How The British Created The Dowry System In Punjab

Published: Wednesday, Sep 19,2012, 18:57 IST
How The British Created The Dowry System In Punjab, History british role in creating dowry system, dowry murder imperial origins of a cultural crime,female infanticide british strategy, how british divided India, masculinzation of the punjab economy, veena talwar, Indian Women

Did you know that the dowry system is a result of the socio economic changes brought about by the British? This article is based on the book ‘Dowry Murder, The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime’ By Veena Talwar Oldenburg. To know how the British did so in brief read author’s interview or to understand in detail read excerpts from the book.

Interview with Veena Talwar in Times of India, Mumbai as appeared on 31/1/03.

Q. “You blame the British for the accentuation of the dowry problem.
A. Prior to the arrival of the British in India, land was not seen as a commodity which could be bought and sold. Notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it. Kings showed concern for the peasantry and, when required, were prepared to live more frugally. Ranjit Singh, for instance, waived tax collections for a year, to compensate for lack of rains. The produce of the land was meanwhile shared by all the villagers.

Putting landed property exclusively in male hands, and holding the latter responsible for the payment of revenue had the effect of making the Indian male the dominant legal subject. The British further made the peasants pay revenue twice a year on a fixed date. Inability to pay would result in the land being auctioned off by the government. As a result, peasant were forced, during a bad year, to use their land as collateral to borrow from the moneylender, in order to pay taxes. Chronic indebtedness, instance, became the fate of a large number of peasants who possessed smallholding in Punjab. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event they faced marital problems, they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.

Q. Basically what you are saying is that the entire economy became ‘masculine’.
A. Precisely. This was one of the key factors that made male children more desirable. Also, the increasing recruitment of Punjabi peasants into the army saw more and more families practice selective female infanticide. The newly enhanced worth of sons saw families demand cash, jewellery or expensive consumer durables at the time of marriage. The situation has steadily worsened since then but rather than calling it ‘dowry problem’, we should call it the problem of paying,’ groom price’.

The pre-colonial logic for female infanticide was unwittingly strengthened by imperial and land-ownership policies even though the British outlawed the practice in 1870. The British charged heavy fines and apprehended and imprisoned culprits perpetuating such a crime. They did not however think it worth their while to examine the social effects of their own methods of governance that led to an intensification of these problems.

Q. Are you trying to say there was no practice of dowry before the British arrived in India?
A. No, I am not saying that, Dowry, or dahej as it is called in Hindi, has today become a convenient peg on which to hang all explanations about discrimination against women. But in its origins dowry was one of the few indigenous, women-centered institutions in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society. Historically, it was an index of the ‘appreciation’ bestowed upon a daughter in her natal village, and not a groom’s prerogative to make demands on the girl’s family. The dowry-infanticide blight was used to justify the annexation of India. Colonialism, it was claimed was a civilizing mission.

Q. How did the codification of customary law affect women?
A. The problem of women worsened following the British decision to codify all customary law. A key word like ‘local’ which meant village in customary law, came to be transformed to mean ‘caste’ or ‘tribe.’ This shift in terminology had implications for women, since they were now seen to belong to patriarchal lineage rather than localities. The whole attempt was to translate social and customary practice, which was flexible, into legal codes from which women were excluded.

Even more significant was the act that colonial administration replaced the indigenous version of democracy in which villagers had representatives with mechanisms of direct control. The British courts replaced the authority of the village panchayat with the patwari-the man who kept village records-by making him a paid employee of the state. This conferred enormous powers on someone who was earlier seen as a servant of the farmers.

Q. Why has modern, independent India failed to get rid of the problem of dowry?
A. We haven’t realised that making a dowry demand is a cultural oxymoron that bears no resemblance to the historical meaning and practice of this institution. Dowry demand must be tread on a par with crimes such as blackmail, extortion or insurance fraud. Instead, they are put in the straitjacket of a dowry case. No wonder the law takes no note of the pain and psychological trauma that a woman suffers in a failed marriage. In other words, we will not be in a position to address the problem of dowry unless the state begins to take a wholly different view of it”. End of interview, excerpts from the book follow. Also the custom of dowry was widely prevalent in preindustrial Europe and is still to be found in several southern European countries, for which see Marion A Kaplan (1985).

