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How The British Created The Dowry System In Punjab
By Sanjeev Nayyar, October 2004 [[email protected]]

Chapter :

Female Infanticide       

The full name of chapter is ‘The Just-So Stories about Female Infanticide’. An East India company officer made the earliest causal link between the dowry system and violence against girls in 1789, when he discovered female infanticide. The finding added to the company’s description of the exotic, cruel culture encountered in the process of its conquest. On the back of such discoveries it said there was a need for a civilizing mission and thus justified the conquest of India. It was in this context too that Hindu women’s apparently degraded position in an allegedly rigid caste society became a central preoccupation of colonial rulers. Inden does not allege that the British invented caste, but they transformed it by misrepresenting it as a rigid, unchanging, flexible structure and by promoting the idea that caste was the essential core of Indian society.

Q. Why did the British blame the caste/dowry systems for female infanticide although they found evidence to the contrary?
A. By the second half of the 18th century the east India Company had wrested for itself the enviable status as paramount power of the subcontinent. To this was added the fertile Punjab after the bloody Sikh wars of 1849. Parliament acts & inquiries wanted to curb the Company that had probably become more powerful than Britain herself but by making civilizing mission the reason for conquest it blunted critics back home. Helped by the economic progress Britain had achieved and later by the 19th century, pseudoscientific production of knowledge on the white master race and the nonwhite inferior races & cultures, this case was spelt out in a whole range of documents prepared for the British parliament. Records write about the discovery of social evils like sati or thugs.

In 1813 the civilizing mission received an additional fillip when the British parliament passed the India Act of 1813 to admit missionaries who added greatly to the self-righteous bombast of this mission. The prime target for reform was the generally hapless ‘Hindoo women’. It was not long before the upper-caste, English educated Hindu men joined the fray as social reformers. Numerous laws were passed beginning with the ban on sati in 1829. That did not end or slow down but it reinforced India’s image in the metropole as a cruel, heathen land.

The ostensible motive for waging the two Sikh Wars in 1845, 1849 as the British claimed was to end sati, which was rampant in that region. However, reasons were different. The value of Punjab was manifold, revenues, resources; potential recruits to the army and strategically to serve as a buffer state/military base for British operations in Afghanistan. Soon after Punjab was conquered the British discovered female infanticide there. Punjabi individuals/groups agreed to that because of threats of fine and worse by caste / village headmen who agreed to monitor their own communities.

The mutiny of 1857 came as a shock to the British. Punjab provided soldiers to help the British so its strategic & financial value doubled. The Indian Army was revamped, now organized along religious & caste lines with a disproportionate large number of recruits from the so called martial races of the Punjab region.

Caste as Culprit – On 10/6/1853 R Montgomery, the judicial commissioner of the Punjab prepared his Minute on Infanticide. Every officer’s minute referred to earlier reports by British officers in other territories such as those by Duncan & Walker from Banaras & Baroda. Every report turned up the same causal connection – caste pride, dowry & hypergamy. Bureaucrats never combined social & economic reports. They spoke of dowry as the cause for female infanticides but never spoke about famine or revenue collected by the British. Thus caste became equated with culture, the prism through which all Hindus had timelessly seen their world and to the dictates of which they acted in unthinking conformity. Female infanticide was established by caste leaders rules, it was started by higher class Sikhs and Hindus as a result of ignorance, lower caste followed higher caste who habitually strained to enhance their caste status by emulating the culture of high castes, even going to the extent of going into debt to give dowries, celebrate weddings. 

For the British, the most culpable group in the entire province of Punjab were a jati or sub caste, of the Khatri caste called the Bedis, a sacral group by virtue of the fact that the founder of the Sikh faith was a Bedi. This conclusion was derived from the report of Major Lake and confirmed by Major Edwardes & Abbot. Major Edwardes recaptured his conversation with an elder Bedi during his energetic inquiry into female infanticide. The book has the story so am not sharing here. The Bedi’s story for Edwardes gives him irrefutable evidence for the killing of female infants from a caste elder and is rooted in caste pride. This story along with many others convinced the British of caste rules and the inferiority of local culture.

Thus caste was made out to be an important element of Sikh society when the founder of Khalsa Guru Gobind Singh had explicitly rejected the caste system and had his injunction engraved on the entrance of the Akal Takht near the Golden Temple at Amritsar a century and half before Edward’s own investigation. So persuaded was the entire British establishment by the argument that caste status and pride were organic parts of Hindu culture that their reports became repetitive and some went to absurd lengths to prove the point.

There is some dispute whether Nanak was a Bedi or a Sareen (lower caste). Now by getting Nanak declared as a Bedi in the Edwardes report the Bedis would exult at Nanak being a Bedi. What modern ethnographers have ignored how villagers are apt to give half-truths or even fanciful or elaborate explanations in a bid to protect their own interest, particularly when the outsider read British is powerful, and thus has his own axe to grind. No Bedi would contest Edwardes report because it established them as the direct descendants of Nanak.

As time passed by many reports sought to create a perception that a daughter is a burden because of the expense of marrying her off – that becomes the keystone of the official policy for the prevention of female infanticide. Some interesting info – At Akbar’s court in Agra, all those who looked for court favor and gave their unqualified adherence to widow remarriage were called Sareens.

