved severally by the Education, External Affairs and Home Ministers of the Government of India. At another I was an Indian women with a “complicated past”. I knew that I had not come lightly to probe the problematic relationship of violence and gender in Punjabi households in northern India.  

A clarification is essential at the outset: the burning of wives is neither an extension of nor actually related to the practice of sati, the voluntary self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. “Bride-burning” is the murder, culpable on social, cultural and legal grounds, executed privately, and often disguised as an accident or suicide.  

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