Under threat in India: mothers-in-law?

BANGALORE — Each week, in a corner of Bangalore’s historic Cubbon Park, a group of men and women gather to swap stories and vent their emotions. They are part of the newly launched All India Mother-in-law Protection Forum.

It is a motley gathering of teachers, retired air force officers, doctors and software engineers, all educated, urban Indians drawn together by a common cause.

They are "victims," who have banded together to fight the harassment and abuse they say they endure at the hands of the rude, domineering, greedy young women who marry into their families.

A hundred or more members attend these weekly sessions in Bangalore, a trend that sociologists say reflects the breakdown of traditional roles in India's fast-changing urban society.

“These groups are a response to the growing tensions and ruptures within the established Indian family system,” said professor A. R. Vasavi of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.

Such developments present a surprising flipside to the story in India where, according to alarming official statistics, thousands of young women die every year after allegedly being harassed for dowry — including cash, jewelry and expensive gifts — by their husbands or in-laws.

Such suicides and burnings, which are often passed off as "kitchen accidents," are so common that "dowry death" is accepted usage in the country’s crime lexicon.

But in a shift, more young Indian women are using India's stringent laws to blackmail their husbands or families.

Take the example of Neena Dhulia, a mother-in-law who is now fighting back. Two years ago, Dhulia, her husband and her son, a software engineer, were all arrested and dragged to a police station.

Dhulia’s daughter-in-law had filed several cases against her husband and his family including dowry harassment, domestic violence and subsequently, divorce and maintenance.

“The laws favor the daughter-in-law, the police favor the younger woman and all television soaps portray the mother-in-law as an evil monster,” said Dhulia, who joined 50 other women to found the All India Mother-in-law Protection Forum (known by its acronym, AIMPF), itself an offshoot of Save the Indian Family Foundation.

It is true that India’s popular prime time soap operas are centered on the saas-bahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) relationship and often show the wicked machinations of evil mothers-in-law.

Dhulia cites a dozen laws and says the Indian legal system, unlike gender-neutral Western laws, heavily tilts in favor of daughters-in-law. In reality, she says, the older woman in the Indian family is quite often the silent victim who suffers because she is reluctant to come out in the open.

Dhulia says she and other founders decided it was time to correct the bias.

The forum reflects a changing society, concedes Dhulia. “There is less tolerance among young women these days, they have lofty dreams and do not mind breaking up families to reach their greedy goals,” she said. Balmiki Nayak, 60, a volunteer for the organization, agrees. “Family bonds are breaking down, young women covet freedom above all else these days,” he said.

Sociologist Vasavi said that often the rupture and tension in the traditional family system has been brought about by the ability of educated and financially-empowered young women to question oppression and walk out of abusive situations.

Meanwhile, members of AIMPF are going about setting up centers countrywide. Says Balmiki: “We are no longer willing to be victims of legal terrorism."