BRIDES ARE BEING burned to death in northern India, murdered by husbands and in-laws aggrievated that the girls have not brought in a big enough dowry.

Inquiring policemen are told that the wife's clothes "caught fire while cooking," and it is virtually impossible to detect a murder except in the rare case where the woman is able to make a dying statement. The murderers, generally belonging to respectable middle class families, then advertise for another bride, hoping for a fatter dowry next time.

The pernicious dowry system involves hard bargaining on the amount of cash, jewelry and consumer durables that a father has to pay as the price for marrying off his daughter. The young couple themselves have no say in the matter; the bargain is driven by their parents.

Woe betide the bride whose dowry fails to satisfy her in-laws. Her life can be hell, with constant taunts about cheating the family of its it seems, even murdered.

Bride burning is a relatively recent development in parts of northern India, particularly Delhi. In 1978, the police records show that 200 women were burned to death, ostensibly while cooking, and, in the first five months of this year, another 86 cases have been reported.

Many of these may be genuine accidents, but it is clear that an appreciable number are not. Venal policemen can be bought off by the perpetrators. It is only when the girl's relatives mob the police station that any action is taken. Despite a few dying statements by women implicating their in-laws, not a single conviction has yet been secured.

Now that the matter has come to light, the government has decided to put teeth into its ineffectual legislation banning dowries. The giving and taking of dowries is to be made an offense attracting stiff penalties.

To eliminate indirect dowries, limits are also to be sought on marriage expenditure and gifts. But it is doubtful whether the new legislative teeth will bite. The dowry sytem is deeply ingrained in the social fabric, and only a social revolution can eradicate it.

Fathers needing to raise dowries for their daughters depend on their sons to bring in the wherewithal. Families without daughters base their economic expectations on the dowries that will come in at their sons' marriage time. Families with nothing but daughters face the prospect of incurring endless debts to marry them off.

It is the ultimate social disgrace for a family to have its girls unmarried. The dowry system is gradually dying out among the westernized upper crust, but the crust is very thin.