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

Chapter :

Tangled Tale     

The chapter is titled The Tangled Tale of Twisting a Safety Net into a Noose. Our own investigations established that the colonial’ govt’s seemingly well-presented case w.r.t. Rajput & Khatri addiction to female infanticide was faulty & problematic. We discovered that bride price receiving groups such as Jats & Muslims were atleast as culpable as the high caste Hindus. We also found how native informants, in an attempt to save themselves from fines & imprisonment, became collaborators in the project of the colonial remaking of Punjabi society. In this chapter we will also examine how the radical restructuring of land ownership & revenue system soon after the British took over, the accelerated monetization of the agrarian economy, urban growth and emergent middle-class values all worked to transform the dowry system itself. Changes in gender rights during the colonial period are also explored.

Maj H.B. Edwards, the deputy commissioner of Jullundur had in his report been forced to conclude that, with the exception of the Khatris of Lahore, the custom of dowry among upper-caste Hindus did not appear to be the cause for alarm it was elsewhere in the Indian empire although wedding expenses were. He was able to persuade the people of Jullundur & Rahon to submit voluntarily a schedule of expenses.

Expenses submitted by women were under five heads with the exp on the first or the lagan (auspicious date) that decided the rate of all other expenses. The bride’s father usually sends 1/3rd of the value of gifts in cash and 2/3rd as horses & camels. If Rs 100/ is spent on lagaan, Rs 50 is spent on Milni. The 3rd expenses is the fees to the Brahmin priest that would not exceed Rs 75/. 4th is Meeta bhat, for two days sweets/fruits are distributed to all who come and 5th is Dahej or dowry is app 1/4th of 1/5th more than the lagaan and consists of household gifts. Thus daughters wedding would have been within five hundred rupees, a not inconsiderable amount. The informants were Khatris, the educated and wealthier people who had traditionally served the govt and army as officers and who were commonly involved in farming, trading and money lending. They were the community widely accused of committing female infanticide in Punjab.

Was Rs 500/ such a large amount to be spent on a wedding that became the cause of female infanticide? Around 1850 in Hindoostan (been under colonial rule for half a century) i.e. Hindi speaking areas of north India dowry was a problem because bride takers demanded it. In Punjab Edward said that the groom’s father was bound to accept what the bride’s father could offer. So what changed in Punjab that a few decades after British rule it became like Hindustan too meaning dowry became a problem. This recognition that Punjabi dowry giving did not induce infanticide is a remarkable internal contradiction of the official case.

The 2nd distinction that he draws is between dowries & wedding expenses. Ruinous expense was not dowry but wedding celebrations. And that applied to sons too. However, this was ignored but what was driven home was that infant daughters were killed because of the high cost of dowry and gifts on various occasions & festivals.

At a widely attended and publicized meeting in Amritsar in 1854 the British condemned the practice of female infanticide & dowry. The first point of general agreement was surprising. Only the Bedis & Rajputs had been directly accused of killing their infant girls yet lots of classes & castes including princes, Muslims & Jats swore against dowry. Clearly threat of fines and execution worked. The British legal world was strictly masculine, and this unilateral structure of authority was sought to be imposed on their subjects in reworking the rules of gender and marriage.

In a separate statement the chiefs pledged to expel from their caste anyone who supported female infanticide. What was unexpected was the final clause of this agreement, which aims against the exactions of musicians (bhat & bhand), genealogists (dut & mirasi), barbers (nai), and beggars (faqir) – all part of Punjabi villages who were entitled to small gratuities from landowners at festivals & ceremonial occasions. They were accused of demanding money by harassing, now refused entry to weddings and their customary services declined, only the police & district officers could deal with them. It resulted in a dramatic change in attitude toward village servants who had been maintained in earlier times by the common fund of the village subscribed to from the revenue collected.

None of the communities present at the Amritsar gathering tried to refute the blanket accusation that wedding expenses & dowry were among the chief causes of infanticide. All of the agreements stipulated that marriage exps separated into dowry & wedding celebrations needed to be reduced & regulated. Ceilings were adopted for four classes of weddings, the first class being Rs 500. On the whole a fairly elaborate set of written agreements emerged at Amritsar and the meeting was declared an unqualified success.

With the import of British goods wealthy Punjabis across community & caste lines vied for these gods to embellish their lifestyles, dowries naturally followed suit. Dowries might have already cost many times more than all wedding expenses put together. Why then, in 1853 or later, did the British officials not insist that dowries be regulated like expenses themselves as they believed it resulted in female infanticide. Both sides had divergent reasons to let the matter go unregulated. For Punjabis, a daughter’s dowry was not negotiable. Marriage was the time for which women aggressively saved and invested. On the other side the British saw the wealthy urban groups as potential consumer of British made household goods and textiles, and to limit this consumption esp. in the form of dowries seemed self-defeating. This conclusion is endorsed by the deliberate vagueness that the shrouds the language on dahej compared with the clarity & calculation of other expenses in the various agreements of 1853.

