Dictionary defines dowry as money or property that a wife or wife’s family gives to her husband when the wife and husband marry in some cultures. Unlike what most people in India think, dowry has Babylonian origins. Dowry was regularly practised in Old Greece and Roman Empire as well. In contrast, many scholars agree that the practise of dowry was not frequent or significant in Vedic Era in India, so much so, that it was not practised in most of South India till early 20th Century. It is also argued that the practise of dowry came to India with Aryans.
In all ancient cultures, daughters normally did not inherit any part of estate of the father, so she was generally given dowry, which worked as lifetime security for the girl. In the event of divorce, the man was supposed to give the dowry back to the woman. The same was not any different in India, Stridhan, which includes the dowry of the girl and gifts she received from her husband and in-laws, was sole property of the woman concerned and she was free to deal with it in any manner she deems fit. So much so, Manu says it is the duty of the husband to restore the Stridhan to the wife in case he has used the said property in any distress.
World over laws were brought with time to regulate the exchange of Dowry or to curb the menace of dowry. Roman Empire, Italy, Japan and many other countries had/ have some or other regulations about Dowry. Also, in Bangladesh and Pakistan has prohibition on exchange of dowry.
However, legally, in India Dowry is defined in Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 as “any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly by: One party to the marriage to the other party of the marriage or the parents of either party to the marriage or by any other person, to either part of the marriage or to any other person, at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties but does not include dower or mehr in the case of persons to whom the Muslim Personal law (Sharia) applies.”
Also, gifts given to the bride of traditional giving of presents at or about the time of wedding, provided that they are willing and affectionate gifts by the parents and close relatives of bride to her are not considered to be dowry.
Thus, as per law, anything and everything of value given to the bride at the time of marriage or any of the relative of the groom is Dowry. Of course, the exception is that of customary gifts. It is immaterial whether the property was for sole or joint usage of the bride with someone else. Thus furniture, household articles, jewellery, clothes, vehicles etc. are covered in the definition of dowry.
Further, there are three occasions related to dowry. One is before the marriage, second is at the time of marriage and the third is “at any time” after the marriage. The key word in the act is not so much as exchange of anything valuable during the marriage. It rather is exchange or promise of anything valuable in connection with the marriage of the parties. Customary gifts whether monetary or any other form of property has been kept out of the act. Thus any demand for property or valuable security that has direct or indirect nexus with fixation or continuation of marriage constitute ‘demand of dowry’.
Initially when the act was passed in 1961, the expression ‘dowry’ confined to demand of money, property or valuable security at or before performance of marriage. The definition was later expanded in 1985 to include to cover demands made subsequent to the marriage as well. The same was done by the legislature as there were many problems faced when there was no demand of dowry at the time of marriage but demand was raised subsequent to marriage. Other sections of the act include that any agreement for dowry is void, both giving and taking dowry is an offence, advertising about the same is a punishable offence.
So much so, that the act was expanded in 1985 to include a rule which stated that a list of presents be maintained by the bride and groom separately and the same shall be signed by both bride and the groom. However, this is not followed owing to hesitancy or reluctance or lack of knowledge. Even the courts have not seen the absence of list as a major challenge in deciding the value of dowry given in the marriage. Though indomitable Justice S N Dhingra did point out the same in this celebrated judgment and so has Hon’ble Apex Court, the following of this rule is almost negligible in society.
Dowry articles constitute stridhan property of the married woman and even if the articles are kept in his custody, the husband does not acquire joint interest in the property and if he dishonestly misappropriates it, he will be liable for prosecution under the Section 406 of Indian Penal Code 1860. Where any dowry is received by any person other than the woman in connection with whose marriage it is given, that person shall transfer it to the woman if the dowry was received, in fact the same transfer has to happen within three months of such receipt, otherwise there is a separate prosecution which can be started under Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. There is even a manner to dispose the dowry of a woman in case she dies before property is transferred to her i.e. where such woman dies property shall: (i) if she has no children, be transferred to her parents, : or (ii) if she has children, be transferee to such children and pending such transfer, be held in trust for such children.
Also, with time two new laws came in force i.e. Section 498A & Section 304B of Indian Penal Code, 1860 which further negated the utility of Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. Basically Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 has failed to curb the menace of Dowry in India, rather new laws have given rise to another menace which is misuse of Dowry Laws.
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