Nisha Sharma





Social activist

Born c. 1982, in India; daughter of Devdutt (a factory owner) and Vidya Sharma. Education: Studied software engineering at a Delhi college.

Addresses:

Home —Noida, India.

Sidelights

Nisha Sharma, a 21–year–old college student, made headlines in her native India when she called off her wedding in protest of the onerous dowry payments her future husband's family was demanding from her parents at the eleventh hour. A once prevalent custom in many cultures, the dowry—or "bride–price"—was a practice still relatively common in India, though it had been outlawed by the government in 1961. Just before her 2003 nuptials were slated to begin, an irate Sharma, dressed in her elaborate Hindu bridal costume, called the local police on her mobile phone, and her prospective groom spent what would have been his wedding night in a Delhi jail cell instead. "I never thought for a moment any of this would happen," she told Times of London writer Ian McKinnon a few days later. "But I don't have a moment's regret. It would have been a bad mistake."

Born in the early 1980s to Devdutt, a factory owner in the northern Indian city of Delhi, and Vidya, Sharma was a software engineering student and lived at home in Noida, a Delhi suburb. In a society where arranged marriages between families are still common among the middle class, she agreed to meet a 24–year–old computer engineer her parents

Nisha Sharma
had found via a newspaper ad. The couple hit it off, and marriage plans were soon underway. Munish Dalal's family initially asserted that no dowry was necessary, but it was Indian custom to give the newlyweds an array of consumer goods for their new home.

Technically, a dowry is a payment made by a bride's family to the groom, and dates back to the Anglo–Norman early medieval era in Western Europe. It came to India when the British Empire colonized this part of the Asian subcontinent, and blended with a traditional Hindu practice called the rukhsati, or farewell gift. After India gained independence in the post–World War II period and began a rapid modernization process, the giving of cash or goods specifically to the groom and his family was outlawed under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act. Despite this, the dowry remained common in the form of other types of payment to the groom and his family. The amount was linked to the bridegroom's profession (with civil servants in India commanding the highest amount) and to the thought that it was only fair to the groom's family, who had paid for his professional education and thus established him as a good income–earner for his future wife and children.

At Sharma's engagement party a week before the wedding, her family gave the Dalals a cash sum. Then, her parents agreed to buy the groom a luxury automobile, household appliances, and even a stereo, but the Dalals then allegedly requested that two of everything be given—one for Munish, and the other for his older brother. Devdutt Sharma initially agreed, as he told Lucy Ash in the Times of London. "I wanted Nisha to get on well with her in–laws," he admitted. "I thought it would help if they started off with the same stuff." Sharma said she knew nothing of this shopping spree at first, nor of the phone call that her future mother–in–law made to her parents the day before the planned ceremony to demand more money. Moreover, her parents then learned that Dalal was not an engineer, but rather a teacher of computer studies.

On a May day in 2003, some 2,000 guests assembled at a Delhi garden, and on the way to her wedding Sharma took a call from her brother. He told her that the Dalals had demanded a sum of $25,000, and threatened to call off the wedding if her parents did not give in. She was incensed. "I thought, 'Has he come to marry me or for the money?'" she told People . Behind the scenes at the wedding tent, as guests waited for the ceremony to begin, the two sides battled, and Dalal's mother and another female member of his family allegedly slapped and spit on Sharma's father. Angered, the bride called the police on her cell phone. "I've never spoken to Dad like that; why should anyone else?," she recalled of the moment in an interview with the Times 's Ash. "If they treated him so badly, they probably would have done the same to me, or worse."

Sharma had good reason to fear for her safety. Women's rights groups in India pegged the number of recent brides killed in just the city of Delhi alone at 150 in 2002, and 7,000 nationwide for the previous year. The deaths, often described as kitchen fires, are said to have occurred because the groom's family was unable to extort money from their in–laws after the wedding. Though the practice seems out of step with the modern era, advocates say the violence has only increased with the downturn in the global economy, which has affected India's large class of information–technology professionals. "Growing unemployment makes things worse because many young men see marriage as their main source of income and their only chance of affording all the luxury goods relentlessly advertised on Indian TV," Ash reported.

After Sharma's call to the police, Dalal was arrested later that night, and his mother and the other relative a short time later. The jilted groom now faced a maximum ten–year prison term. Meanwhile, Sharma suddenly found herself the subject of intense media interest, as well as the new standard–bearer for women's rights in modern India. Newspapers printed reports of other brides following suit and calling off their own wedding because of dowry demands, and she was inundated with film offers and even an invitation to run for political office. Sharma, however, was interested only in finishing her degree. She had also received a number of marriage proposals from young men because of the notoriety, and asserted that she would never allow herself to be the subject of dowry negotiations again—though she was not averse to another match arranged by her father. "He knows best," she told Smriti Kak, a writer for the Tribune of Chandigarh, India. "I will marry whoever he chooses and do what he wants me to do."

Sources

Periodicals

People, June 23, 2003, p. 65.

Times (London, England), May 16, 2003, p. 19; July 21, 2003, p. 10.

Online

"Common Girl with Uncommon Grit," Tribune Online Edition, http://www.tribuneindia.com/2003/20030525/herworld.htm (October 6, 2003).

"Dowry–Busting Bride Wins Star Status," CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/south/05/23/india.dowry/ (October 6, 2003).

"Dowry Demand Lands Groom in Jail," BBC.com , http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/3027683.stm (October 6, 2003).

"Nisha Sharma: 'Heroine' Seeks Oblivion," DayAfterIndia.com http://www.dayafterindia.com/june11/focus.html (October 6, 2003).

Carol Brennan



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