dowry system in india

Dowry Death. Jasmeet and Tarampal—When inadequacy kills

Part I

For a very long time, I had wanted to understand what goes on inside the minds of those accused of dowry death. As a social worker at Delhi’s Tihar Jail, I had a privileged degree of access to its inmates. I decided to take advantage of this to probe beyond what I had read in the newspapers for years. It was in this pursuit that I met Tarampal and persuaded him to tell me his story.

Before we started talking, I did some background research on his case. It does not require very sophisticated investigative skills to track down the opposing side in a prominent case — I put mine to use and located Tarampal’s mother-in-law, Amardeep, in rural Punjab. This might, perhaps, be considered unethical given my position as a social worker, but in my defence, both sides were aware that I was talking to the other.

Sikh from Delhi

Tarampal is a Sikh from Delhi. After his marriage with Jasmeet, he had lived in a joint-family arrangement with her until she died from ingesting poison. He was subsequently convicted under sections 498-A and 304-B of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. The FIR lodged against him alleged that he had asked for Rs 3.5 lakhs from his father-in-law as dowry six months before Jasmeet’s death.

Tarampal was very candid about his romantic and physical involvement with women before Jasmeet. I was interested to know how he had approached his relationship with his wife relative to these past relationships. After all, the image in the public perception tallies with that presented by the press—’dowry murder’ convicts are (we are told) cold-hearted monsters incapable of human emotions such as love and compassion and have only one interest: personal enrichment.

So was this man capable of love?

From what Amardeep had said, I had fully expected a similar monster. Tarampal, however, surprised me. He spoke fondly of one particular relationship with a woman he described as his ‘first true love.’ This was a five-year relationship during his early 20s. They had wanted to marry each other, but this woman was a Hindu and a member of a different caste, and consequently his mother did not like the idea. The fact that they could not marry was the ultimate reason for the collapse of the relationship.

Far from being disconnected from emotions and liable to put money before love, I found that Tarampal had been keen to understand the women he had been with. He felt that mutual understanding is necessary between two indi­viduals before they can think of matrimony. This gave me the impression that an arranged-marriage setting would have proved extremely uncomfortable for him. Tarampal himself pointed out that the expectations from both sides tend to be very high in such situations, which is made even more difficult by neither knowing much about the other.

Tarampal’s prior history of relationships led to some problems between the couple. During one fight, Jasmeet told him that she would have never married him if she had known about his past girlfriends. However, the fact that he often drew comparisons between her and the previous women in his life—if not vocally then implicitly—could not have done much for Jasmeet’s sense of security. Apparently, Jasmeet herself had not had any past relationships—or so Amardeep claimed. Tarampal confirmed her virginity at the time of marriage (if the bleeding she suffered during their first intercourse was enough to go by).

Tarampal was taught that one is as good as alone until one has a family and children. Having a family of one’s own completes the cycle of life. According to the religious scripts, ‘Marriages are made in heaven,’ he told me.

The importance of marriage, Tarampal says, is that one has to live with a woman and produce children. However, this requirement, according to him, is one that is preached by society. He himself does not believe that marriage is as essential to anybody as his mother believed. In fact, if society is taken out ot the equation, he cannot actually see any need for the institution of marriage^

Essentially, his was a ‘forced marriage’ as far as Tarampal was concerned. He even told his mother that he had entered into the union simply for her. However, he claims that even though he was cynical about this marriage from the start, he grew to love Jasmeet.

The pair’s engagement took place the very day after they met. It was a simple function, done in a hurry because Tarampal’s mother thought he would change his mind. She was frustrated by the fact that he had been delaying things for so long, owing to his memories of his ex-girlfriend and his desire to track her down and rekindle what they once had. Tarampal had felt trapped. It was only because he found Jasmeet basically acceptable that he was not too worried about the consequences of agreeing to marry her.

In his initial comparison of Jasmeet with his ex-girlfriend, Tarampal had found that in terms of qualities, the two were equally matched. Over time, he found himself tilting towards Jasmeet. Still, he continued to regard the marriage as a forced one—something that Jasmeet slowly became aware of.

 

Tarampal had pretty simple criteria for a wife. He wanted a tall woman, and he succeeded with Jasmeet in this regard as she was 5’7″ (he is 5’10”). His observation of her appearance was that she was dusky (‘slightly black’), sexy and generally appealing. ‘Who needs money?’ he asked. ‘She looked fine.’ Although she was not from a very ‘good’ background (in terms of wealth), she was tall and beautiful, so he was satisfied.

Amardeep put the matter in a similarly simple manner. She spoke of the fact that Tarampal was educated and good-looking, and that their heights were similar. She added that he had been particularly impressed because her daughter had served tea and snacks especially well the day they met. To her, these things seemed to indicate a good match.

Tarampal’s family claimed that he would not be able to manage a day off at a later date, so Amardeep agreed to hold the ring ceremony immediately. Since Tarampal’s whole extended family had come over after his initial nod, she felt a certain degree of pressure to conduct the ceremony.

When they first spoke, Tarampal and Jasmeet were only able to converse for 15 to 20 minutes in the presence of Jasmeet’s sister and his aunt, who sat at a little distance from them. Tarampal realised that there was very little he could learn about his prospective bride under such conditions. All they really got to talk about were formal things such as their studies, what they were doing in life and so on.

