India's young brides rebel against the dowry demand

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The Independent Online

A new and unlikely front has been opened in the battle by young Indian women against illegal dowry demands, this time within a bastion of religious and cultural conservatism, Varanasi on the Ganges.

The ancient holy city, where devout Hindus traditionally go to die, has become the venue of a high-profile and decidedly contemporary confrontation between a media-savvy young woman and a man whose family she accuses of illegally demanding money for her hand.

In May, Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer software engineer, became a heroine among India's secular young by cancelling her wedding and summoning police after her groom's family demanded $25,000 (£15,000) at the last minute.

Ms Sharma became an overnight media celebrity, feted by women's groups and civil rights organisations. She was soon receiving offers of marriage from several dazzled Indian men. In the ensuing weeks, at least three other middle-class young women from the Indian capital secured the arrest of prospective grooms or their relatives over dowry demands, which, though common practice, have been illegal in India since the 1980s. Shortly afterwards, a woman in Madras in the south, also a highly conservative society, shockedwedding guests by informing them her nuptials were off because of demands levelled by her prospective spouse

The latest case involves 20-year-old Priya Pande. Her case has caused noisy divisions in Varanasi, a 2,000-year-old city not only considered holy by Hindus but also seen as the national temple of learning and civilisation. As ever, the domestic details are disputed. Reports claim she says she married her lover, Babloo Chauchan, in a secret ceremony this year but he lost interest in her and refused to let her live in his home. She says she has an affidavit with his signature on it to prove it. She also says the family demanded 400,000 rupees (£5,400) as a dowry, a violation of India's Anti-Dowry Act. But his family says there was no wedding, and accuse her of trying to extort money.

Last week, Ms Pande, accompanied by TV cameramen, scribes, Hindu nationalist activists and supporters, led a parade to Mr Chauchan's home, forced her way in, and began giving interviews to journalists about her right to live there. She seems acquainted with the soundbite, an art which, with the advent of multiple 24-hour TV news channels, Indian activists are rapidly mastering. "I want to send a message to society that women are not dumb dolls, and should not be taken for granted," she told the BBC.

She is also familiar with the power of television imagery: she had specially kitted herself out in the finery, including vermillion headwear, that denotes a married Hindu woman. After she was thrown out by Mr Chauchan's family, she complained to Varanasi police of harassment and illegal dowry demands. The police arrested him, but only after she threatened to immolate herself.

Varanasi has a strong conservative streak. In January 2000, the Indian-Canadian film director Deepa Mehta arrived to make a film about India's millions of widows who, ostracised and penniless, survive on prostitution.

She and her crew were almost run out of town by angry crowds primed by misinformation by hardline Hindu activists who accused them of disseminating Western decadence.