In the Amritsar agreements of 1853, there is no evidence that bride takers ever demanded goods or cash over & above what the bride’s parents to them as milni gifts & to their daughters as dahej. There is no mention of curbing demands by bride takers, only curbs on voluntary spending by bride givers. This is critical information for the baseline that I am trying to establish, because it makes it possible for me to assert that until the middle of the 19th century dowry was not a bargaining chip in the negotiations to arrange a marriage. The gradual conversion of dowry into a social pathogen is complex. It entails not only the interaction between the bride givers & bride takers but also colonial & social interventions. The late 19th century presents a different picture.

A standard feature of today’s weddings is the colorful presence of the groom’s female relatives and large entourages to be entertained for 2-3 days and who also receive mine gifts. This was not the case in 1853 when milni gifts were token cash payments in the range of Rs 5-20 for those male relatives who actually attended the wedding. Groom’s women normally stayed at home and celebrated till the groom returned with the baraat. The gradual inclusion of women in the baraat took place as conditions of travel eased and women could no longer be denied the pleasure, this resulted in more gifts for groom’s women guests. Introduction of railways in the last quarter of the 19th century increased the number of women who could travel raising the hospitality cost to be born by the bride’s family. From early in the 20th century, a set of clothes & jewels was added to the milni for the principal female kin of the groom (such as his mother & sister), and clothes or cash for other women relatives became customary.

The only area where cost were reduced were fees to the purohit or priest and to musicians etc. Over time the presence of traditional performers tailed off, but the expense of entertaining the baraat went up. The far more expensive English style brands, often rented from the army or the police forces, began to replace local musicians. Against the modest success at excising traditional generosity to village servants to reduce marriage expenses was more than offset the far greater expenditure on non-veg food, European spirits (scotch whisky etc) that the British introduced into Punjabi society.

What these agreements did not acknowledge was the existence of customary giving, which distributed the burden of wedding expenses through a web of reciprocal relationships. Most of the gifts were collected over time by the bride’s own family, particularly the mother who starts collecting clothes & jewellery for the daughter virtually from the day she is born. There existed the premises of reciprocity that came into play on all ritual & social occasions. A behi khata, or account book of what was received and from whom was maintained by every family. Once the custom of neoda (as described above), and its nature as a dependable resource at the time of marriage is understood, the financial impact of dowry giving on the family is greatly diluted. The nucleus of the bride’s jewellery comes the mother’s dahej and grandmothers/aunts too supplement ornaments. Among the khatris & Brahmins, a ceremony called Chura ceremony is designed to bring all the bride’s gift-giving relatives to give the bride & her parents the gifts to help them defray the cost of the wedding itself. This occurs a day before the wedding although what is going to be given is clear by the rules of reciprocity from the day a daughter is born. The girl’s mama (mother’s brother) leads off the ceremony by presenting the nanki bhat (gifts from bride’s mothers family). The mama’s gift varies in value depending on his status but minimally consist of the chura – a set of ivory bangles embossed & dyed in red – and a set of clothes and jewellery that the bride shall wear for the wedding ceremony.

Friends even today my mother keeps a record of money given at the time of marriage and from whom my sister received gifts. Although we never gave dowry at the time of my sister’s wedding the app 1 lakh that she got in cash gifts helped her part fund her house. My Mama & other relatives followed the ceremony exactly the way it is outlined above.

The cumulative effect of the system was to benefit all, it made a daughter’s wedding a shared responsibility and far less a burden then what the British believed it to be because much of the dowry gifts were contributed by direct kin and fictive family in the village.
Neonda was equally in vogue among the Sikhs of Punjab. Neonda, it can be argued, was the key to understanding the social relationships and status markers in a village. In 1853, however, these subtleties, reciprocities & customs totally escaped the British. These traditional networks were, in fact, tested and weakened or even destroyed when peasants became individual owners of land that was once communally held, and when indebtedness, famine or loss of income foreclosed social giving.

It appears from the caveats at the end of some of the ikrar nameh that most of the middle & lower income families spent well below the new scale of wedding expenses because it was suggested that they should continue to do so without suffering their suffering in repute. What happened was that the 1853 agreements might not have checked the offenders for whom they were intended but it put social pressure on the non-offenders to aspire to higher status by spending more money to improve their social standing.