Amardeep had told me the same thing: that they had simply discussed such subjects as what they had studied and how much their salaries were. Because they had each said they liked the other, the families decided to go ahead with the union. I could see that Amardeep had not gone to great lengths to be sure of much before the decision was taken. In fact, she admitted that her younger daughter’s marriage — arranged after no enquiries about the other side at all — had also failed. The man she had been betrothed to in England, it was eventually discovered, did not earn anything and was permanently very ill. This seemed to be a pattern in this family. Indeed, the same goes for wider society as well. Getting one’s children married is often seen as so essential in itself, and is wrapped up in so much pressure, that one fails to take important precautions. Many parents struggle to see beyond their simple hope to see their offspring wedded.

Amardeep added that if they had got an inkling that Tarampal and his family had been looking for gains through dowry harassment, they would never have allowed the marriage to proceed. In fact, even throughout the year of engagement, everything had continued to seem normal to Amardeep. Tarampal and his mother would visit often. The two of them got plenty of time to get to know one another. ‘Their relations were fine, that’s why we got the marriage done. We did not understand what their trick was,’ she pleaded.

I must admit, I had a bit of difficulty comprehending how Tarampal’s family, which is so much richer than Jasmeet’s, could possibly have hoped to make financial gains through dowry harassment. Indeed, after their wedding, Jasmeet is reported to have expressed her bewilderment as to why Tarampal would have been willing to marry someone of a much lower financial status. Tarampal’s stance was clear: if he had wanted a rich woman, he could have had one. He did not make such a choice, because he felt that rich women are not homely (another of his primary criteria for a wife, it seems). Besides, he maintained that he had no need for extra money through marriage—he already had enough.

However, Tarampal’s insistence that he wanted someone simple contrasts with what Amardeep’s younger daughter told me. ‘He used to say that “I have married a girl from a village,”‘ she recalled, suggesting a sense of irritation on his part.

Engagement

After their engagement, Jasmeet wrote to Tarampal, saying that every girl’s dream—above anything else—is to have a good husband. He believes that she got this impression from her own social observations, as well as from what her family and friends would say, and it seemed to him that she had made this dream her own. As far as Jasmeet’s mother was concerned, a ‘good’ husband could be defined in terms of his behaviour, and his ability to take care of his wife and keep her happy.

Meanwhile, Tarampal told me he did not have much by way of expectations for marriage. This was because he was only really going through with it for his mother’s sake. However, during the time he spent getting to know Jasmeet over the engagement period, he began to forget his ex and started becoming quite fond of Jasmeet. After three to four months, he says he had fallen in love with her. He found her a charming woman, and her simplicity especially appealed to him.

Amardeep, however, claims that Tarampal never loved her daughter—at least, not after the initial month of marriage, around the time when their problems started.

When I probed further, Tarampal revealed another expectation of his partner: he loved eating, and he wanted his wife to be a good cook. Jasmeet, however, was no better at cooking than Tarampal himself was. In the beginning, she had told him that she was a teacher and had put more efforts into that than into domestic concerns. Tarampal had suggested that she learn how to cook better. After her height, that she should cook well was the second thing he had expected of his wife, so he said she could have a year to become more competent at it. She was surprised by this request, but never refused. That said, she continued to show her disinterest in making sabzi [A generic word for vegetable dishes] or dal [Indian lentil preparation], and Tarampal soon realised he preferred his mother’s cooking anyway.

Amardeep told me that she understood the importance of a wife’s ability to cook well, as well as of offering her in-laws respect and treating their house as she would her own. She further told me that Jasmeet would have been expected to live more according to her husband’s wishes than her own. ‘If she listened to Tarampal then things would have been ok, otherwise problems were bound to arise,’ she explained to me. When I asked whether Jasmeet should have been able to expect this to be reciprocal, she agreed that she should have. Affection should certainly come from both sides, she feels, and under no circumstances should Tarampal have had the right to beat his wife for any reason. Amardeep recalls Jasmeet saying she feared his shouting, though she was never under the impression that he would in fact hit her.

For entertainment, the couple used to go for walks, to movies and to restaurants.

For entertainment, the couple used to go for walks, to movies and to restaurants. For Tarampal, things were good in all senses. He spoke fondly of his’ 11 months and 17 days of good memories’ (the duration of his marriage), insisting that Jasmeet herself was simply one good memory for him.

However, one of my colleagues, who has worked with Tarampal’s two brothers (also serving time in connection with Jasmeet’s death), told me that they found the couple to be mismatched. Tarampal was a highly educated, proud man, married to a very simple village girl. This, according to them, led to tension and quarrels and ultimately culminated in Jasmeet killing herself.

Tarampal had a different story to offer. On the one hand, he perceived a sense of inferiority in his wife, while on the other he perceived his own

superiority because he always felt that he was simply better than her in most respects. He was happy with this balance. He did not want a smarter wife. A smarter wife, according to him, could have led to trouble,  since she might have tried to overcome him. However, he realises now that this situation could have contributed to his wife’s demise.

Interestingly, Amardeep disputes that Tarampal was more educated than her daughter. As far as she had been concerned at the time, Tarampal’s educational qualification was less important than his ability to earn. I am not sure how much Amardeep actually knew about the matter though, especially as she says she was not at all aware whether the pair had common interests or of the extent to which they were compatible.

