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Satya Rani Chaddha sits on her bed holding a picture of her daughter Kanchanbala at her home on the 24th April 2013 in Rohini, New Delhi, India. (Simon de Trey-White FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Satya Rani Chaddha sits on her bed holding a picture of her daughter Kanchanbala at her home on the 24th April 2013 in Rohini, New Delhi, India. (Simon de Trey-White FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Dowry deaths

After 34 years, a measure of justice in India Add to ...

The night Satya Rani Chadha’s pensive, almond-eyed daughter Shashi Bala burned to death, her son-in-law told her it was a tragic accident. Ms. Chadha didn’t believe it for a minute.

Just two days earlier, that same son-in-law had sat on her couch demanding that his in-laws buy him a scooter, and making veiled threats about what might happen to his wife if he didn’t get what he claimed he was owed.

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So as her daughter was declared dead of “100 per cent burns” in a government emergency room, Ms. Chadha went to the police to try to file a case of murder. A few days ago the Delhi High Court upheld her son-in-law’s conviction for abetting suicide, which is illegal in India, in a case of dowry death.

This quest for justice took 34 years.

The story of Shashi Bala, burned alive by her husband’s family, is also the story of India’s flawed justice system, which has come under the spotlight with the rash of high-profile rape cases in recent months. Ms. Chadha’s long battle to see her son-in-law convicted brought about major changes in the penal code and drew nationwide attention to crimes against women. But the absence of any reform of the courts means that justice continues to elude many victims.

Ms. Chadha, 85, has cancer and dementia and does not always remember that she has finally won the battle that consumed the second half of her life. But when she notices Shashi Bala’s graduation picture, speckled by age in a battered frame, on a nearby table, the events of more than 30 years ago rush back to her, and the tears that come many times each day begin to pool again in the deep creases beneath her eyes.

India is in the midst of fervid discussion about how to better address crimes of violence against women, ignited by the death of a 23-year-old student who was gang-raped on a Delhi bus last December. The government tabled new laws to punish perpetrators of sexual violence within weeks of her death.

But there is no plan to overhaul the courts, and that, said Sanjoy Ghose, one of the lawyers who argued Ms. Chadha’s case pro bono, means the current reforms are meaningless. Victims of violence today face no greater likelihood of seeing justice in less than three decades than did Ms. Chadha, he said.

“If you have corrupt police and a tardy criminal justice system that takes so long to deliver justice, then obviously the laws are worthless,” he said. “There is a parallel with the bus gang rape. You have this rush to amend the laws, but when the media heat has died, the activists have gone back to their house and the candlelight light vigils are over, the public forgets.”

And dowry murder is no relic of the past, he added. “You could start a case tomorrow that could take that long.”

The accused in the bus gang rape are being tried in a fast-track court newly created in the wake of that crime to address sexual violence. But those courts rely on the same machinery as the larger legal system; if there are convictions, the inevitable appeal will move into the same process that handled Ms. Chadha’s case.

The marriage of Shashi Bala, a Delhi University bachelor of arts graduate, to Subash Chand, a manager in a Bata shoe store, was arranged by their parents in 1978. The Chand family demanded a refrigerator, a television and a scooter as the price for marriage. The bride’s family couldn’t afford it all. They bought the fridge, and paid part of the price of the television. The couple were wed, and Shashi Bala moved in with her husband’s parents and her sisters-in-law in a two-room apartment in a blue-collar area of Delhi while her husband went back to the town where he worked, visiting on weekends.

Shashi Bala was pregnant soon after the marriage, but Mr. Chand had not forgotten the scooter. Eleven months after the wedding he went with his wife to visit her parents and reminded them they owed him. Ms. Chadha, who on lucid days remembers it all vividly, recounted recently that she refused to pay, saying the family could not afford it. Later, her daughter begged her not to buy any gifts for the baby, just please, get that scooter.

Two days later, Shashi Bala was dead. Her in-laws first claimed an accident – despite four people being in the next room, no one had heard or been able to help her – and then that it was suicide, although the court found she had given no indication of any mental health problems.

Ms. Chadha reported a murder that night. But the police, in the words of the recent judgment, were “incompetent” and neglected to gather basic evidence. They charged Mr. Chand not with murder, but under the Dowry Prohibition Act. That law, from 1961, made demanding or paying a dowry illegal, although the practice continues almost unchecked even today. In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that because Mr. Chand’s demand for a scooter and Shashi Bala’s mysterious death came 10 months after the marriage, they could not be connected.

So Ms. Chadha then used the Indian law provision that allows an individual to file a suit for murder – but it took 20 years for her to get a judge to hear it. Mr. Chand was finally convicted of the lesser charge of abetting a suicide in 2000. He appealed, and now his conviction has been upheld. He has been ordered to surrender to the police and serve a seven-year sentence. But Mr. Chand has not handed himself in; as he may have anticipated, the officer in charge at the station tasked with executing the warrant said his address was old and they are too busy with modern crimes to trace him.

Mr. Chand has until early June to file an appeal to the Supreme Court (he would have to hand himself in); if the Supreme Court admits the appeal, then Ms. Chadha’s fight for justice might yet drag out for several more years.

Her fight transformed Ms. Chadha from a shy Delhi homemaker into an activist, addressing television cameras in a grief-stricken rage on the steps of the Supreme Court. The case became a cause célèbre for Indian feminists and prompted the government to rewrite the law. One change was that any mysterious death – like Sashi Bala’s – within seven years of marriage would be considered “dowry death,” and the onus would be on the woman’s in-laws to show that the death was not dowry-related.

Further, the law was changed to recognize gender-specific cruelty – such as taunting a woman for her family’s failure to pay sufficient dowry, or her own failure to bear a son – as a form of violence.

Three years later, a new amendment held that demands for gifts at any time in a marriage would be considered as dowry. “I lost my daughter 35 years ago but in that process I saved thousands and thousands of others,” Ms. Chadha says, hauling herself up to sit a bit straighter in the hallway bed she occupies in her son’s cramped flat. But in the end, the law reform and even her legal victory are slim comfort. “What did I get? He is alive and married and has grandchildren,” she said of Mr. Chand. “My daughter is dead.”

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