In todays world, we are surrounded by media. Our lives are saturated by newspapers, radio, books, television, movies, the Internet, and many other aspects of media. These can be broadly classified into two types: news media and popular media. In India, both these types provide an insight into Indian life, which is filled with romance, tradition, and all the other day-to-day experiences and situations one might come across. But, even though they might seem the same, they both play very different roles in society.
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Popular media represents and recounts a vast number of real life stories, and portrays them in a manner enjoyable for the audience. News media on the other hand, provides more facts and raw information for the audience to understand, with or without a firm opinion of its own on the matter. Popular media reaches out to a much larger audience, as both literate and illiterate people are able to access it, while news media only reaches out to the literate and wealthy people. This difference can become a problem in certain situations. Both these parts of media reflect society constantly, as they are shaped from and around experiences and stories of the people in the society. Usually, both these types concur with each other in the content and representation of society, but there are specific cases in which this ceases to be true. An example of this is the portrayal of the prominence and effects of the dowry system in India today. For a long time, both popular and news media reflected the aspects of the dowry system in the Indian society very vividly and comprehensively, and shared the same view on the topic. But over time, it was noticed that popular media deviated from this pattern and no longer reflected the prominence of the dowry system in society, while the news media continued to do so, thus creating an ideological difference between the two. The problem of the dowry system is still prominent, and the news media continues to reflect this. But since popular media does not reflect society anymore, a majority of the society comes under the impression that there is nothing wrong in what they are doing. This can cause the dowry system to be persistent in the everyday lives of Indian families.
The dowry system is a cultural system in India in which the parents of the bride pay a large sum of money, and give expensive jewelry and other gifts such as car or other household items, to the parents of the groom during marriage (Borah 2). Traditionally, there were many reasons for the establishment of this system. It was a form of inheritance for the bride, since all the family property was inherited by men. It was supposed to be the security for the bride in case any misfortune befell her husband’s house. It was also a system of honoring the groom for his willingness to accept the bride as his wife in marriage, and the gifts given could range from anything significant to even a small token of good wishes (Borah 2). However, the greed for dowry has affected almost all ordinary families in India. Nowadays, in marriages between or amongst all hierarchal levels of society, dowry is generally an unspoken requirement. And due to the exposure to mass media, the gifts given in dowry have transformed into a large transfer of wealth, making it an important factor in marriage.
The social and cultural effects of the dowry system are devastating to the society as a whole. The system reduced women to a commodity and a source of wealth. Even if the dowry is paid, in most cases, the bride is tortured by her in-laws, mentally and physically as their demand for more dowry becomes endless (Chirmade 1992). This torture generally leads to suicide or murder of the bride.
The reason why dowry is still persistent in India is not only because it is difficult to enforce the law against it or because the groom’s family is very demanding, but also because the bride’s family continues to bear with it. Despite the widespread awareness of the negative consequences of dowry and the problems cause by it, it is still seen as a way of buying happiness for the bride (Stone and James, 1995). Many families believe that giving a large dowry would result in better treatment of the daughter by the groom’s family. This has only aggravated the problem as the standard for dowry became high and marriage was made dependent on whether the bride’s family could meet that standard of dowry or not.
A study was done in 1980 which examined students’ expectations of dowry for people with various education backgrounds. Even though majority of the students viewed the dowry system as an ‘evil’ in society and considered it unimportant for marriage, most of the brothers of the respondents gave or received dowry for their sisters’ marriages (Rao and Rao, 1980). Also, depending on the social status and affluence of the family, and the education qualifications of the bride and the groom, the amount of dowry needed to be given varies significantly. There is a positive correlation between a man’s education and status to the dowry his family demands. As a groom’s educational experience increases, the dowry demanded for the marriage also increases.
In 1961, the payment of dowry was prohibited under the Indian Civil Law, and also under sections 304B and 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Despite this, this system of dowry has been a continuous and never ending menace in Indian society. These laws were made in order to make it easier for women to seek redress from the harassment she is under by the man’s family. But these laws have been of little help to brides, who are harassed even today by their in-laws. Instances of such situations have constantly been shown to the public by the media.