Education is one thing; emotional intelligence is another matter entirely. Tarampal found that he and his wife were on the same wavelength in every sense. His mother was also aware of this, and the first time she saw Jasmeet she pointed out that this woman was just like his ex-girlfriend.

Referring to her intelligence and how they would do things together, Tarampal stressed that the degree of compatibility was even greater with his ex. She was more educated than Jasmeet, while his wife had less presence of mind. In the sense that neither would speak very much, both were alike. Over time, Tarampal’s bond with his wife grew to be similar to that which he had shared with his ex. Their relationship might have been even better if just one other thing had worked out: if she had become pregnant.

In terms of expectations, however, the problem for Tarampal was less that his own were not being satisfied and more that his mother was not getting what she wanted.

Tarampal believed that each partner in a marriage must compromise in order to live happily. His emphasis, he claims, was on mutual adjustment. Amardeep, on the other hand, says that she brought Jasmeet up telling her that each house has its own atmosphere—one must adjust according to this, learning the appro­priate rules and regulations. She, however, conceded that the boy’s side should also adjust a little to the newcomer.

Nonetheless, Amardeep revealed that the training Jasmeet had undergone while growing up was directed towards moulding a woman who would be able to fit into her matrimonial home. She had apparently tried to make sure that she was armed with everything that she would need to know for this, such as the ability to sew, cook and even ride a scooter.

 

Amardeep also wanted her daughters to be self-reliant, to be able to work and run the families they lived with. Fitting into the matrimonial home, she suggested, need not be synonymous with being a stereotypical housewife. But this would have to depend on the will of the household Jasmeet was going to, as Amardeep also taught her that she was paraya dhan and would have to accept this. She knew this would not be easy, as the environment was likely to be completely different and she would probably have to change entirely.

When I asked Amardeep whether her daughters took any decisions by them­selves after marriage, such as about visiting their parental place, she replied that it was not possible—they had to ask. I challenged her on this matter—what use was education if her daughters could not take decisions on their own? Amardeep replied, ‘In some places, opinions work; and in other places, they don’t. In Jasmeet’s in-laws’ place, they didn’t work.’

I also asked Amardeep’s younger daughter about this, and was told that whatever her husband would say was alright for her, ‘as he is God for me.’ This, perhaps, was suggestive of Jasmeet’s attitude towards Tarampal.

At the end of the day though, Amardeep expected her matrimonial family to accept her daughter in their home as one of their own, and not treat her as an outsider.

 

One of the things that the couple used to fight about was Tarampal’s fondness for liquor, he told me. Jasmeet’s father was an alcoholic, and she apparently worried that Tarampal could go the same way.

Amardeep recalls that Jasmeet had only one expectation from marriage: that her husband should not drink. She confirmed that her daughter’s distaste for this would lead to fights between the pair. Although Tarampal would assure his wife that drinking was ‘normal’, she simply did not want him to do it. Even­tually, Tarampal began to abstain from alcohol, and even managed to spend about six months without drinking. Over this period, however, he would keep asking her if he could drink. In the end, she gave in.

Tarampal insisted that this matter would only result in simple arguments, which were no big deal.

Another difficulty they had was that in social situations, Tarampal felt that he had to keep telling his wife that ‘this is not the way’ and correct her behav­iour. He believed that if he persisted in such a manner, she would learn correct etiquette, such as in the case of table manners. On the othet hand, however, he said he was aware that he ought to compromise and understand how this could make her feel.

While Tarampal was able to teach Jasmeet some things, this approach also resulted in her avoiding social situations as much as possible. For example, she did not like restaurants and would steer clear of them where she could.

The possibility that Jasmeet might want to work was not brought up when the match was being settled upon. Amardeep considered such things as matters pertaining to the groom’s family that neither she nor Jasmeet should interfere with. Apparently, Jasmeet agreed with her mother on this.

As I mentioned, Jasmeet was a school teacher by profession. Although she was a graduate and had taught before marriage, Tarampal recounted how she found it very hard to get a job in Delhi. She did indeed want to work, and for this reason she enrolled in computing courses to boost her employability. Ultimately, presumably for the same reason, she decided to do an MA.

Dowry death or suicide?

Tarampal told me he sees two possible reasons for what he describes as Jasmeet’s suicide. The first is that the couple were under great pressure from their families to produce a child (they were the eldest grandson and granddaughter respect­ively). According to Tarampal, it is generally expected that a woman will give birth to her first baby within one year of marriage. This was something about which Jasmeet was apparently ‘always desperate.’

Her natal family would pressure her to conceive. Jasmeet regularly received phone calls from people asking, ‘Where’s the good news?’ She also had to face similar questions from Tarampal’s family.

The fact that their relatives were always asking about this caused both of them immense psychological stress. It prompted Jasmeet to refrain from going out.

Aside from this issue of conception, Tarampal assured me that the couple used to love to have sex. The bedroom was where we were happy,’ he said. ‘We would smile in there, and then come out and see three faces we didn’t want to see.’ Sex was apparently their outlet from a stressful life, and they used to enjoy having competitions on how many times they could perform in one session. But afterwards, after Jasmeet would begin to relax, she would think, ‘Will I this time?’

Tarampal told me they tried everything, but to no avail.

The dowry harassment that they faced from their families on this issue, according to Tarampal, was ‘devastating.’ Significantly, his wife was not even very inter­ested in the idea of having a baby. She wanted to ‘live life’ first, so would have preferred to wait for a couple of years. Tarampal told her this was too long, and they negotiated it down to one year.

