In a crime that is prevalent only in India, greedy husbands and his relatives harass the newly wed bride for getting more dowry, and often kill her in the process. And, very often, she is burnt alive. This horror is therefore called bride-burning or in official terms, dowry death.
In 2010, there were 8391 reported cases of dowry death in the country. That works out to a shocking one death every hour approximately. Bride-burning is on the increase — just a decade ago, in 2000, there were 6995 cases.
Dowry is an ancient tradition among the upper castes but its spread among all sections of society probably in the late nineteenth century. With increasing commercialization this acquired a new meaning — it became an opportunity for men and their families to get their hands on cash, jewellery, durables, and various other commodities. Although the government prohibited dowry through legislation in 1961, it was never implemented properly. Prohibition officers were supposed to have been appointed in each district, taking the battle to the grassroots but nothing happened. And, the tide of greed driven murder of young brides continued unabated.
In 1986, under huge pressure from the women's movement, the Indian penal Code was amended to include section 304B, specifically against murder following harassment for dowry. Section 498A was added to define harassment and cruelty by husbands and his relatives. Strangely this too has not had much effect. Laxity of the government machinery can be one reason for the failure of legal measures. After all, conviction rates in bride burning cases have dipped from an already weak 37% in 2000 to 34% in 2010. In section 498A cases, the conviction rates are even lower: just 19%, although reported cases were 94,000 in 2010.
But perhaps the primary reason for spread of this cancer has been the almost complete absence of any public campaign or mobilization against it for the past 25 years. As a result, girls are considered a burden on the parents, families go bankrupt trying to get their daughters married off, choice in forming relations is frowned upon and thousands — maybe lakhs — of youngwomen suffer violence silently behind closed doors.