Indian Middle Class Grows, But Ugly Tradition Persists

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 30, 2005

NEW DELHI -- Charanpreet Kaur, 19, had been married less than nine months when her husband and his family decided it was time for her to go. Trapping her in the bathroom, her husband clamped his hand over her mouth while his father doused her with kerosene, according to a police document. The father then lit a match, setting his daughter-in-law on fire. She died five days later.

India's endless dowry wars had claimed another victim.

Notwithstanding the gold jewelry, color television set and other finery that served as the price of admission to her husband's middle-class Sikh household, Charanpreet's new relations were not satisfied with the bounty and kept demanding more, according to Charanpreet's relatives and the statement she gave investigators before she died.

"Even before this incident my father-in-law used to put pressure on me to get more money," said the statement by the young woman, who was three months pregnant.

Unusual only because Charanpreet lived long enough to point a finger at her alleged attackers, who claimed the fire was accidental, the case underscores the deeply entrenched nature of dowry -- and its grim corollary, the murder of young brides whose families fail to ante up -- even in the face of rising levels of income and education linked to India's fast-growing economy.

In particular, the death of the young newlywed -- a shy, deeply religious schoolteacher's daughter whose husband had a college degree and worked in computer graphics -- shows that the age-old practice endures even, and perhaps especially, among the educated urban middle-class.

Despite laws barring dowry, and decades of protests and public awareness campaigns, a nationwide survey of 10,000 households by the All-India Democratic Women's Association in 2002 found that the practice was no longer confined to the Hindu upper castes, where it originated, but had spread across a broad range of classes and communities, including Muslims and Christians.

One consequence is the growing dearth of baby girls in India, where many middle-class parents, fearing the high costs of dowry, have taken to aborting female fetuses identified through ultrasound examinations. The skewed sex ratio is most pronounced in relatively prosperous areas such as New Delhi, the capital, where the 2001 census found 868 girls for every 1,000 boys under age six. The figure for India as a whole is 933 girls for every 1,000 boys.

"I think it's in a way very shocking that social relations are not changing in a fast-growing economy," said Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. "All this modernization, liberalization, globalization -- all this modern economy -- and the people are not changing. The mindset is so rigid."

There are some signs of progress. For example, the number of reported dowry killings has dipped slightly, from 6,851 in 2001 to 6,285 in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available. And two years ago, Indian news media made a heroine out of Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student who summoned police to her wedding when the groom's family escalated their dowry demands at the last minute.

Matrimonial ads placed by parents of prospective brides occasionally come with the caveat, "Dowry seekers need not apply."

By all accounts, however, dowry-giving remains the norm in Indian marriages. The union of Charanpreet Kaur and Sarabjeet Singh was no exception.

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