Interestingly—perhaps indicating that they each told me only what best represented their own positions—Amardeep told me the exact opposite: Jasmeet had wanted a child in the first year of their marriage; Tarampal had not.

‘We all wanted a baby because we thought that unless a baby is born, their problems will keep on increasing,’ Amardeep said. It is normal to expect a baby within two years of marriage, she added, but assured me that she had never pressured her daughter on this matter. She believed that Jasmeet’s mother-in-law had placed pressure on her, however. Significantly, Amardeep did not perceive that her daughter had felt stressed about her failure to conceive, suggesting that either she and Tarampal had vastly different understandings about her feelings, or that she was in denial of what Tarampal sees as her role in Jasmeet’s demise.

Tarampal feels that the psychological factor of not wanting a baby deep down and yet facing all this pressure could have contributed to his wife’s inability to conceive. The pressure being piled on her to do so made her depressed, he said. He would assure her they were in this together, however.

Was not having a baby simply not an option? Tarampal asserted that it was Jasmeet who made a big issue of this. Apparently, he had told her to tell their relatives that she did not want a baby at that time, but Jasmeet had felt this would not work.

Tarampal too, was not unaffected by this stressful situation. His productivity at work declined, for example. His change in nature led to more ‘hard talks’ with his wife. When I asked him whether he would confide in anyone about this he replied, ‘No, this was our own small world.’ It seems they felt that there was no one else that they could turn to. His wife did not want to see a psychologist owing to the stigma associated with this.

The second possible reason that Tarampal identified for what he claims was Jasmeet’s suicide was the marked disparities between their families of origin. To illustrate this point to me, he said that he is better educated (although, as I mentioned, Amardeep disputes the disparity he identifies here), his family has a good house in Delhi valued at around one crore and they are generally much better off financially. Her family, by contrast, has a small house in rural Punjab and total assets of around two lakhs. It was only after marriage that his wife realised the true depth of the financial gulf between their two families and started to get depressed about it.

Tarampal told me he had taken an oath: his earnings would also belong to his wife. She could have whatever money she needed. Maintenance during the marriage, therefore, was not an issue. Amardeep too believes that her in-laws were in any case bound to provide for her and that Jasmeet was entitled to a claim on their property. But it proved to be one of Jasmeet’s primary difficulties with spending time with her in-laws that they would keep talking incessantly in terms of thousands and lakhs. In other words, money and worth were central concerns to them, something she could not identify with. Showing that he understood this, Tarampal said he could see why it could be described as a ‘wrong marriage.’ He recognises that this was ultimately his fault. He feels he should have resisted his mother’s insistence for this union at the time.

This finances-related problem was apparently exacerbated by Jasmeet’s mother-in-law’s attitude, something Tarampal freely admitted to me. Indeed, he believes that a lot of the problems they experienced could be traced to what he describes as ‘issues of women’s egos.’ In ‘normal Indian families,’ according to him, fathers are the ones who dictate. However, his father had passed away several years before. Also, in ‘normal marriages,’ he observes, husbands tend to tilt towards their wives after the wedding, prompting their mothers to feel insecure. And in this situation, mothers do not tend to say anything to their sons; they say it to their sons’ wives. While their wives generally tolerate this, things can sometimes go wrong.

Tarampal described to me the oft-cited scenario of the newcomer female versus the older woman who maintains a hold on the family. He has observed that mothers-in-law are often widows in these cases (as in his own). When such a woman is alone and in charge of the family, she does not want the newcomer to steal the attention of her son, from whom she expects loyalty. The pressure this exerts often leads to the failure of such marriages.

Tarampal claims he would stand up for his wife when his mother acted in an unreasonable manner. This explains why this became an aggravating factor for Jasmeet. After some time, his mother had begun to see what she perceived as the shortfalls in this marriage that she had been so eager to bring about, saying that ‘now I see what happens if I get my son married to a poor girl.’

For me, this attitude confirmed what Amardeep had told me: that while there may not have been any shortcomings in the man Jasmeet had married, there were some problems with the thinking of the family, despite their education.

Amardeep complained that everybody in Jasmeet’s matrimonial home used to pick faults with what she did. They would especially question and humiliate her about the food she prepared which, according to them, was frequently inedible. They would even throw it away if they did not like it. ‘Of course she felt bad,’ Amardeep protested, ‘because all girls expect that when they cook in their in-laws’ houses, everybody will appreciate it.’

It went further than simply feeling bad, though. Because of the way she came to expect her mother-in-law to behave, Jasmeet would apparently always be in fear when making food. She found her mother-in-law’s treatment of her very painful. According to Amardeep, it was not just the mother-in-law who would scold Jasmeet—her husband would also reprimand her at the time of eating. ‘They would not eat themselves, and also not let the girl, throwing it away instead,’ she told me. ‘She became very thin.’ Though Amardeep told Jasmeet’s mother-in-law that her daughter needed to be allowed to eat more, the situation did not change.

Ultimately, Amardeep saw such things as food as mere excuses to make Jasmeet’s life difficult for other reasons. Depriving her at mealtimes was ap­parently not the only means they had of punishing her. For example, I was told that even her bedsheet was taken away by her mother-in-law at one point.

