NEW DELHI // Avinash's family was planning a grand celebration just a month before his wedding when a gang abducted him from his hometown, Begusarai, 100km from the Bihar state capital, Patna. His family had selected a wife for him through a traditional matchmaker from a neighbouring town. But his family's demand for an almost half a million rupee (Dh39,946) dowry invited wrath from his would-be in-laws.
"I was going to Patna on a bus when four men armed with knives asked me to get down. I thought they are criminals demanding money but they didn't ask for it and took me along," Mr Avinash, an executive with a telecom company in Patna, said. For the next four days, Mr Avinash was locked up in a room and beaten by the gangsters. His pleas and offers to pay ransom for his release did not buy him freedom.
"They blindfolded me and took me in a car. I was again locked up in a room there," Mr Avinash said. He was then asked to put on the traditional wedding clothes for the region, including an embroidered knee-length gown and decorated head dress. "They threatened me of dire consequences in case I tried to flee," he added. He was led by two men to a fully decorated wedding venue and made to sit beside a woman in bridal attire. The wedding was then solemnised according to Hindu rituals.
"I had no idea what was happening until I actually got married. I couldn't do anything out of fear," Mr Avinash said. Before the function was over the gangsters advised him to comply with his wife and his in-laws. The next day Mr Avinash took his bride home. His fuming family vowed revenge against his in-laws, but the fear of the kidnappers' vengeance forced them to submit to the forced marriage.
While the majority of cases like Mr Avinash's go unreported, police in Bihar, Indian's poorest state, said there were 1,224 such incidents recorded between January and November in 2009. The pressure of increasing dowry demands and the inability of most parents to fulfil them have resulted in poor families seeking the services of criminal gangs that kidnap prospective grooms and pressure them into forced marriages, which are socially and religiously valid. Even the local village committees extend full support to the woman's side, leaving little chance for the man's family to rescind the marriage.
US Dutt, the additional director general of Bihar police, called such kidnappings almost customary. "In certain cases the parents of the girl take the boy away and start negotiating for dowry and marriage. Eventually that ends up in a marriage. Although this is an ironic custom, but surprisingly these marriages work," he said. While Indian law makes the paying and accepting of dowry illegal, the practice is widespread. Dowry demands from the groom's family often continue after the marriage. Not complying with their demands often results in the bride being ill treated, and even murder.
According to the National Crime Record Bureau, 8,093 dowry-related deaths were registered in India in 2007, out of which 1,226 were reported to have occurred in Bihar alone. There were 75,930 reported cases of cruelty by husbands or in-laws on pretext of dowry in the country during the same year. Victims say the abductors are well-organised and law-enforcement agencies have failed to act against them. Groom abduction has turned into a high-profit, low-risk business. The gangs earn a sizeable commission from these kidnappings.
Sociologists agreed that dowry demands are the main reason behind groom abductions in Bihar. However, they said approval from society to such marriages has emboldened the families to take the law into their own hands. "The groom's family in such cases is always at the receiving end. They won't seek police intervention since they are the ones who have demanded dowry," said Zubair Meenia, head of the sociology department at Jamia Milia Islamia Univesity in New Delhi. "Police and law become non-existent," he said.
Saibal Gupta, a Patna-based sociologist, said recent economic and social empowerment in Bihar has meant forced marriages, which were traditionally based on people's caste, are now carried out for financial reasons. "Earlier it [groom abduction] was common among high caste Hindu's but now it has spread to some other communities and it may be adopted by others also," he said. "Parents have become more ambitious. They want to marry off their daughters to well-off boys. They can use illegal means to get it done."