Thiruvananthapuram: The death of Vismaya V. Nair, a final year student of Ayurvedic medicine, who was found hanging at her in-law's home in Kollam this week, has thrown the spotlight on the issue of dowry in the state.
It has been alleged that Vismaya's husband, Kiran Kumar S., an employee at the Motor Vehicle Department in Kerala, had been physically abusing her asking for more dowry.
Vismaya married Kiran last year, and her parents gave 800 grams of gold, 1.25 acres of land and a car worth Rs1 million.
However, messages sent by Vismaya to a relative reveals that she was physically abused frequently by Kiran as he was unhappy with the car gifted to him, and was asking for money instead of the car.
Boots on face
Vismaya's messages reveal that Kiran used to pull her hair and stamp her face with his boots.
The photos she shared with her cousin show injuries on her face, shoulder, and hands. The messages said the assaults were frequent.
"Streedhan" ("Stree" meaning woman and "dhan" wealth), in the form of money, property or gifts, was given solely to the woman by her parents at the time of her marriage. It was an inheritance meant to exclusively belong to the woman at the time of her marriage.
However, over time the custom of providing a safety net for the woman was abused to become a price tag for the groom.
A few months ago, Kiran hit Vismaya in front of her parents, following which the family took him to the police station. However, the police reportedly insisted on a compromise.
Though Vismaya stayed in her house after this incident, Kiran took her back three months ago, and she was stopped from contacting her father and brother after that.
On Tuesday, the police recorded the arrest of Kiran Kumar in connection with Vismaya's death. The police said that he will be booked on charges of domestic violence.
cases recorded by Kerala Police under cruelty by husbands and relatives in 2020
Charging of other cases will be considered after Vismaya's post-mortem report is received, they said.
According to media reports, Kiran had admitted that he used to beat Vismaya and the injuries seen in the photos she sent to her family were inflicted by him.
Kerala Women’s Commission
Concerned over the increase in domestic violence against women and dowry deaths, Kerala Women’s Commission members said that plans to fight domestic violence and re-educate parents on the ills of the dowry system will be initiated urgently.
Talking to Gulf News, Advocate Shiji Sivaji, one of the members of Kerala Women's Commission, a statutory body constituted under Section 5 of The Kerala Women's Commission Act 1990, said that "following the murder of 25-year-old Uthara Vijayasenan in May 2020, we had realised the gravity of domestic violence in the name of dowry and had chalked out plans to fight it out."
"Now again since yesterday more cases are being reported from southern Kerala. So, it looks like we have to work on a war footing. We will revive our earlier discussions and with the help of the Kerala government come out with a workable plan," Sivaji said.
Recent dowry cases
2019: Thushara starved for two years
Thushara, a 27-year old woman was allegedly starved for two years before she died on March 21, 2019, in Kollam district of Kerala. Her parents were unable to pay Rs200,000 dowry that the in-laws demanded. The mother of two weighed only 20 kg at the time of her death, local media reported.
She was allegedly locked up in a room and forced to consume only soaked rice and sugar syrup for several days by her husband and mother-in-law over dowry. In the six years of her marriage to Chandulal, Thushara was allowed to meet her parents only three times, it was reported. She died at a government hospital in Kollam. Both culprits were arrested.
2020: Uthara bitten by a snake
Uthra was a differently-abled young homemaker, who had been married for two years, and was the mother of a one-year-old son, in Kollam.
She succumbed to a snake bite on May 7, 2020. Her husband Sooraj Kumar allegedly released a snake in her room fearing that he might be forced to give back the dowry as Uthara was seeking a divorce from him.
Uthara's parents had given 100 sovereigns of gold and Rs1 million in cash as dowry.
Uthara's case is being heard in court.
2021: Priyanka harassed
Last month, Kerala police arrested late Malayalam actor Rajan P. Dev's son Unni Dev on charges of abetment of suicide and cruelty towards his wife Priyanka.
Following the death of Priyanka, her family alleged that Unni used to harass and physically assault her asking for more dowry.
Meanwhile, Shahida Kamal, another Women’s Commission member, told Gulf News that "they are convening an urgent meeting tonight three such deaths have been reported in 24 hours."
In one of them, a young woman was found dead with burn injuries in her husband’s house at Venganoor in Thiruvananthapuram.
Archana, 24, was found dead and relatives allege foul play. Archana’s husband Suresh has been taken into custody following the incident.
The death happened on Monday at about 11pm at a rented place where Archana and Suresh lived.
Archana’s relatives had told television channels that Suresh’s relatives had approached them for more dowry.
Additionally, the mysterious death of a 19-year-old married woman in Alappuzha has also been reported in the media.
■ The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 was the government's first effort. This act was amended twice to increase its effectiveness - in 1984 and 1986.
■ The 1986 amendments require the police and a judicial magistrate to investigate every unnatural death of a woman married for less than seven years. Currently, the Act prohibits the "giving, taking, or demanding of dowry."
■ The Act defines "dowry" as property that is given or agreed to be given to a newlywed by the other newlywed or either set of parents "in connection with the marriage."
■ Violations of the Act are "punishable with a term of imprisonment between six months and two years, plus a fine of up to Rs10,000 or the value of the dowry, whichever is higher.
■ In addition to criminalising dowry, the Indian Parliament has criminalised dowry-related violence against women. The Indian Penal Code, amended in 1983, outlaws dowry-related cruelty by the husband and his relatives.
■ The Penal Code was further amended in 1986 to explicitly provide that dowry deaths are punishable with imprisonment between seven years and life.
■ Additionally, the Criminal Procedure Code now mandates a police investigation into deaths of women under suspicious circumstances that occur within seven years of marriage.
■ The Parliament also amended the Indian Evidence Act, which now creates a presumption of dowry death whenever a woman is subjected to dowry-related cruelty or harassment soon before her death.
Cruelty by husbands
Meanwhile, Kerala police Crime Records Bureau statistics reveal that there were six dowry deaths in 2019 and 2020. The bureau adds that 2020 data is provisional.
The same data reveals that there were 2,715 cases recorded under cruelty by husbands and relatives in 2020 (provisional) and this year up to April, 1,080 cases have been recorded.
Women’s Commission member Shivaji said COVID-19 induced lockdowns are leading to more cases of domestic violence.
"The number of SOS calls we are getting are high, compared to 2019 and 2020," she said.
Boys should be taught to say no to dowry. Parents should also understand the ills of dowry. We need a re-education.
Shivaji added that re-education is needed in Kerala society.
"Boys should be taught to say no to dowry. Parents should also understand the ills of dowry. So, we need a re-education," she added.
Kerala Director General of Police Loknath Behra told the media that Harshita Attaluri IPS, Inspector General of Police, will be probing the case.
"We will be strengthening the women's security in Kerala," he added.
Mini Mohan, a Kerala-based psychologist, told Gulf News, that suicide rarely happens without warning.
“Parents, relatives, and friends will be able to see signs in person, hear about them second hand, or see them online in social media. Never ignore these signs,” she said.
Mini said that while suicide is typically associated with the pain of mental illness (in particular depression and associated feelings of helplessness and hopelessness), there are sometimes specific situations that trigger suicidal actions experiencing abuse, loss, or other trauma.
“It is important to learn these warning signs and what to do if you see any of them in yourself or a friend. Suicide is preventable. By listening, talking, and acting you could save a life,” she added.
- Rejimon Kuttappan is a senior journalist based in Kerala.