Dowry Harassment

On Jasmeet’s failure to bring her marital family money, Tarampal told me the problems here were related to his mother’s delusion that they were a well-off family and should, therefore, have an equally well-off daughter-in-law. Apparently, she regularly showed off the things in their house in front of Jasmeet, as if to say, ‘and what did you bring?’ According to Amardeep, this became a problem from the time Jasmeet’s devar [husband’s brother] got en­gaged in the 10th month of her marriage, as this was the point when Jasmeet’s mother-in-law started receiving gifts in connection with the new match.

Given her apparent culpability, why was Tarampal’s mother ultimately acquitted? This was because the judge was paid off, he explained. He added, however, that as far as he understood the law, her ‘mere taunt’ cannot be seen as harassment for dowry.

During the last two months before Jasmeet’s death, Tarampal’s mother and siblings would not talk to him because they believed that he always took his wife’s side. Tarampal feels they were all party to what ultimately happened to some extent—everyone had a role to play. While his brothers asserted to my colleague that their mother was blameless, Tarampal feels they supported her because they were young. The result was that two lobbies formed in the house.

Tarampal’s take on this was slightly different. He claimed that he would take a stand for whoever he felt to be right in a given situation. On occasion, therefore, he would stand up for his mother and not his wife. This happened on at least two or three occasions that he could recall, including once in the last two to three days of Jasmeet’s life in an argument about the food having been spoilt. This time, he said that his mother was right, to which his wife retorted that ‘now you are speaking your mother’s language.’

As far as Amardeep is concerned, if Jasmeet’s husband had stood by her then her mother-in-law would have behaved better. ‘Nobody would have been able to tell her anything if her husband was there with her,’ she asserted to me. ‘But when the boy himself behaves wrongly then there is nothing to stop the whole family saying things.’ In other words, she expected Tarampal to stand up for her daughter.

However, Amardeep appeared to understand that a wife is seldom com­pletely devoid of agency. For instance, I asked her what kind of a mother-in-law she expects to become when her son gets married. She replied that while she may be good to the woman, the relationship will be a two-way street, as her daughter-in-law could turn out to be either dominating or diminutive. Although she recognised this tension, she chose not to talk about it with respect to her own daughter.

Before marriage, Jasmeet had told Tarampal that she was poor, and hence her side would not be able to pay for the associated expenses. She also did not bring anything at the time of marriage, Tarampal said, and he furnished the house himself. The marriage was apparently ‘not very good,’ in the sense that the bride’s side asked his side to bring only 50 to 60 people. But at the reception there were around 700 guests, and the groom’s side paid for this.

Gifts included one gold jewellery set (a necklace, a ring and earrings) given to Jasmeet by her family. One gold ring was also given to Tarampal, in addition to some simple furniture and clothes. Both his mother and in-laws gave gifts, and he described this as ‘normal gift-giving.’

According to Amardeep, what Jasmeet was given at the time of marriage was given explicitly to her. However, she conceded that she would have to consult her husband before doing anything with these items, such as if she wanted to sell the TV.

Tarampal assured me that whatever Jasmeet brought with her at the time of marriage remained hers, at least in name. He apparently insisted to his mother that such things were for his wife and that she should give whatever she took from her back. However, his mother proved unwilling. A compromise he sug­gested was that Jasmeet’s stridhan could be passed on to the new girls in the family, but his mother did not like this idea. At the time of the case, he suggested that his mother give a list of what the stridhan consisted of to the court, but she would not. For her, it was apparently a matter of pride.

On the subject of dowry harassment, Tarampal told me he sees this as ‘just like a custom’ and observed that most families give dowry. His family too gave dowry during their daughter’s (that is, Tarampal’s sister) marriage. However, he feels that if the groom’s side is educated enough, they will not want money. ‘If you want to live your own life with respect, you do not need to do this,’ he insisted. ‘And ir you buy those things yourself then you will gain your wife’s respect.

His mother, however, assumed and expected that things should be given to the groom’s side when there is a marriage, but she apparently viewed such things as gifts rather than dowry per se.

Tarampal believes that his wife similarly saw it as normal for there to be give and take associated with marriage. She had allegedly suggested giving a music system and a TV, but Tarampal said he refused, pointing out that if he had wanted these things he could simply have upgraded his computer. He also said he refused those gifts because his wife’s parents also had other daughters to marry off, and they would need money for this.

Tarampal’s mother had wanted him to have a marriage ceremony for 300 people. However, Amardeep had told him that she could not afford to pay for an event on such a scale. Tarampal told me he assured her there was no need to worry, and that his side would instead provide for a large reception. Ultimately, however, he feels that his mother was disappointed.

In contrast to Tarampal’s assertions, Amardeep told me that her daughter was completely against dowry transactions. She apparently used to tell her mother that if anybody was to ask for it, she should not oblige. Amardeep does not have a problem with giving things from one’s heart—it is demands that she has an issue with. She also feels that society expects a certain amount to be given automatically by the bride’s side.

What difference could it possibly make to society? A lot of difference, Amardeep told me, because ‘the whole world will ask, “What did you give? It’s your daughter.” And later on they will say to your daughter again and again that “they did not give anything, what did your parents give?'” She believes that such giving has become almost customary now, with the extent of it depending on the status of the families concerned.

