A victory without a winner: Remembering Satyarani Chaddha, the face of India's anti-dowry movement

“I lost my daughter 35 years ago, but in that process I saved thousands and thousands of others. But in the end, what did I get?" were Chaddha's words after the 2013 Delhi High Court judgment.
Satyarani Chaddha, dowry protests
Satyarani Chaddha, dowry protestsSheba Chhachhi

On March 7, 2013, the Delhi High Court upheld the conviction of Subhash Chandra for abetting the suicide of his wife, Shashi Bala (Kanchan) in a dowry case. Ironically, though Chandra was guilty, he was never arrested, and has been absconding from arrest for years.

In the 1980s, when the anti-dowry movement was just taking spark, there was a lady who lost everything, and yet won the battle against the evil practice. Satyarani Chaddha was one of the women activists who ignited the anti-dowry movement in India.

The ghost of dowry and the horrors of 1979

On March 17, 1979, Satyarani's daughter Kanchan was found unconscious with burns at her matrimonial home. When she was later taken to All India Institute of Medical Sciences, she was reported dead due 100% burns. That day, Satyarani not only lost a daughter, but also an unborn grandchild, as Kanchan was pregnant by 24 to 26 weeks at the time of her death.

On the same day, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed by police on the complaint made by Satyarani. The family members and the husband were charged under Section 302 read with Section 32 of the Indian Penal Code. Unfortunately, the FIR was not taken up seriously by the authorities.

Simultaneously, Satyarani lodged a private complaint before the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM). She claimed that before the marriage, the husband and his family had demanded a scooter, a fridge and a television set as dowry, which the victim’s family was not able to afford.

The Court was also informed that even after Kanchan became pregnant, the husband continued to raise his demand for a scooter and threatened the family that in case the said demand is not fulfilled, Kanchan would face dire consequences. This demand was also repeated two days before her death.

The Delhi High Court ruling

It took 27 years for Satyarani to get her daughter’s murderer punished, but unfortunately, Subhash is still roaming free and absconding from arrest. The Delhi High Court in 2013 convicted Subhash and upheld his conviction under Section 306 IPC (abetment to suicide).

In Subhash Chandra v. State , Justice Indermeet Kaur noted that there were no reasons to interfere with Chandra's conviction by the trial court. The Court held that the fact that Kanchan was almost six and a half months pregnant was enough to rule that unless there was a “strong instigation or a provocation to commit the act, the victim would not have resorted to this extreme step of taking her own life.”

The Court noted that in their ten-month-old marriage, Kanchan and Chandra did not live together in their matrimonial home. Chandra was working in Mathura and would only on stray occasions come to Delhi. He was not keen to take his wife to join him at Mathura; she continued to live with her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law in Delhi, in a two-room house. On the rare occasions when Chandra came to Delhi, “he shared this two room house which did not enable the married couple to enjoy any moments of privacy," the Court highlighted.

Chandra initially pushed the point that he was not present when the incident took place. The Court rejected this argument and held that “even presuming that he was not in Delhi on 17.03.1979, it would make little difference. He was the instigator and the inciter for the act of the victim of taking her own life.”

Taking into consideration the definition of 'abetment' under the IPC, the Court held,

"The continuous course of conduct adopted by the appellant was the facilitating factor which had led to the commission of the offence i.e. the act of committing suicide by the victim."

During the course of hearing, it was submitted that Kanchan used to send letters to her mother. The Court noted that “the victim in this span of 10 month of her married life, belonging to the middle class economic strata, was not wanting even her mother to know her pain; the letters written by her to her mother and to Mandirwali Mataji were almost like reassurances to herself, trying to persuade herself to believe that everything would be fine in her marital life; she must learn to trust her husband; at the same time informing her mother that her husband had sisters and should not harass anyone; this was an indirect mode of informing her mother that she herself was being harassed by her husband.”

While commenting on the investigation of the incident, the Court noted that “the investigating agency which is the police and upon whom every citizen of the county looks for protection did not appear to have performed its obligations. So much so that initially the police had also sought to file a cancellation report but that was not taken up as the mother of the victim who appeared to be running from pillar to post to see that the culprits are brought to book, had meanwhile filed a private complaint on which cognizance was taken.”

While convicting Chandra under Section 306, the Court commented on the fabrication of evidence by the investigation agency.

Investigation is clearly shoddy and sealed parcels were sent for scientific examination but surprisingly what was picked up for a scientific examination were innocuous articles i.e. wooden blocks containing planks forming a part of the door. The investigating agency had intentionally and deliberately, to shield the accused not picked up the hair, nails or the viscera of the victim. The samples of kerosene, match box, stove or any other article lying at the scene of the incident were also not sent for any forensic analysis. The investigating officer-DW2 who had retired has in fact come to the rescue to the appellant and has deposed as a defence witness. The callous approach adopted by the Investigating Agency deserves to be condemned."


Kanchan's was not the only case where justice was delayed; there have been several instances where families had been struggling for years to get justice. But when they ultimately find it, they don’t see a reason to ‘celebrate’. As Satyarani says,

I lost my daughter 35 years ago, but in that process I saved thousands and thousands of others. But in the end, what did I get? He is alive, married and absconding, he is not in prison...but my daughter is dead. This disillusionment with law will always stay with me.”

Around the same time Satyarani waged her long battle, the wheels of the anti-dowry movement in India were in motion.

In 1983, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act was brought into force, and a separate chapter was inserted into the Indian Penal Code to deal with cases which were related to cruelty. The term ‘cruelty’ was defined as - any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury or danger to life, limb or health (whether mental or physical) of the woman; or harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security or is on account of failure by her or any person related to her to meet such demand."

Another development was the addition of Section 113-A in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, which talks about the presumption as to abetment of suicide by a married woman. This principle was applied in the Delhi High Court's verdict in Subhash Chandra’s case too, where the plea of ‘alibi’ was not strong enough to prove his absence, because under 113-A, the Court can presume that such suicide has been abetted by the husband and the relatives if the death occurred within seven years of marriage.

The traces left behind

Satyarani was at the forefront of the anti-dowry protests when they reached their peak in the 1980s. Photographer and activist Sheba Chhachhi visualized these agitations through her lens. She captured the anti-dowry agitation in a series called ‘Seven lives a dream’. This included hte iconic photograph of Satyarani with her daughter’s portrait at the steps of the Supreme Court of India.

Satyarani’s sit-in protest at the Supreme Court
Satyarani’s sit-in protest at the Supreme CourtSheba Chacchi

During Satyarani's long ordeal in the courts, there was another mother, Shahjahan Apa, who lost her daughter to a dowry death. Satyarani and Shahjahan Apa were instrumental in taking the battle for societal change forward. The duo started a small non-governmental organization called Shakti Shalini to support women who have been victims of dowry demands and harassment. The organization is still functioning in Delhi, since 1987.

In the words of Urvashi Butalia,

For women like Satya Rani and Shahjahan Apa, exhaustion must have been a luxury they could not afford, but perhaps the feminist movement provided them both a home and a family.”

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