The power of media in today’s world is surprising. The media has the freedom to form opinions, and through this they can change the opinions of people. But, people forget that in the end, all media is doing is reflecting society. The stories the media covers, and the plots of the movies that are made (except fantasy fiction of course), all are based on situations which may occur in day to day life, or real life situations. Same was the case with the dowry system. The media clearly depicted the agonies and pain of Indian women as they were suffering from the cruelties of the dowry system. This can be seen from very far back in popular as well as news media.
Dowry-inspired murder cases received immense coverage by news media in the late 1970s and 1980s due to the active role played by women’s organizations. The women’s organizations played a very important role in increasing awareness and coverage of dowry related cases. A study done on the coverage of dowry related cases from 1979-1984 concludes that there was a noticeable improvement in the coverage of dowry in the national papers due to the women’s organizations, although the coverage in regional papers remained the same. By 1979, one dowry related death received serious press coverage. A 24 year old bride from New Delhi, Tarvinder Kaur, was set on fire by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law due to an insufficient dowry paid by her parents. Another significant dowry-related murder case was that of Tripti Sharma, who worked at the Ministry of Defense. She was burned to death by her husband and his family in 1986. A more optimistic and recent case is that of Nisha Sharma. In May 2003, she handed over her future husband to the police on the day of the wedding itself as he was demanding more dowry from her. This example shows what women need to do in cases of dowry abuse. Nisha refused to come under the pressures of the groom’s family, and decided that she was not going to sustain it. These examples from news media are clearly reflective of the state of affairs in India at that time, and the case with popular media was similar.
In 1992, the movie ‘City of Joy’ depicted a family which had really high dowry demands. In the movie, the groom’s father clearly states, “I am firm in requiring for my exceptional son the bicycle, 1000 rupees, and one ounce of gold.” The bride’s father responds by saying, “The child of a king might be worth that, and I’m not even sure of that!” (City of Joy) Another 2001 movie, ‘Lajja’, clearly displayed the consequences of the dowry system, it’s working, and how it may be a big burden on the bride’s family. In the movie, Maithili (Mahima Chaudhary) is about to be married to a wealthy man of a family with a high social status. Maithili’s parents give away everything they have in the dowry, including their land and saved money. Upon still falling short, they take loans from their friends, but they are still not able to gather the full amount. Maithili requests her future husband to convince his dad to let the rest of the money be, but he is too scared to do so. Seeing this, and seeing her dad beg in front of the groom’s father to accept the money he has, she rebels, and calls off the wedding. She was not able to bear to see her father being humiliated in such a manner by the groom’s father. Both these movies showed that the bride’s family has to struggle a lot in order to gather the dowry for the groom’s family, and thus is a big burden on them.
This depiction of the dowry system by popular media was in concurrence with its reflection in the news media, but as we move ahead on the timeline, this concurrence slowly fades away. The movie ‘Lajja’ was the last movie to clearly depict the pain inflicted due to the dowry system. The 2006 movie ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’ also had the concept of dowry, but it did not demonstrate the consequences of the dowry system, and only showed that the concept of dowry existed. Since then, popular media has not depicted any case of dowry related abuse or murder. This would have been perfectly fine if the society had transformed to this effect and there were no more dowry related crimes taking place, but this was not true, as news media still continued to report about such crimes taking place.
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‘Number of dowry cases goes up’ (The Hindu, January 2008); ‘Dowry death after love marriage’ (The Times of India, April 2008); ‘Harassed for dowry, teacher ends life’ (The Indian Express, November 2007). These are just three headlines from three of India’s popular newspapers that show the persistence of the dowry system and its consequences in modern India. Dowry is still prevalent in modern India, in not only the illiterate section of the population, but also the educated elites in India’s major metropolitan cities. Surprisingly in the past decade, the number of dowry related crime cases has actually gone up, despite dowry being banned since 1961 by Indian law. According to the statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 8391 dowry deaths were reported in 2010 itself, which means that a bride was killed every 90 minutes due to dowry related reasons. In 1988, this number was 2209; in 1990 it rose to 4835; in 2000 (a decade earlier), this number was 6995, and in 2007 it climbed up to an astounding 8093 (Bedi 2012).
