An Indian bride who has her hands decorated waits for a wedding ceremony to begin in New Delhi. (Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press)

About 8,000 women in India died violent deaths in 2013 because their families were unable to meet demands for more dowry, according to government statistics.

Such deaths have been a longtime problem for India and explain why the country passed a series of laws against dowry in the 1980s to protect against this form of violence.

Yet this month, India’s Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling that questioned the propriety of the laws and said they are used unfairly by “disgruntled wives” to prosecute their husbands and in-laws.

Anti-dowry statutes “are used as weapons rather than shields,” the court concluded. “The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision.”

The judges then instructed the police to follow due diligence before making arrests.

Family members who are charged with dowry harassment at their weekly meeting at the city’s court lawns. (Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)

The ruling threatens to undermine hard-won battles by the women’s movement in recent decades, advocates of the dowry laws say. But it has given a huge boost to the growing number of families who are saying the laws unfairly favor female complainants.

Earlier this month, husbands and mothers-in-law who claim to have been wrongfully accused of extortion under the dowry law gathered on a broiling-hot afternoon on the courthouse lawn in New Delhi. They carried bags of legal documents and brimmed with tales of lying wives and manipulative daughters-in-law.

The questions poured out: Will I be arrested? What if she drags me to court? Do we return all the gold jewelry?

“Print out a copy of this month’s Supreme Court ruling,” counseled Amit Lakhani, a senior activist of a growing nationwide support group called Save Indian Family, which blames Indian women with destroying families by misusing anti-dowry laws. “If the police come to arrest you, read out the ruling.”

‘Kitchen accidents’

Dowry was outlawed in 1961, but over the years the number of brides who were killed by their husbands and families grew because brides’ parents could not feed the continuing demands of their husbands’ families, even after the wedding. Many of these deaths were reported as suicides or euphemistically documented as “kitchen accidents.” Stronger laws were introduced in the 1980s to protect married women from cruelty and battering.

Despite the laws, the practice of dowry-giving remains entrenched.

“Ninety percent of Indian marriages are arranged by parents. There is some form of dowry in all of them,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research and author of the book “Brides Are Not For Burning.”

“Every groom has a price tag for dowry, depending on his occupation and his family’s economic status. The middle class is under pressure to give bigger cars, bigger home-theater systems and bigger everything.”

Parents of brides now keep the bills and photographs of dowry transactions as evidence, said Varsha Sharma, a senior policewoman in the crime-against-women division in New Delhi.

More than 220,000 people were arrested on charges of dowry harassment in 2013; the conviction rate last year was 16 percent, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau.

Kaushal Yadav, a lawyer in the high-court case, said arrest often was swift after a married woman accused her husband’s relatives of extortion. No longer.

“For the first time, the Supreme Court has said the police and lower-court magistrate will be held accountable if they arrest without adequate justification,” he said.

But the supporters of the dowry law say the tone of the ruling hurt.

“How can the Supreme Court use words like ‘disgruntled wives’ to describe women who complain and seek legal action?” Kumari asked.

Women’s safety at risk

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes at a time of unprecedented public debate about women’s safety amid growing incidents of rape.

But families at a meeting of the Save Indian Family group criticized the direction in which India’s women’s movement is headed.

“The modern Indian woman does not want to live with her husband’s parents anymore, and she uses the dowry law to build pressure,” said Sanjeev Kumar, a teacher facing dowry charges.

Kumar’s mother waves a dowry list. “Our daughter-in-law is lying. She has inflated the list of dowry her parents gave at the wedding,” she said. “But the police only listen to her, not us.”

Last week, the group launched a national help line to counsel those caught up in dowry cases.

The meetings serve as therapy, said Lakhani, 36, the group activist, who also is facing trial for dowry harassment charges by his wife. He said he never asked for dowry and the marriage fell apart because his wife was temperamental.

Some husbands are accused of dowry torture by their wives’ families to cover up the stigma of a divorce, said Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, who is making a film about dowry law misuse titled “Martyrs of Marriage.”

Despite the consequences, Leela Om Prakash, a 55-year-old domestic worker, says she does not regret giving dowry. Prakash says her 24-year-old daughter was found strangled last year after the husband’s family made repeated demands for gifts and money that Prakash could not deliver. The son-in-law and his mother are in prison on charges of dowry murder but have claimed in court that the death was a suicide.

“Parents give dowry because they want their daughter to be pampered and respected by her husband’s family,” Prakash said, leafing through her daughter’s wedding album. “Even if I drowned in a sea of debt, I was willing to give whatever I could just to see her smiling. Instead, I saw her dead.

“I want justice. The law is my only hope now.”