When I asked what they had given, Amardeep confirmed this, telling me it was done according to their status. This apparently meant giving all the necessary household items, such as a bed and television. She said they had also given Tarampal a gold bracelet and ring, a watch, some jewellery for other family members, clothing sets for the bride and groom and a full set for the mother-in-law. In total, she says they spent some Rs 3 to 4 lakhs, including around Rs 15,000 in cash given as shagun (like a blessing, given in the name of the couple at the time of marriage to ward off the evil eye and invoke good fortune and bounty in the couple’s life).

The dowry harassment allegedly started after just a few weeks of marriage. The wedding happened in mid-April, and during the festival of Raksha Bandhan in June she said she came to hear that Jasmeet’s in-laws were complaining that she had neither gifted them a flat nor even brought them a washing machine.

Amardeep later told Tarampal that he should have made his expectations clear beforehand instead of troubling them afterwards. If his expectations were beyond her capacity, she said she would have asked him to marry into another family. As it was, she claimed that her side had given Tarampal’s family as much as it could. Jasmeet was still just a child, as far as she was concerned, and she did not want her to suffer the side-effects of unmet dowry harassment.

Recalling that Amardeep had told me how her daughter’s one wish was that she should not give dowry, I challenged on her decision to give any at all. She replied, ‘If the groom’s family told us not to give then I would have accepted it, but why would I accept it when my daughter said it?’

In spite of what happened to Jasmeet, Amardeep still gave dowry to her other two daughters as well. ‘There may be one, two or three daughters, you still have to give it,’ she began to explain. ‘It happened with one, but I believed it wouldn’t happen with them all. If one person is wrong, it doesn’t mean every person is wrong.’

Did Amardeep find the dowry system in India problematic? At times she does, she told me, but it depends. ‘Everybody should accept it’s wrong. What can I do by accepting the fact alone?’ When she gets her son married she will not take any dowry, she asserted. But to a certain extent, she feels the groom’s family has a right to such expectations on the basis that they will otherwise have to cover all of one’s daughter’s expenses in life, post-marriage.

Could Tarampal’s mother’s words—that his sister-in-law brought more valuable items to their house after her marriage than Jasmeet did—have been interpreted as implicit dowry harassment?

Tarampal saw these as ‘mere taunts,’ though he could see how they might have been interpreted in another way. The prosecution was apparently unaware of these interactions, however. He believes that the police twisted the story and related the complaint to one allegedly explicit demand.

Regardless of the legality of his mother’s actions, Tarampal is clear that he blames her for what happened to his wife. She forced this marriage on him and then did not give him her support. He told me that she should have been there for him throughout, and asked, ‘Otherwise, what is the use of family?’

‘Mum spoiled everything, man,’ he complained.

It seems that his mother does not blame herself for what ultimately happened, however. Rather, all the family apparently blame him. Although they knew about the fights the couple would have, he cannot see how they could link these to his wife’s death as they did not know the details.

Tarampal feels that after his father’s death, his mother defined her life by her three sons. She would tell him after he got married, ‘I am your mother, I provide your food and your emotional support. Why are you misbehaving and betraying me because of one woman?’ He felt that this referred to the fact that he was sleeping with his wife. He tried to explain to her that the two relationships were entirely different.

I found it intriguing that Tarampal’s mother should have been so desperate for her son to get married, given how she was evidently so dependant on her relationships with her offspring, and later did so much to jeopardise the marriage after having finally engineered it.

I asked Amardeep whether she had ever tried to ask her daughter whether she needed her support, or if she had attempted to invite her to share her problems openly with her. ‘We didn’t have any idea that Jasmeet was going through so much trouble,’ she replied. ‘We all came to know about this only later from her friends.’

Amardeep does not believe there was anyone in Jasmeet’s in-laws’ home with whom she shared everything, though Tarampal insisted that he was the one she confided in about her most personal affairs. Amardeep’s younger daughter told me that she and not her mother would be Jasmeet’s confidante when she visited her natal home.

When I asked Tarampal more about his wife’s support network, he told me that she would generally spend three to four hours with her friends every day. She apparently also became a part of his friendship circle after some time, though she was uneasy about it at first. Her own friends, in contrast, were ‘similar types’ to her, he said.

Beyond friends, Jasmeet would apparently call her mother every week to see how things were with the family in Punjab (though Amardeep told me that the family would not allow her to call much and that when she did call, if Tarampal was there, she could not say very much). In these conversations,

she did apparently mention her troubles. Tarampal confirmed what Amardeep had told me: that Jasmeet’s mother would tell her that ‘if your husband is with you, that’s what’s important,’ and he told me that she assured her mother that she had his support. For this reason, he said he felt surprised that he was the primary person implicated in this case.

Jasmeet would initially insist that she and Tarampal pay visits to her family in Punjab. She stopped insisting on this when her inability to conceive emerged as an issue. Amardeep seemed to believe that it was more a case of the family not allowing her to come, something she could not understand at the time. She recalls two occasions on which she asked for Jasmeet to be sent, but recalls always being told that she would come only later.

 

When Tarampal called Amardeep to inform her of her daughter’s hospital-isation, she had apparently only wanted to know whether the two had fought. But when Jasmeet passed away, he said she changed her tune, accusing him of harassment and of ultimately killing her. According to Tarampal, she told him, ‘Because of you, she was not ok—she told me everything that was happening to her in your house.’

Yet Amardeep assured me that she did not know what was happening there. She said she did not even know what the alleged dowry harassment had been. ‘Who will tell me about this other than my daughter?’ She asked me. ‘She never used to speak about this.’

