By People Staff
June 23, 2003 12:00 PM

It’s not terribly unusual for a skirmish to break out at a wedding, but this one—taking place in front of 1,500 guests as they mingled under a huge white tent—was decidedly different. The trouble? Nisha Sharma’s husband-to-be, and his mother, were allegedly demanding $25,000 to go through with the marriage. Pay up, they reportedly told Sharma’s father, or the wedding is off. Even in Delhi, India, where arranged marriages are common, the demand came as a shock. “I thought, ‘Has he come to marry me or for the money?’ ” says Sharma, 21.

She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, the software engineering student reached for her phone and called the police. The outcome: Her intended, Munish Dalal, 24, has been arrested for demanding a dowry (he denies the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison), and Sharma has become an instant heroine to women all over India. “This one protest,” says Jyotsna Chatterji, director of the Delhi-based Joint Women’s Program advocacy group, “has given other women the courage to come out and say dowries are evil.”

Although dowries were officially outlawed in the country in 1961, payments to the groom remain a constant, not to mention costly, part of almost every Indian wedding. Indeed, Sharma’s parents, who had placed a newspaper ad seeking a husband for their daughter (also a common practice), had already promised Dalal’s family more than $20,000 in merchandise, including a luxury car, two air conditioners, a pair of washing machines and a stereo. But the cash demand was an epiphany of sorts for Sharma. Though her fame is bringing her marriage proposals from all over India and beyond, she’s in no hurry to accept them—and a dowry, she says, is out of the question. “My message to all young girls,” she says, “is ‘Don’t give them a penny.’ ”