To a generation of connected, social media-savvy users, Satya Rani Chadha will not be a familiar name. But this was the name that launched the anti-dowry movement in Delhi and across India. This was the woman who raged against the injustice of her own daughter’s death by burns and spoke for every mother who had ever lost her daughter in a dowry-related death. That fire did not die till Chadha’s own death at the age of 85 early on Tuesday morning in New Delhi. She was ailing.
Through the 1980s, when dowry deaths were routinely passed off as kitchen accidents and described as acts of ‘bride burning’, an indefatigable Chadha attended rallies, seminars and protest marches—a campaign that led eventually to stricter laws, the setting up of special cells in police stations to monitor crimes against women and countless convictions. Ironically, Chadha never got justice for her own daughter Shashi Bala’s death. A graduate of Delhi’s Lakshmibai College, Shashi Bala was barely 20 when she married Subhash Chandra, then a manager with shoemaker Bata. Just 10 months later in 1979, Shashi Bala was dead. Apparently, the kerosene stove on which she was cooking burst into flames.
She was six months pregnant. Under the provisions of the law at that time, dowry was defined as ‘consideration of marriage’. Since the demand for a scooter was made after the marriage, Subhash Chandra could not be arrested. Undaunted, Chadha approached the Supreme Court. But the law had to be upheld, even if it was unjust. Outside the courts, Satya Rani Chadha joined hands with another grief-stricken mother, Shahjehan ‘Apa’ whose daughter had also been killed for dowry. The two went on to establish a shelter for women and became the anti-dowry movement’s most vociferous faces: two mothers united by a common tragedy and also a determination to not let it pass. Their efforts eventually paid off as the government passed tighter laws against dowry deaths, shifting the burden of proof and making not just the husband, but also his close relatives culpable.
Meanwhile, Chadha had not lost hope. In 1980 she filed charges of murder and abetment to suicide in a lower court against Subhash Chandra and his family. Guilty, ruled the sessions court, but in two months Subhash Chandra was out on bail. By the time the case was upheld in March 2013 by the Delhi High Court where Lawyer’s Collective appeared pro bono for Chadha, Subhash Chandra had simply disappeared. Despite a warrant for his arrest, nobody knew where to find him. Nearly 34 years after her daughter’s murder, Satya Rani Chadha had won in court. But there was no solace for her. “She was full of fire and epitomized the cause. You could feel her passion,” says lawyer Sanjoy Ghose who appeared on behalf of Chadha for Lawyer’s Collective. “She turned up once at a seminar for lawyers and judges with actual dowry victims.
She turned the focus on those victims.” I only met her once, in March this year, for a story I was writing for Mint Lounge. “I got justice for so many girls, but I couldn’t get justice for my daughter,” she said several times over, huddled on a narrow bed amid winter clothes and a hot-water bottle. Shahjehan ‘Apa’ was dead, the shelter they had founded was now being run by someone else, and although she lived with her son, a real-estate agent, and was being cared for by him and his family, they worried about her medical expenses. None of this mattered to Chadha. As I got up to leave, she clutched my hand: “They will find him, won’t they? I will get justice for my daughter, won’t I?”