Abandoned by families
July 21, 2011 11:25:41 PM
Even parents are indifferent to plight of harassed daughters
In January last year, the Gurgaon Police registered an FIR for dowry harassment in the Neha Chhikara case. The former air hostess was alleged by her husband Ankit Dalal to have leapt off the deck of a luxury cruise liner, near the Bahamas. He worked as a manager on the ship. Her natal family, which filed the FIR, alleges extreme torture by her spouse and in-laws over dowry. In a similar case, Ruchi Bhuttan, married into a family in another posh Gurgaon colony, was found hanging this July. Her parents now are crying foul, claiming the incident to have been precipitated by marital violence, husband’s extra-marital affair and in-laws’ unceasing demands for dowry.
The common feature in both cases is that the natal family seems as culpable as the marital since they refused to give refuge to either Neha or Ruchi, despite knowing that the daughters wanted to get out of a bad marriage. These were westernised girls, forced into an untenable situation. The invariable response of hide-bound parents, confronted by a difficult choice, is — “Lok kya kahenge?” They forget that an untimely and tragic death silences all chatter, and obviates the need to make a decision.
Delhi and satellite towns seem flush with the monetary gains of economic liberalisation. Staying at one of these places is an edifying experience because one gets to view a schizoid society: All the trappings of modernity that money can buy co-exist with rigidly hidebound feudal mores. Neo-liberal reforms may have allowed in foreign companies, funds, fashion and fixers but the worst of tradition governs social relations and customs. The era of austerity long being over, marriage now is an overtly commercial transaction for most, with dowries, more lavish than before, owing to the sudden influx of wealth, being the hallmark of conjugal alliances.
A wedding among powerful land-owning Gujjars in the capital’s Chattarpur area in March this year had the media agog over the crores of rupees spent on the arrangements; and bestowal of a helicopter by the bride’s family on the groom’s. It was speculated to be money, obtained from land and property deals, the staple of neo-liberal reforms.
Ostentatious spending on marriages and the system of barter, termed dowry, was never so gross in the socialist era. Nor was human life so devalued with murders over property and land disputes; shootouts at weddings; honour killings, spurred by inter-caste, inter-gotra or similar alliances; dowry deaths and other crimes escalating. The irony is that the highest incidence of such crimes is reported from the upwardly mobile satellite towns, which testify to the success of neo-liberal reforms. But, liberal attitudes are hard to imbibe for a people, firmly entrenched over centuries in feudal mores. Thus, while their children may study in elite English-medium schools and colleges, they slide back on retrogressive customs in social matters. When there is irretrievable breakdown of marriage, common sense dictates that the couple goes in for divorce. This is especially important for the wife as she is in an alien home. However, since custom dictates that they stick together, and divorce and the single status carry stigma — the favourite refrain being ‘Log kya kahenge?’ — the marital family usually refrains from giving the daughter refuge. This often ends in tragedy.
The process of Sanskritisation ensures that no class is immune to the insidious influence of custom. As landless, unskilled and manual workers also struggle to climb the social ladder, females working shoulder to shoulder with males, family rifts appear. Some have a painful fallout. In Gurgaon again, this writer had a domestic help called Mamta, from a family of kumhars, potters. The girl, inspired by the apparent freedom of urban working women, strived for a better life for her own children. She would urge her husband to move out of the paternal home and create an independent space for their family. Clashes with her in-laws were frequent, and she even had a police case filed against them. She was found hanging from the bedroom fan one day, and her husband re-married a widow within the year. It is difficult to determine in such cases whether it is suicide or murder.
It is an unfortunate fact that globalisation has not translated into enhancing the status of females. Rather, escalating consumerism and access to wealth by social groups that swear by feudal mores even if they sport jeans, speed around in the latest cars, shop at malls and generally flaunt newly acquired riches has further served to degrade that status. For, greater wealth, acquired usually via the simple expedient of selling forebears’ farmland and other immovable assets, contracting property and other deals, selling merchandise and the like seems to have whetted greed in social relations, especially marriage. The commodification of women, and by extension, men, is now so absolute that suicides, murders, rape, abductions, sexual trafficking are the order of the day.
Female foeticide, which preempts harassment for dowry, is said to be highest among the landed gentry. Honour killings, a practice peculiar to this section, stemming from its zealous protection of its land holdings and females — incidentally, the greatest beneficiaries of economic reforms on account of the real estate boom — but occasionally reported among other sections, as in the Rizwanur Rehman muder case, occur with routine regularity. They must have occurred earlier too but may be more frequent now because of greater social mobility. Clearly, uncurbed greed has swamped all vestiges of humanity.