According to other government records, Delhi itself records a few hundred dowry deaths every year, while women’s rights groups estimate this number to be at 900 per year. This is a phenomenal increase compared to the numbers for the 1990s, which were about 300 per year (Bedi 2012). It is important to note that these are just official records, and are thus immensely under-reported. 90% of the cases in which women are burnt are recorded as accidents, 5% as suicides, and only the remaining 5% of the cases are shown as murder. These shockingly high numbers clearly reflect the continuous increase in dowry related crimes and deaths in India.
This is due to the continued commercialization of marriages in the modern Indian society. India’s economic liberalization has seen a proportionate rise in the levels of greed as compared to 1990, and a bride is now perceived by her future in-laws as a source of potential cash flow. A famous quote from former Justice Markandey Katju reads, “On one hand, people regard women as goddesses, and on the other hand they burn them alive. This is against the norms of civilized society. It’s barbaric” (Bedi 2012). This is in response to an appeal filed by a husband who had just been sentenced to imprisonment for life by a Sessions court for burning his wife due to dowry related reasons.
The effects of the dowry system are so far and wide ranging, that they can even be traced back to the womb. This system is the primary cause for female feticide and infanticide as poorer parents get to avoid the lifelong burden of saving up for the dowry for their daughter’s marriage (Krishnamurthy, 1981). The commercialization of marriage and female infanticide is clearly reflected in the movie ‘Matrubhoomi’, in which a reverse dowry system is depicted. The movie shows a society in which there are no women left due to excessive female infanticide, and the men have grown to be so sexually frustrated, that they are ready to pay large amounts of money to get a wife for themselves or their sons. So as soon as the head of the family finds Kalki, they literally buy her from her father, by giving him five lakh rupees and five cows, and marry her to all five of his sons. Kalki simply becomes a source of money for her father, and a sex object for her husbands (Matrubhoomi).
Nowadays, there are famous advertisements which have been put up in many of the rural villages, which read, “Spend 500 rupees today, save 5000 rupees later.” This is a reference to the cost of abortion compared to the cost of the dowry which they might have to give. It basically encourages the families to get an abortion if their child is a girl, so that they don’t have the burden of paying the dowry while getting her married in the future. This is the primary reason why India has a distorted sex ratio of 933 girls for every 1,000 boys.
As is evident, the problems due to the dowry system have only been rising over the past decade. Despite this, popular media has failed to reflect these problems. News media has continued to keep up with these updates, and report about them, but popular media has deviated into its own path. Since popular media has a much larger audience compared to news media, this results in the society getting a skewed viewpoint of what is happening in their world: an incorrect portrayal of society in which what they are doing is not wrong. Also, since popular media has a much larger international audience as compared to news media, people from other countries get a totally different view of India: a world in which the dowry system does not exist and is not causing any problems at all. Thus, an untrue version of the society is shown to the world outside, which is not good, as when these people actually come to India and read about the truth, it is a shocking revelation for them.
A shift in India’s attitude towards the dowry systems is urgently due. In simple words, dowry is equal to a family paying a man to accept their daughter as his wife, while the man along with his family, tries to get the maximum price out of the woman’s family. This association of economic gain with women in marriage is something which has long been persistent in India, and needs to stop. Simply making anti-dowry laws has proved to be inefficient. We need to make the society see their mistakes and realize what they are doing wrong, and this can only be done if popular media continues to reflect society as it did before.
India must come together to end this practice. This could see couples channel their funds to provide education to their daughters, instead of saving money for years and years for dowry. The days of the persistence of the dowry system in India must be numbered, or Indian society’s claim to be progressive is disingenuous.
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