Families are at war over a wedding tradition India banned decades ago

Updated 0017 GMT (0817 HKT) August 1, 2021

(CNN)Vismaya Nair had been married for just over one year when she was found dead in the bathroom of her husband's family's home in India's southwestern Kerala state.

Initially, police had no reason to view the 24-year-old student's death on June 21 as suspicious, until her family made a complaint under the country's "dowry death" law.
The law allows charges to be brought against people for causing the death or suicide of a woman within the first seven years of her marriage in which the family had promised a dowry -- gifts given to a groom's family when a couple marry.
Dowries have been banned in India for more than 60 years, but the practice persists -- and not only in rural and more traditional parts of the country.
Kerala -- where Nair died -- boasts some of the highest literacy rates for both men and women in India, and is generally considered a progressive state -- but it still "exhibits stark and persistent dowry inflation since the 1970s and has the highest average dowry in recent years," according to a World Bank report released in June.
Vismaya Nair at her wedding in May 2020.
Harshita Attaluri, an inspector general of police in Kerala, said investigators have yet to establish whether Nair died by suicide or was murdered.
Police arrested Nair's husband, Kiran Kumar, under India's dowry death law. He remains in custody but hasn't been charged.
Kumar's lawyer, B. A. Aloor, said Kumar did not commit any dowry-related crime.
"There is nothing on record to show that this gentleman either committed a murder or a dowry death," he said.

"There is nothing on record to show that this gentleman either committed a murder or a dowry death."B A AloorKumar's lawyer

Traditionally, a dowry referred to gifts in the form of cash or goods that parents gave their daughter to provide her with more financial security in her marriage.
But now experts say families are transferring cash, gold, cars, real estate property or other assets to the groom's family as a condition of the marriage.
And some families are deeply unhappy with the deal.

An illegal practice

India's dowry system dates back in some form for thousands of years, when women who were unable to inherit property under Hindu laws were provided with a dowry registered under her name during marriage.
Over time, the practice became associated with violence against women linked to the coercion of dowry from her family. Crimes included physical abuse and harassment, as well as deaths related to dissatisfaction over the amount of dowry received. So, it was criminalized under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act with a fine and prison sentence of at least five years.