Ostentatious weddings are the starting point of dowry extortion. But the situation cannot be altered either through rhetoric or law. For laws to work, more than governance and enforcement, the ethos of society has to change. Respect for simple living and high thinking needs to be inculcated.
Wedding preparations are in progress in a family I know well. Dozens of clinging georgette creations embellished with velvet, lace, shimmer and sequins are spread on a king-sized bed for my preview. Looking at my face, the proud mother of the bridegroom decrees, “The days of traditional saris are over” even as she lays her son’s sparkling shervani alongside umpteen jewellery boxes cradling chandelier look-alikes.
Ostentatious weddings have become a part of societal expectation no matter which class of citizens one looks at. A lavish display of wealth is considered necessary, not just to avoid disparagement but more importantly to gain recognition, improve social standing and receive the endorsement of family and friends.
The Guinness record-holder for organising the most lavish wedding worldwide is billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. Sant Chatwal now renowned for the Padma Bhushan controversy, organised a 10-day wedding celebrations spread across three Indian cities where guests from 26 countries flew in on private chartered jets.
With such examples why do some of us balk if the bride’s father is willing to spend the cost of a car on the bridal lehenga, and the cost of a house on creating the aura of Arabian Nights as a theme for the festivities?
But unlike the Mittals and Chatwals who live and earn in countries where salting away black money is unworkable, in the case of the big, fat Indian wedding it is understood by those present and absent that black money has substantially funded the celebrations. Society far from conveying disapproval accepts that ostentation is a befitting use of do numberi. When undeclared income stashed away for years together is utilised in the noble pursuit of kanya daan it is the fastest method of disposing of the proceeds of kala dhanda — giving immense satisfaction to the spender and starting another cycle of keeping up with the Jones’ — integral to present Indian culture.
Activists have pointed out that a demand for extravagant weddings is the starting point of dowry extortion; but when society itself is not bothered, the situation cannot be altered either through rhetoric or law. Governments have to be seen to do the right thing and therefore find it prudent and expedient to enact stronger laws that activists demand. It makes great news and accompanied by platitudes about shunning ostentation, provide memorable quotes on television too. Those responsible for women’s affairs and social justice swiftly learn to use the language of activism but never refuse to attend flamboyant weddings or eschew vulgar display of wealth when it is comes to nuptials in their own family. Stories about 500 air-conditioners cooling the wedding pandal for a Minister’s 10,000 guests hardly created a ripple when it happened down in interior Karnataka.
The Chief Minister of India’s most educated State, Kerala recently kicked off a year-long campaign against dowry and ostentatious weddings, castigating these evils for swelling suicides, domestic violence, debt and harassment. A Minister of his Government went as far as to demand that a cess as well as a fine should be imposed on extravagant weddings and the money used for marrying girls from economically backward families. Which arm of Government is going to tot up the costs of lavish weddings when its chief watchdog — the Income Tax Department does not consider the flaunting of unaccounted wealth a matter for action?
Singly or collectively the 44 legislations which have been enacted over the last 70 years to promote women’s rights and empowerment have failed even to reduce decadent practices like dowry and female foeticide. Research figures posted by CNN IBN indicate that acquittals in dowry cases have been five times more than convictions. Meanwhile Bollywood, television, bridal fairs and a fast growing event management industry ensure that wedding flamboyance far from declining proliferates.
Taking pledges, adding more laws and arm-twisting people with threats of penalty are rendered infructuous where society universally condones — even blesses a practice across the board. Only when such a practice appears to be deviant from accepted social behaviour does society join the law enforcers to pro-actively stop the menace and ostracise the offender.
For laws to work, more than governance, and enforcement, the ethos of society has to change. If respect for simple living and high thinking is to replace vulgarity and crass consumerism, society needs role models to show the way, not speeches, threats and more laws. There was a time when the Ranades, Gokhles and Jyoti Phules gave that inspiration. Today we do not seem to have any role models with the ability to inspire through sacrifice, leadership and personal example. Only when such giants stand up to change the social ethos will the majority see sense. Only then can we expect change. Otherwise, laws will continue to remain on paper and provide but tiresome statistics.
Given this depressing background, would we instead be willing to follow our derided neighbour Pakistan whose Supreme Court has ordered a ban on ostentatious weddings specifying “No meals or edibles other than hot and cold drinks could be served to guests.” No way!