The author Veena Talwar has dedicated this book to: “For Mummy & Kaku and in memory of my father, Baljit Singh, whose intervention enabled this work”. All content is virtually verbatim from the book and is courtesy / copyright Oxford University Press. In order to make piece comprehensive I have taken relevant extracts and avoided getting into too much detail. Wherever necessary have added my comments, they would always start with the word Friends to enable you to distinguish from Veenaji’s work. Courtesy & copyright is Veena Talwar and Oxford University Press.  

Preface excerpts – In 1984, on a quiet spring afternoon in New York, the phone rang in my study and a television journalist asked me if I knew anything about “bride burning” or dowry murder in my native India. I did not, but I did offer some thoughts on sati, widow burning, along with a reading list. No, the journalist insisted, an Indian documentary on this issue was to be aired as a segment of an important national weekly show, and the television channel was looking for informed comment. My own memories of an experience in the summer of 1966 were still surprisingly fresh, but they appeared dated and so utterly unconnected with dowry that I said nothing. That denial and the subliminal provocation instigated the book.

The day after the documentary was shown, colleagues and students at the small liberal arts college where I taught besieged me with questions. I had become used to being brought to account for any Indian happening, good or bad (but chiefly bad). But never before had it been so difficult to deal with, because this time I had no satisfactory rebuttals. The burning death was perceived as fraught with deep Hindu religious & cultural significance. Dahej or dowry and its relationship to the Hindu caste system were portrayed as the key to understanding this crime. The narrator made it clear in the documentary that the Punjabi bride had been burnt to death because she had not brought enough dowry to her husband’s home.

Culturally embarrassed, yet deeply stirred for reasons that will unfold, I knew the time had come for me to examine the alleged cultural roots of this cultural crime. My personal experience (she went through a divorce in 1966) became inevitably and inextricably meshed with my research into dowry murders. Therefore, I must disclose at the outset that I am deeply implicated in this history as one of its subjects – as a bride, as an academic and occasional activist, and as a witness to three decades of worsening violence against women- and I will rely not only on my training in the methods of history & anthropology but also on the self-conscious, feminist perspective I developed through my own encounters with pathology.

In the summer of 1984 in Delhi, when many more bride-burnings were reported on the front page of national newspapers, I was to make my first foray into the world of feminist activism. I spent the next academic year in India to explore what had by then become the best-known fact, after sati, about Indian women. At one level I was a foreign scholar whose project had been approved severally by the Education, External Affairs and Home Ministers of the Government of India. At another I was an Indian women with a “complicated past”. I knew that I had not come lightly to probe the problematic relationship of violence and gender in Punjabi households in northern India.

A clarification is essential at the outset: the burning of wives is neither an extension of nor actually related to the practice of sati, the voluntary self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. “Bride-burning” is the murder, culpable on social, cultural and legal grounds, executed privately, and often disguised as an accident or suicide.

Book introduction
Excerpts – The impugning of dowry as the causal force behind gendered crimes has it roots in the collusion of the imperial state and Punjabi men who reconfigured patriarchal values and manly ideals ever more strongly in the 19th century Punjab. There was in the colonial period a profound loss of women’s economic power and social worth. This was a direct consequence of the radical creation of property rights in land.

In precolonail India, dowry was not a problem but a support for women: a mark of their social status and a safety net. I demonstrate that dowry & associate wedding expenses neither caused the impoverishment of the Punjab peasant, nor were they the cause of the increase in violence against women. Rather, imperial policies created a more masculine economy and deepened the preference for sons that fostered the overt or hidden murder of girls.

Investigating the Crime – In Delhi I was directed to Saheli, a women’s resource center. Information gathered from various sources did not explain why dowry had become such a scourge. The system of dowry had become corrupted no doubt but there little to explain why and how. The colonial finger pointed at Hindu culture, whereas present day Indian activists and media blamed westernization, which increased materialism and commercialized human relationships. Was the reason for dowry the former or latter? In Europe, where dowries have all but disappeared, violence against women is still rampant. Modern industrial capitalism eroded the culture of dowry in the West, but did economic distortions peculiar to the colonial setting change it for the worse in India?

