NEW DELHI, INDIA — All over India, where Hindu wives traditionally burned on their husbands' funeral pyres, brides in recent years have been dying in their husbands' homes in fires that were called "accidents" until women's organizations began to demand an official accounting.

Rani Rajeswari burned to death one Saturday night in December. She was 25 years old, and she died so suddenly and silently that her sleeping children, one a baby 3 moths old, did not awake.

The newspapers called it a suicide. It was one of several such deaths that day, and it merited a paragraph. Each day there are more.

"This was not a case of suicide," Mrs. Rajeswari's cousin, Balbir Singh, said. "It was murder."

A Familiar Story
Sitting on a cot in his spartan two-room apartment, Mr. Singh, a clerk in India's Supreme Court, told an increasingly familiar story of a marriage gone wrong, a quarrel, and then death. The family believes Rani's husband tried to suffocate or strangle her, poured kerosene over her and set her on fire.

The New Delhi police inspector conducting the investigation, Harbands Lai, says he now automatically orders an autopsy in suspicious domestic deaths, as required by law. Advisors to Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi say he is determined to protect and improve the condition of Indian women, forcing changes in social and religious attitudes that have allowed bride- burning, or sati, to go on. Female infanticide continues to be practiced; in the family of a prominent Rajasthan politician no
girls have been born in forty

Despite a number of laws aimed at protecting women and requiring investigations of suspicious deaths, such acts of violence against women have been a growing social phenomenon in the last decade.

In 1982, Mr. Ghandi's mother, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, spoke of her frustration at the situation, saying, "We have got a lot of laws, but it is not so easy to implement them."

Among the obstacles to law enforcement are intimidation of witnesses, police indifference and official collusion, according to women's rights groups.

Women's organizations point to the seriousness of the situation. One, the Ahmedabad Women's Action Group, in Gujarat state, says that research shows that 1,000 women may be burned alive annually in that state alone. Gujarat is the birthplace of Mohandas K. Ghandi.

In addition to burnings, women are also found hanged, or poisoned. Female infanticide continues to be practiced, according to news reports — including in the family of a prominent Rajasthan politician where no girls have been born in forty years. Amniocenteses, barred only in one state to determine an unborn child's sex, is followed in the rest of the country by female infanticide, women's groups say.

"Let me be frank with you," said Pramila Dandavate, a pioneer in the women's right's movement for a decade. "We are a feudal society. Basically, we don't believe that people are equal. Our education system does not teach respect for women."

'Lost Sense of Justice'
"Contact with Western culture has made us greedy," Mrs. Dandavate, a former opposition member of Parliament and founder of the Women's Vigilance Committee. "We have lost our sense of justice. We have not remained Indians. But neither are we Westernized," she said. "We do not understand equality."

The result, she said, is the emergence in India of "a feudal being with a materialistic attitude." Most marriages are arranged by families, and a man who does not marry for love learns he can marry for possessions.

The dowry system,
outlawed in India, has degenerated into extortion that goes on long after marriage.
For this man, and his family, a woman becomes the ticket to a few imported watches, a stereo, a refrigerator, a motorbike or a car through the system of dowry. A dowry, once a way a father could endow a Hindu daughter with material goods when she could not inherit property, has evolved into a reward paid to a man and his family to take a woman off her parents' hands.

The dowry system, which has also degenerated into extortion that goes on long after marriage, is outlawed in India, but it thrives.

'A Kind of Commodity'
"The number of things people desire to have in their own houses but cannot afford, they now believe they can use the opportunity of a son's marriage to get," Mrs. Dandavate said. "In marrying a son, they can fulfill all their unfulfilled ambitions."

"The woman has become a kind of commodity," she said. "In her name people can get any number of things."

The fatalities of recently married women are often collectively known as "dowry deaths" — where a husband kills a wife for failing to deliver on a request, or she kills herself to spare her father further hardship — although they cover all kinds of domestic discord in a country where not only arranged, but also forced marriages are still the norm.

Two young physicians at the same hospital injected themselves with lethal drugs; they could no longer bear the pressures exerted on their fathers to provide more goods to greedy husbands.

Asked recently in Parliament to quantify this phenomenon, which began to draw attention about a decade ago when the number of deaths in fires reported as "kitchen accidents" started rising in northern India, India's Home Affairs Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said that registered cases of dowry deaths nationwide numbered 999 in 1985, 1,319 in 1986, and 1,786 in 1987. Women's groups say that total will be surpassed easily this year — and that in a country of 800 million people, most of whom do not report domestic violence, the real numbers are far higher.

Some Deaths Suicides
Some deaths are in fact suicides. Women forced into marriage and harassed by their in-laws poison themselves or jump from buildings or into wells. In separate incidents this fall, two young physicians at the same New Delhi hospital injected themselves with lethal doses of drugs because they could no longer bear seeing the pressures exerted on their fathers to provide more and more goods to greedy husbands.

On Nov. 4, in the southern, very progressive state of Kerala, four sisters hanged themselves and left this note:

Our parents are not yet ready to pay fully for the dowry of our sister who was married some time ago. Having sold their gold and land, we are not sure that they will be able to provide anything for our marriages. Hence the decision to end our lives.

In Haryana, a prosperous state bordering New Delhi, Supriya Singh, the 19-year-old granddaughter-in-law of the Chief Minister, Devi Lai, was found shot through the neck a few weeks ago and quickly cremated without an investigation. Her father promptly offered a younger daughter, Kanta, as a replacement.

From childhood a girl is told that once you go to the new family you can come back only as a dead body. "This dowry system has crossed all the barriers," Mrs. Dandavate said. Formerly it was a phenomenon of the Hindu middle class families in north India. But now it has gone to different castes, crossed the boundaries of provinces and crossed the educational and religious barriers also. Muslims and Christians — among whom it was never observed — have started demanding dowry.

In India, girls, especially Hindu girls, are taught to model themselves on Sita, the mythological wife of the legendary hero Rama, who followed her husband into the wilderness and never failed to do his bidding.

"In a Hindu family, a girl is told from the very beginning that she has to win over the family that she is married into," Mrs. Dandavate said. "Once she is married, she has nothing to do with her maternal family. She has to make a place for herself in the new family. From childhood a girl is told that once you go over there you can come back only as a dead body. You must bear with everything. Don't complain. Don't come back. The prestige of the family depends on her staying."

Mrs. Dandavate said that one of the most encouraging developments over the last year or two is the willingness of more families to allow a daughter to return home in time of distress or danger, often saving her life.

Special Police Units
Laws have also been passed requiring prosecution for harassment and mental torture as well as physical abuse of women. New Delhi and some other cities have set up special police units for dealing with crimes against women.

The struggle continues, however, to get the laws enforced. In a recent book, "Brides Are Not for Burning," the author, Ranjana Kumar, documented cases of official delays, legal maneuvers and tampered evidence.

Women's rights advocates are also campaigning to convince other Indians that women are equal and entitled to equal treatment.

Above all, Mrs. Dandavate said, "A woman must learn to value her own life."


Not in the Stars:
South China Morning Post, Sep 2, 1999
  Supposed widow-to-be thwarts astrologers' predictions.