Rather, Jasmeet apparently told her mother that she would try to understand her matrimonial problems and adjust in their household. The most she said was that Tarampal’s family would get together and talk, but fall silent when they saw her. From this, Amardeep now deduces that they were scheming about how to kill her. ‘Only when it was too much for her to bear did she tell us,’ she said. ‘But before that, I could make out from her face that something was wrong, that she wasn’t happy.’

Amardeep told me that her daughter would not share her thoughts and feelings with her because she would have to remain in her matrimonial home re­gardless. Moreover, she was apparently ‘a religious person’ and felt that according to Hindu beliefs, a girl should never speak of such things with her family.

I found it noteworthy that some three years before the marriage, Jasmeet’s mother’s sister had met her demise through suicide. Her husband was implicated in a manner similar to that of Tarampal. He is accused of administering the wrong medicine by some people and of strangling her by others.

When Tarampal told me this story, he was perhaps implying that it served as the inspiration behind the framing of his own case in this manner.

Although they never witnessed it, Tarampal’s brothers suggested to my colleague that he may have hit Jasmeet on occasion because she used to cry a lot.

When I put this to Tarampal, he maintained that he was never violent towards his wife, although he admitted that he would sometimes raise his voice. He added that as is appropriate for an Indian woman, Jasmeet was never violent towards him either.

Tarampal was quick to assure me that his wife’s crying had nothing to do with their fights, but rather was to do with her general situation.

I wanted to explore Jasmeet’s scope for individual agency, so I asked Tarampal how much free will his wife was able to exercise while living with him. He replied that she was allowed to go to places outside the house alone, even though this was not normally allowed in most other families of comparable status. Other than this, he reported that most of their decisions were taken mutually. When Jasmeet had an idea about something she wanted to do, he said she would consult him about it before going ahead.

If he is wrong and hits you once, you hit him twice

According to Amardeep, she had taught her daughters that if something wrong was happening, they should protest against it. She added, ‘I told them that if the other person is right, listen to him; if he is wrong and hits you once, you hit him twice.’ However, she does not think Jasmeet heeded this advice. ‘She was a very delicate kind of person,’ she explained. ‘She was not a person who could fire back.’ Another piece of advice that Amardeep gave her daughter at the outset was to ‘first see what kind of people they are and then behave accordingly, because if the parents keep on telling you to be zpativrataznd. to keep putting up with their bad behaviour then it’s not right.’

In the course of my conversations with Tarampal and Amardeep, I wondered why Jasmeet had to lose her life— whether through suicide or murder— even when the acceptability of divorce has been growing in a significant manner.

When I asked Tarampal about this, he emphasised that given their com­paratively low socioeconomic class background, Jasmeet’s family would never have been willing to even contemplate her divorce. Such things, according to Tarampal, are still not easy in most sections of Indian society, especially theirs. Nobody, in his opinion, would accept a divorced woman. While things may be changing in larger cities, Tarampal does not think the same is true in villages.

Where does he personally stand on the question of divorce, I wondered? When I asked him this question, Tarampal explained how he had told Jasmeet from the beginning that now that they had married each other, they would have to live through whatever problems might arise, even when times were hard.

In her suicide letter, Jasmeet had written clearly that she had wanted to get out of this family. But she did not want to go back to her natal home — this would have been problematic for both her and her family. Separation from her husband or divorce would have meant big disgrace. It would have especially affected her family, given that in their small village society everyone knows everyone else and regularly comments on each other’s affairs.

If Jasmeet had nonetheless insisted, Tarampal claims he would have accepted a divorce. He would also have been happy to maintain her, he said. (He added that she would have had no other support option, so if he had denied her after she had made such a choice it would have been like abetting suicide.) He thinks that this would have been an unlikely scenario, given her family situation.

When I asked Amardeep how she would explain the concept of marriage to me, she replied that ‘marriage means shifting to a different household, accepting it as one’s own and staying there for the rest of one’s life.’ Her feeling was that problems occur in every house, so if they came up between her daughter and Tarampal, she expected them to stay together and work them out. ‘We did not know that they would kill her for such a small matter,’ she insists. She told me of how, after the death, she said to Tarampal that ‘you could have left my daughter.’

Had it taken her daughter’s death for her to form this opinion? Before it got to this, Amardeep said she felt that Tarampal ought to have called her and told her he felt there was something lacking in his wife. ‘We would’ve explained things to our daughter,’ she insisted. She never suggested to Jasmeet that she opt for a divorce, but if they had not wanted to keep her and continued to torture her, then she would have preferred to have had her back alive. On this basis then, divorce would have been acceptable to her.

Dowry death

On the fateful night of Jasmeet’s death, Tarampal told me that he and his wife had been talking about how they would spend their evening. They decided they would watch a movie, and after that see whether or not they felt like having sex before sleeping. After the movie finished, he went to the kitchen. He said the next thing he knew, his wife was vomiting in the bathroom.

When he realised this, his first thought was apparently that Jasmeet was finally pregnant, and he reassured her that this meant they now had a chance of resolving their problems. Then he noticed a strange smell coming from her mouth, and she began smiling at him. He said that he told the doctor all that had happened and could not see how she ultimately could have died.

