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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Jail crisis for dowry crimes

By Rahul Bedi in Delhi

A special jail wing in India's capital, Delhi, for mothers-in-law arrested for using threats to demand excessive dowries faces overcrowding.

"The swift inflow of mothers-in-law into the wing means . . . Tihar jail has stretched capacity to the maximum," an official said.

She said the 18-month old "mothers-in-law" section, the only one of its kind in the country, presently housed 150 women, some 50 more than it had space to accommodate.

All the mothers-in-law - mostly in the 50-60 age group - were isolated from other inmates as they were not "habitual" criminals.

Officials said they constituted a third of the total number of women prisoners in Tihar jail.


A majority of the inmates claimed to have been "framed" - innocent victims of the "evil machinations" of their wily daughters-in-law who had successfully duped their guileless sons into conspiring against their mothers.

The increasing number of inmates . . . is indicative of how serious dowry demands have become in consumer hungry middle-class Indian families.

Lawyer Malavika Rajkoti
Some of the younger mothers-in-law, however, complained that several of the older ones had not changed and were constantly bossing them around.

"The increasing number of inmates in the mothers-in-law ward at Tihar jail is indicative of how serious dowry demands have become in consumer hungry middle-class Indian families," said Malavika Rajkotia, a lawyer specialising in women issues.

Consumer lust

Many parents believed that "squeezing" dowry out of the hapless bride was the quickest way of satisfying their consumer needs and incessantly harassed her to meet their demands, Ms Rajkotia declared.

Over 12,612 dowry deaths were recorded across India in 1998 and 1999, the largest number in the eastern states of Uttar Pradesh (2,229) and Bihar (1,039), considered the most backward.

Indian women
Women are expected to bring money and goods when they marry
When the bride refused to satisfy demands by her in-laws for money and goods, she was starved, administered frequent beatings and often "jailed" inside the house.

If the unfortunate bride's family declined to pay up, many parents, in connivance with their sons, then doused her with paraffin and set her alight, claiming that she caught fire whilst cooking.

In the early 1980s, such deaths became so common that anti-dowry activists forced the government to change existing laws.

Today any such death within seven years of marriage is deemed unnatural, and a case of murder can be registered against the husband and his parents.

If convicted, prison sentences can stretch to 14 years.

"But hundreds of cases go unreported " Ms Rajkotia said.

Mother's boys

Social commentators say Indian men have an "umbilical attachment " to their mothers that no society has.

From birth the boy child is conditioned to expect that his every wish will be fulfilled

Social affairs writer Lalita Pannicker

"From birth the boy child is conditioned to expect that his every wish will be fulfilled and the very status of parents depends on how many sons they have," said Lalita Pannicker, a senior editor with the Times of India who writes on social issues.

"'The girl child, neglected from birth expects little from life " Ms Panicker said.

"And by the time she is an adult she has lost most of her self-respect and self-worth and is conditioned to accept humiliation heaped upon her," she added.

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See also:

24 Nov 99 | South Asia
Wives abused in India
22 Dec 99 | South Asia
India to introduce women's quota bill
27 Sep 99 | South Asia
Woman power in India's villages
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