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Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 18, 2002)

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 18, 2002)

In the course of this, I learned many things. I am an historian but in doing this particular book I realized that categories that we use as timeless are so dynamic that they need to be stated more explicitly. The word "property." You would think, it is an English word and it has a very specific meaning. I discovered that in India we didn't have "property" as in property as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, as you think of land. And the key argument that I make here is looking at the idea of property as having changed dramatically in the colonial period because when the British took over the Punjab, they did to the Punjab what they had done elsewhere in their Empire in the subcontinent, which is simply take the land (and the Punjab was the wealthiest agricultural land on the planet), and divide it among those who tilled it. And their reason for doing this was not to bring modernity and the notions of private property to India. But the idea was simple: if you assigned every piece of land a determinate owner, you could also fix on that piece of land a determinate revenue. And once you have got the revenue fixed, these assessments of land lasted sometimes three decades -- the same assessment, despite you losing your job or whether there is a draught or a pestilence or a hailstorm knocking out your crop.

These reasons for assigning land as property completely transformed the world. This was the deepest social revolution that colonialism ever performed. They transformed the relations of people to the land on which they lived. Now you had owners, now you had "haves" and "have-nots." In the pre-colonial period, you had rights in land and the right was of use of the fruit of the land. But you did not buy or sell it. The way people controlled the land was to defend it. And taxes were paid to support the defense of the land.

With land becoming a commodity and with men getting a title, you find that quite without a deep dark plot to "do in" women, but because women didn't get title, you find the quiet erasure of their rights. Just imagine this. You are a young woman, you are growing up in your father's house, and when you get married, you go to your husband's house. There is village exogamy in this northwest part of India where women leave their villages and marry men from other villages. Once you go to your husband, you are a dependent wife. Because you are his wife, you can have rights but if he turns out to be a little bit drunk, a little bit violent, a little bit nasty, and throws you out or persuades you to leave by his violence, you have nowhere to go. Because at home, the land had been titled and given to the father and then succession was claimed down to ten levels, each male. I was very lucky to find the records that support this and have documented it heavily to show how the whole notion of a woman, with or without dowry, suddenly becomes a person without property, without home, in fact without rights.

And then women begin a new movement to get their rights. It is very much like free-range chicken. In the beginning, there was free-range chicken. Then we colonized them, we put antibiotics into them, we feed them, and we make breasts larger than the legs, make these wobbly poultry, package them and sell them. And then in the end, we say what is really good for you is free range chicken and if you pay a lot more you can get it in an organic chicken. That's what I feel happened to women's rights. They basically had the same rights as men because nobody owned the land. The land owned the people. And only a move away from it would deny you the rights. And as women did move through marriage, they just took their entitlements to the next village and had the rights to use of the land. But with property, the whole social scene changes. And dowry itself becomes a demand.

The British had a very different system, and this was supposed to be modern and progressive. There were three other fixities. Not only did the male peasant have title to your land, you also had three other conditions through which you held your land.

You had to pay its revenue, which was the case before, but now it was different. Instead of annual or six monthly assessments of your crop, which the previous rulers had conducted, the British conducted a single assessment when they took over the Punjab and they made this good in some areas for 20 years, some 25 and the longest assessments I have seen are for more than 30 years. So it is fixed. You know this is your plot of land. You can't increase it or decrease it except by buying or selling it. You have to pay a particular revenue that is fixed.