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 6. 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 mind-set 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.
Born in 1985, Charanpreet grew up in the New Delhi neighborhood of Guru Nanak Nagar, a maze of narrow paved alleys with small brick row houses. Pungent with cooking smells and motorbike exhaust, the largely middle-class neighborhood is dominated by migrants from the fertile agricultural region known as the Punjab. Like Charanpreet and her family, most are Sikhs, a religious minority known for its strong work ethic and egalitarian values. Typically, Sikh men use the name Singh and women take the name Kaur.
Until last year, Charanpreet lived with her parents in a tiny, well-scrubbed ground-floor apartment with a closet-size kitchen, a refrigerator in the hall and pictures of Sikh gurus on the walls. She shared a bedroom with her 14-year-old brother, Amandeep. Her father, Satwant, 47, earns his living as a private tutor to primary school students; her mother, Paramjit, 42, teaches at a government primary school.
A quiet young woman with wide-set eyes and a diffident manner, Charanpreet graduated from high school two years ago and had enrolled in a college correspondence course with the aim of following her parents into teaching, relatives and neighbors said. With few close friends, she preferred to spend her free time at home, where she immersed herself in Sikh prayer books and sometimes watched the Discovery Channel and Cartoon Network on a small color television.
Then, early last year, neighbors provided Charanpreet's parents with the name of an eligible bachelor. The son of a retired army subedar, or junior commissioned officer, Sarabjeet Singh had earned a degree from Delhi University, brought home $227 a month designing catalogs at a computer-graphics company and lived nearby with his parents, brother and sister-in-law.
During a meeting with Sarabjeet's parents at the local gurdwara, or Sikh temple, Charanpreet's parents were so impressed by the young man's credentials and the family's evident piety that they agreed on the marriage then and there, without setting eyes on their future son-in-law. "They told us our little girl would live like a princess in that house," recalled Paramjit Kaur, a compact, expressive woman in a satiny blue tunic.
Bearded and handsome beneath his turban, Sarabjeet Singh had a polished, self-confident manner, and he apparently made a good impression when, several months later, he met his wife for the first time, at a ceremony where the two exchanged rings. "She was actually very happy to find a man who didn't eat meat or drink alcohol," her mother recalled.
Last November, in a ceremony performed by a barefoot priest, the two were married at the gurdwara, where Charanpreet's parents hosted a lavish vegetarian feast for 250 guests. Bride and groom posed for photographs with garlands of rupee banknotes encircling their necks.
The wedding cost the bride's family about $9,100, according to Charanpreet's parents. The largest share went for a dowry that included the color television, bed linens, kitchenware, fine fabrics for suits and saris and gold jewelry for the groom, his parents and other relatives. "The rich give diamonds," explained Paramjit Kaur, who said the family offered the dowry on its own initiative. "We're middle class, so we give gold."
But things went quickly awry. A month after joining her husband and his extended family in their cramped three-story house, Charanpreet approached her parents with a request from her husband for $2,280, saying he wanted the money to start his own business. Although her family did not have the money, they borrowed it from relatives because "we thought it would help our daughter in the long run," said Paramjit Kaur. Not long afterward, the family was surprised to learn that the groom's family had spent the money on a Maruti car, according to Charanpreet's uncle, Pravinder Singh.
The demands apparently continued. During occasional visits home, Charanpreet hinted that she was unhappy in her new home and sometimes "would ask if there was any money to spare," her mother said. Charanpreet's parents were unable to provide more financial help and could only counsel patience. "We'd keep telling her to adjust because we thought she was just a young bride and was going through teething troubles," her mother said.
The truth was far worse than anything the family had imagined.
On the morning of Aug. 19, Charanpreet returned from the bathroom to find her husband, his parents, his brother and his brother's wife waiting for her in her third-floor bedroom, she said in her statement. Her sister-in-law, Harvinder Kaur, forced her into the bathroom, followed by Charanpreet's husband and father-in-law, who "started pouring kerosene oil all over from a plastic bottle." Her husband then left the room, leaving her father-in-law to strike a match and set her on fire. "I ran downstairs with my body on fire," the statement said.
Burned so badly that her plastic bangles had melted into her wrist, Charanpreet lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital by her husband and father-in-law, who apparently believed she was close to death and would not be able to incriminate them, the young woman's relatives said. But Charanpreet regained consciousness a few hours later and gave her statement to a magistrate; her in-laws were arrested the same day.
"The gods she used to pray to came to her help," her mother said of her daughter's ability to describe what had happened to her. "Even though she was such a shy girl, she was able to give the police such a clear and detailed statement. She found the strength then, and the last words she gave to the magistrate were, 'These people should be punished.' "
Ombir Bishnoi, an assistant police commissioner, said all four suspects had confessed to the killing. The family's lawyer, Baldev Raj, disputed the validity of the confessions and described the fire as an accident, without giving further details. The four are currently in New Delhi's central jail awaiting formal murder charges.
Special correspondent Muneeza Naqvi contributed to this report