In order to know I began to skim through the annual compilations of administrative reports in Punjab to see if perhaps a hundred years ago the custom of dowry had better press. It was there as a cause of the murder of females infanticide. The British had uncovered female infanticide in 1851 in Punjab, they believed, it was directly related to the expense of wedding celebration and dowry payments. Dowries, they reported had impoverished Punjabi peasant families, forced them into debt and made parents kill their daughters before they were born.

There was lots of colonial documentation of female infanticide among high-caste Punjabi Hindus but statistics on sex ratios in the subcontinent pointed to a startling contradiction. Several families from Hindu lower caste and Sikhs who received bride price and Muslims, who did not follow the practice of dowry, were all found guilty of committing female infanticide. So I began to investigate the beginning of British rule in Punjab and the trail led to the transformation of rights in property, particularly land.

Historically desire to have son was also fuelled by the need of living in a war torn region i.e. undivided Punjab but this need for boys got intensified during the colonial period. To suppress the murder of female infants, the colonial government passed a law in 1870, and a few years later tried to restrict the value of dowries and curb wedding expenses by assembling all the important upper-caste Hindu chiefs from the 40-odd districts of Punjab to have them pledge an end to their thrifty ways. Yet the female sex ratios continued to decline meaning there was no causal relationship between dowries & female infanticide.

Presenting the Case – Chapter one begins with an attempt to define dowry. British stressed its cultural roots in Hinduism but a rigorous historical treatment of dowry’s relationship to the violence against women had not been attempted before. The relationship between marriage, gender and property needed to be explored historically. Did imperial policies often create or aggravate the very problems they sought to remove? For e.g. were chronic indebtedness and increasing drunkenness, thus domestic violence in the Punjabi countryside the result of political economy of new regime rather than Hindu or Muslim cultural dictates? And what influence did the colonial enterprise of codifying custom into textual law and its implementation in the new courts of Punjab have on rights of women and the notions of dowry and stridhan (women’s wealth).

The south seems to be less prone to the pathological strain of the north. In the south parallel cross cousin marriages among many communities means that women remain in close proximity with their natal families unlike the north where bride of every caste has to leave her home to live in the household of her husband. Dowry is also a safety net for women who marry outside their natal villages where their rights in the natal house lapse when they leave for their marital homes.

Friends another reason could be that the north was under continuous attack by invaders. When the local population lost the first symbol of conquest was the rape of local women. Seeing their daughters being treated in such a manner parents might have preferred to avoid having daughters at all.

Female Infanticide (MUST READ) – a new historical understanding of the issue emerges when it is seen that that as the East India Company discovered female infanticide they used their knowledge to further their own political ends by attributing purely cultural reasons for the crime, which in fact, had social and economic causes exacerbated by their own policies.

Starting as a trading company moving on to the annexation of Bengal, Punjab and Oudh by 1856, the East India Company faced public outrage in Britain. The development of explanations that described and blamed indigenous culture for some of its own miscalculations was used to appease its detractors at home. This strategy is better known as her “civilizing mission” with Hindu culture as its prime target.

The crime was noted and condemned selectively. For e.g. in 1851, the Sikh Bedis were found guilty of female infanticide. This discovery became political capital for the British who justify two unsanctioned bloody wars with the Sikhs that led to the annexation of their fertile land. In the same year, the British overlooked female infanticide amongst the Jats for two reasons. One they were favorite recruits of the British Indian army because of their strong physiques and martial qualities. Two Jats received bride price for their daughter’s from boy’s family because their daughters worked in the fields unlike Khatri or Brahmin daughters.

British economic policy resulted in impoverishment of the farmer, mortality rates from famines grew the Crown seeked to blame the wasteful expenditure during marriages as one of the reasons for the state of the Indian peasantry, refer chapter 4. Further cost of marriage went up after 1853 app. The British reduction or outright abolition of the customary subsidies given to the village heads by Muslim, Hindu and Sikh rulers for the maintenance of village guest house, oil lamp, upkeep of shrines and payment to musicians made hospitality during weddings more costly. Inflation that accompanied the steady rise in the price of land stood on their heads, the old equations of movable property for the daughters as against immovable property based on virilocality for the sons. And the increased circulation of cash and an ever-increasing range of consumer goods, chiefly British imports, generated a clamor for these items to be included in dowry.