Tarampal said he had already implored his wife not to do anything irrespon­sible in response to her problems, as this could land him in trouble. He feared that it might have spoiled his career chances. But Jasmeet apparently felt that she was the only person because of whom things were ‘jumbled up’ (as she allegedly put it in her suicide letter), and hence maintained that life would be better for the rest of the family if she removed herself from the equation. Tarampal told me that she also said in her letter that she wanted him to be happy, and believed that after their deaths their spirits would be together.

Although being held in the same jail, Tarampal and his brothers are not on talking terms now. Their mother visits them much more than she does him. Tarampal cannot help but notice the irony of this situation. Jasmeet had ap­parently written that ‘I am dying so that they will live together happily.’

Fight with Tarampal

Another crucial piece of information is that earlier during the night of her death, Jasmeet had had a fight with Tarampal. This concerned the food that had been cooked that evening. Here, Tarampal had maintained that his mother was right in what she was saying, whereas, in most cases he would take his wife’s side as he usually found her to be correct. He told me of his anger when he realised what had happened. Although he initially felt that the substance of what his mother had said was right, he now felt that he would be in trouble thanks to her actions. He asserted that this was not a ‘death,’ it was a ‘murder,’ telling his mother, ‘I told you to control your anger’ and also that she had not needed to get him married in the first place because he had been planning to start a new life in Germany.

Poison

Amardeep too regards this as a murder, but in a more pre-meditated sense. She believes that Tarampal and his family administered the poison to her daughter while she was sleeping. ‘Why would she take the poison on her own?’ she asked me. ‘Nobody dies on their own like this.’ But revealing that there is a degree of conflict in her mind, she then conceded that ‘only where there is tension and stress would someone give up on life like that—they had disturbed my daughter so much.’

When she arrived at the scene after the death, Tarampal found that Amardeep was extremely angry with him and demanded to know whether he had slapped or beaten his wife. He assured her he had not. It seems she did not believe this, as she told him she was determined that he would now be taught a lesson.

Tarampal betrayed great frustration that the investigation following the death was so poor. He asserted that the police never did anything. Indeed, if they would ever be asked to do anything, they would apparently always ask, ‘How much?’

Because the police asked him for money, he therefore paid them Rs 50,000. It was because of this bribe that he thinks they delayed and registered the case in four days, as it is generally supposed to be done straightaway. In effect, he believes he bought himself three and a half days. My colleague told me that Tarampal’s brothers reported that the police had actually wanted three lakhs to give all three brothers bail, but their mother had apparently stepped in and said to offer only one lakh. They suggested that owing to this shortfall, they were not given as lenient a treatment as they might otherwise have been given.

Tarampal feels that Jasmeet’s local relatives must have provoked his mother-in-law to act against him, arguing that he had killed her daughter so he could kill others too. His father-in-law then arrived from the Persian Gulf and went to the police station. There, the police told him that owing to the contents of Jasmeet’s letter, he could not frame a case against Tarampal. While he feels that the laws under which he was convicted are needed because ‘everybody beats their wife’ (which raised my eyebrows as I thought about his own case), he also believes that there should have been at least one piece of hard evidence in the legal complaint against him.

For Amardeep, there was only one possibility: her daughter’s death was a ‘dowry death.’

‘Till today, we have not understood why they killed our daughter,’ she pleaded, adding firmly that ‘it was because of dowry.’

Amardeep could not fathom what could have been lacking in Jasmeet, except for the simple fact that she had not brought enough money for her in-laws. [She admits that she did not know very much about the financial demands she alleges during Jasmeet’s lifetime, thereby making it understandable that there would have been evidence issues. ‘I came to know when my husband told me that they had demanded this,’ she explained. ‘Tarampal was asking for money as he wanted to leave the country.’

The letter which Jasmeet left, written two days before her death, apparently stated that she had no problems with her husband and his family, Tarampal told me. Rather, she insisted that she was very much in love with him and that he was also very much in love with her. He said that the judge was satisfied that this letter was written by her and hence he was very surprised at the ultimate judgement.

It may have helped Tarampal initially that he had engaged the services of a ‘mediator’ to work between him and the judge to settle upon a bribe to give a result in his favour. Apparently, the judge asked for 1.5 lakhs in return for acquitting four of the accused and giving Tarampal a lenient sentence of four to five years.

Referring to the dowry harassment allegations against him, Tarampal assured me that he did not need money and that 3.5 lakhs is ‘nothing’ to him. He believes that in such cases, the police are always involved with bringing such a charge into the equation, and they tell complainants that the best thing for their case is to say that the husband’s side made demands. He does not think

that anybody ever asks how things actually happened, and that one only needs to say that there were demands and state an amount.

In his own case, as in others, Tarampal feels he was sentenced without any evidence. He adds that ‘the IPC is a big book, but they know nothing about it.’ It was this that apparently prompted him to tell the judge that ‘you people are making fools of us’ and that the Indian judicial system is ridiculous. He suspects that this ‘pissed him off to the extent that he ultimately convicted all three brothers.

Tarampal now speculates that perhaps the mediator that he had hired pocketed the initial Rs 50,000. If so, this may have weighed further against him. As it happens, the judge may have thought that he was innocent. Indeed, Tarampal asked me, if the judge had really thought that he was guilty under section 304-B IPC, why would he have given him a 10-year term and not the maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment?

Tarampal has so far served 4.5 years of his term at Tihar.

Dowry Death. Jasmeet and Tarampal—When inadequacy kills
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