The Jats were a numerous and widely dispersed agricultural caste whose members included Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims too known as Meos. All of them believed in the practice of bride price yet female infanticide was reported amongst them. However, Edwardes ignored it perhaps because of the political importance of Jats & Muslims to the British hold over Punjab. Further Edwardes had made up his mind that Muslims cannot commit female infanticide because he believed that they do not have caste and they do not give dowries. Edwardes’s view of female infanticide became increasingly communal. Disproportionately high female infant mortality among the Muslims in the Punjab showed up in district after district, year after year, but official prevarication prevailed. It is only after partition when Punjabi Hindus fled to India did international agencies gather fresh statistics on sex ratios and exposed the extent of female infanticide in Muslims.

Soon report after report were produced that looked similar to Edwardes report. They said that the Rajputs, Khatris and other high-caste Hindus were unable to break out of the financially self-destructive cycle of marriage expenses that could not be changed and girl children had been killed in consequence, which the British had mercifully ended. Punjab officers had become just as vested in proclaiming these ills and passing laws to curb wedding expenses, as were their counterparts elsewhere. South India, where female infanticide might have been found as a practice only amongst the lowest and poorest castes, was never brought into the same net, nor was eastern Bengal, which is now the Islamic state of Bangladesh.

On 18/3/1870 the govt of India enacted the Prevention of Murder of Female Infants Act. It was to be enforced only in the first instance of Northwestern provinces, to the Punjab and to Oudh. The act was brief and essentially unenforceable. It is easy to imagine that the possibilities of corruption and genuine error must have made this law and its enforcement a nightmare for all. An inexplicable move only after 36 years of the passing of the Act seems only to underscore the political nature of this entire exercise for the British. British officials claimed eradication of this timeless practice and in 1906 the act was quietly repealed.

Why was the Act quietly repealed in 1906? They claimed that infanticide was no longer practiced but their numbers show that sex ratios continue to worsen in Punjab. The ratio of 832:1000 males for 1901 declined to 780:1000 in 1911 and 799:1000 in 1921. The actual reason for repeal might well have been something else. Given the human cost of the catastrophic droughts in the second half of the 19th century it might have become politically inevitable to withdraw a socially intrusive law that could fuel the engine of revolt in the face of 1.25 million deaths in the east Punjab and its contiguous provinces. Lord Lytton, the viceroy would not remit revenue payments or halt wheat exports because the money was needed to finance his expensive and obsessive military adventures against the Afghans.

The staggering loss of human life was tragic more so because it was self-inflicted. The Infanticide Act added insult to the injury. Agrarian discontent in Punjab at the turn of the century made the situation so explosive that the repeal of the Act was timed to reduce the resistance to British rule. Besides the burden of reform had been taken up by local organizations like the Arya Samaj. It worked for elimination of caste, simplification of marriage ceremonies, and reduction of marriage expenses. It aimed at regeneration of Hindu society through instruments of modern learning a reformed simplified Vedic Hinduism.

If anything their far-reaching policies on land ownership and revenue collection might have actually pushed female infanticide to its limits and induced the epidemic they sought to stem. Their claim that infanticide had been done with by 1906 was a empty boast because it continues till recently where newer technologies create a kinder method of aborting female fetuses.

Prem Chowdhry has keen analysed the Jats preference for males in the colonial period, when their military and agricultural skills were in high demand. Rainfall dependant Haryana, a part of colonial Punjab was a region that was prone to drought and had a large section of Jat farmers engaged in subsistence farming. The landowners were entirely dependant on family labor and this reinforced what is common to peasant economies, namely the desire for a son. The usefulness of girls was acknowledged but daughters were destined to marry early and prove their worth as wives & daughter-in-laws. This preference for sons subsumed all castes, tribes and religions in the colonial period. The female sex ratio was 866:1000 in 1886 and 874:1000 in 1991 not much of a difference.

It is not surprising that recent surveys by most international agencies show that son preference is firmly in place in many countries around the world which suggests that ownership of land and most paying jobs in male hands. The Ravindram report of 1986 shows Pakistan at the top of the list with Nepal having the second highest son preference. The Report also alerts us to a similar situation in Victorian England citing R Wall (1981), who concludes that extensive mortality data in England pointed out to an abnormally high death rate of girls in the middle and late 19th century, attributed to the social & economic disadvantages of women and girls esp. at the lower levels.

It is obvious that not all female children were killed in the areas where infanticide was practiced. So the problem is to disentangle the logic – economic, social, cultural and political that made a greater number of men necessary for the communities where female infanticide was practiced.

Notes – 1. A historian cannot resist pointing out that comparable Christian & European practices against women in the 16th & 17th century witch hunts and the burning of Anglicans & Papists at the stake in England; make the colonial moral stance hypocritical.

2. In Sanskrit, sati is a noun that means a good, pure women. The British mistook the doer, the good women, for the deed, self-immolation and this misnomer has passed into common usage.

3. The Khatri is described by Sir Denzil I as superior in “in physique, in manliness & energy”. He claims them to be the direct representative of the Kshatriya of Manu, but the validity of the claim is doubtful. This caste group has in its grasp the entire trade of the northwest of the subcontinent, way beyond Afghanistan, they were also the chief civil administrators, and have all literate occupations in their hands. They are also the source of all Sikh priesthood, although 9% of them count themselves as Sikhs. They have served several administrations before & after the Mughal times and were the chief functionaries of Maharaja Ranjit Singh”.

4. Rajput & Khatris resented being common soldiers under the British because they had been principal officers in the armies of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The British thus recruited disproportionate numbers of Jats & Muslims to restock their army. Khatri-Jat rivalry owed its beginnings to British recruitment practices just as the Muslim hatred for khatri moneylenders owed its existence to its revenue policies.

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