Creating Property Titles – Transformation of the basic relationship between peasants and their land and the simultaneous codification of customary law caused much of the famous indebtedness of the Punjabi farmer. These two events which were in place by the 1860’s became central in altering the texture of women’s lives, their implicit rights & entitlements in their families. The new notion of peasant proprietorship produced new perceptions of gendered rights in land and these were recorded as customary.

By clearing forests and building canals, communications and railway lines in this fertile-grain producing region, the colonial authorities linked it to a thriving international market. The British extracted wealth from the countryside in the form of heavy taxation & exports of wheat to Europe, but did not share wealth with the local people. A million and a half Punjabis perished in the famine of 1876-77. The new political economy with its ambivalent and hobbled capitalism created a deeper imbalance in power relations in the household. The evidence of this is carefully evaluated in chapter 5.

It is important to know the rights to property in pre-colonial and colonial times. The profound change is a key element in my analysis of Punjabi’s women’s relationships to land. I have explored the brunt of the new colonial revenue policies & command economy on the dynamics of power within peasant families. With the creation of male individual property rights in land, the British decided to create the individual peasant owner as the centerpiece of their modern revenue policy. What was to be called ryotwari settlement involved giving property titles to the land directly to the peasants (ryots) who tilled it.

The policy might have worked well had not the British sticked to two of its components: fixed amounts and inelastic dates for the payment of land revenue, giving little room for contingency. These new circumstances changed the relationship between the borrower and the lender. In precolonial times moneylenders advanced small loans, the object was never to let a debt be paid off entirely, in order to keep the debtor as client. But now the moneylender with an appetite for appropriating their debtor’s land – emerged as the scourge of the countryside as we see in Hindi films. The critical difference was that land became a commodity that could be auctioned to recover arrears of revenue. The peasant was forced to borrow in a bad year chiefly to pay his taxes in time, the moneylender was more eager to lend as the quantum of lending went up since land was offered as security, more lending meant more interest with security of land. Chronic peasant indebtedness became the other side of the story.

Ironically, the price of land went up in the same period, as monetization of the economy proceeded apace with the buildings of canals, roads, railways and market facilities. The moneylender and merchant gained the peasant lost. As a result of this indebtedness there was pressure to deploy women’s resources to rescue a family’s holdings within the first score years of ryotwari settlement, when app 40% of the traditional peasantry lost their lands.

Putting landed property entirely in male hands and holding the males responsible for payment for revenue made the Indian male as the dominant legal subject. This had a disastrous effect on the lives of Indian women. When martial conflicts happened, the women were left with no legal entitlement to the land of their husband or father-in-law. Meanwhile, her dowry might have been spent on the husband’s family holdings.

The masculinization of the economy made male children even more desirable. In addition, the effects of recruiting the British Indian army heavily from the ranks of the Punjabi peasants particularly the land-tilling Jats, generated a demand for strong young men who would be employed with a cash wage, award of land and eventually pensions. Friends the Punjabi Sikhs & Muslims supported the British in the Mutiny of 1857. So the British repaid their loyalty by hiring a large number of them in the Indian army. The article has a chart on this subject as written in Thoughts of Pakistan by Dr Ambedkar.

So we can see that dowry in its menacing form was not part of Hindu or Sikh culture but a responsive & dynamic situation that adapted to changes in the new economic climate.

Preference for Sons – Sons were the key to survival & prosperity in the relentlessly agrarian Punjab under the British. Acquiring land during auctions or sales, findings jobs in lower rungs of bureaucracy or the army, or finding a niche as a retailer in the expanding market were the new plums to fight over. The newly enhanced worth of sons came to be reflected in the confidence of some families demanding a consideration for a marriage alliance, cash jewellery or expensive consumer durables. Friends the number of well earning boys were few, girls were more so naturally value of boys went up.

Thus the girl’s parents knew that a good dowry was now the net to secure the catch. Slowly the idea that a groom’s family could make demands slowly infiltrated other traditional gift-giving occasions reserved by parents. This trend which started in the colonial period steadily worsened causing occasional violence. Such perverse transactions are unfairly perceived as dowry problems. Preference for sons in Punjab was related to it being a war zone and a popular recruiting ground for soldiers.

By Sanjeev Nayyar, []

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