A Native’s Assessment - In April 1867, the secretary of Lahore Anjuman, a literary society, was directed by Sir D F McLeod, the lft governor of Punjab, to hold a competition on the subject of the suppression of infanticide, for which the government would offer prices. Only Muslims submitted essays, the response was paltry. I as a researcher am surprised by the silence on the subject by the vernacular press on female infanticide although by the 1860’s there was a thriving press in urban Punjab. This silence was not peculiar to the Punjabis, the people of North-West Provinces and Bombay Presidency, where the crime was supposed to be rampant, said next to nothing about it in their newspapers.

Having failed to get a response McLeod asked Pundit Motilal Kathju, as extra asst commissioner and chief clerk of the Punjab secretariat to provide an essay on the subject. Kathju’s work was impressive. It also gives us further evidence to etch the baseline on dowry that I am in the process of establishing. Kathju systematically refutes the idea that the pride of race and heavy expense attending the marriage of daughters are the cause of the crime in question. The echoes of the Bedi stories that Edwards collected reverberate through the text even though Kathtju’s was ostensibly a dissenting voice. He was the only official who actually went over to the Lahore Anjuman and read all the other submissions that did not qualify as entries.

He complained that all others who have written on the subject have taken their cue from the apparent action of the govt in the matter. On the subject of marriage expenses, however, his writing is informed with a directness of social experience and a conviction that runs true. The expenses attending the marriage of daughters are pleaded as an excuse for the destruction of female children only by those who practice the crime. Kathju confirms what I observed earlier that dowries were not bought overnight in the 19th century but were gradually accumulated and recycled, and forced fiscal discipline on the family. This flatly contradicts the British dictum that dowries were symptomatic of a thriftless people who were obliged to kill their daughters.

He also tells us that among Punjabi upper-caste particularly Brahmins & Khatris, dowry was a preferred and a decided honorable practice and bride price its shameful opposite. Kathju also explains how providing adequate dowry was a voluntary expression of love & duty that would translate into esteem for her as bride. The dowry demands complained about the in the 1960s when the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed were nonexistent in 1868. The Khatris of Lahore had been noticed to make dowry demands but this was certainly nor the feature of the vast majority of people who married among their equals and spent according to their means. However, the Khatris were unable to reduce the desire for bigger dowries. Being successful and quick to avail of English education and government jobs they emerged as the leading elite urban community in Punjab. They profited from British policies, which made many of them into prosperous moneylenders and absentee landlords when the British auctioned off lands of revenue defaulters.

Shift 1 - In 1916 the revised & updated version of the 1868 Customary Laws of Lahore were published. It showed that Khatris of Lahore became trendsetters the reference community for all Punjabis with other communities like the Aroras (trading caste) imitating their life style and large dowries. Another change showed a qualitative change in the nature of dowry from the private volitional of a traditionally designed set of gifts packed in a chest and sent off with the daughter as her property to one i.e. is publicly displayed and formally made over to the son-in-law. This custom appears to have emerged among the Lahore Hindu elite led by the Khatris and reflects a desire to show newfound wealth.

Shift 2, Public display of dowry was instrumental in creating a new standard & meaning of dowry. The act of public display probably instigated the highly competitive trend in dowries in the early 1920’s. Not only would bride’s dowry be judged when the bride wore her clothes and jewels in her new home but also the status of her family was up for reevaluation at the sensitive juncture of the wedding itself. The steps in the process of converting a beloved daughter into a social and economic burden now become easier to trace. That these elaborate and wasteful ceremonies came under sharp attack by native reformers, particularly the Arya Samaj. The Aryas resorted to a very simple Vedic wedding and deplored dowries.

Shift 3 was the apparent gradual shift of control of the dowry from the women to her husband and his parents. The abrupt appearance of this new custom in 1912-16 in Lahore, in which the bride’s father led the bridegroom into his house and presented him with dowry, captures the transition more generally of the relationship to their property in the colonial period. It appears to signal that women’s customary authority over their own property seems to have declined or become nonexistent. Reduced authority of wives is a result of a loss of authority, men being made responsible for payment of land revenue.

Summary, Imp - So the promised baseline can be drawn in 1850 with serviceable clarity for dowry & marriage expenses. Dowry was a collection of clothes etc that was voluntarily given to the bride at the time of marriage, many of the items were collected over time by the girl’s mother and extended family, the groom’s side never made dowry demands, it was seen as a matter of honor for the groom’s side to accept what is given as a dowry to the bride. Natives did not blame dowry for female infanticide they blamed the loss of honor that may prompt such brutal action.

Notes – European monarchs & aristocrats also had extravagant weddings, funerals etc but were resentful when their subjects acted in this manner esp. when that money could be used to support the military & civil costs.

Chapter :

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