The Assam Chief Minister is not known for his temperate language, but on this occasion, he has outdone himself. He said, while campaigning for the BJP in Surat, Gujarat, “Vote for Modi – without a strong leader in the country, murderers like Aftab will emerge in every city, and we will not be able to safeguard our society.” Mr Sarma is Chief Minister of a state where the extent of domestic violence against women according to the National Family Health Survey is among the five worst states in the country. It is among the states where there is underreporting of such violence. It is among the states where justification of domestic violence is also high. Has he ever addressed this issue either through public statements or government policy? The NFHS -5 reveals the startling figure in its 2021 report that one-third of women in India experienced domestic violence and/or sexual violence. What is even more disturbing is that 77 per cent did not report the issue.
India has a Constitution that guarantees equality between men and women. Yet, 73 years after its adoption, that guarantee is shredded in the cases of domestic violence perpetrated by men against women, a high percentage of which is unreported. Are all these men, who beat their wives, Aftab? Are all these marriages “Love Jihad”? Why are women unsafe in their own homes? Where is the strongman the Chief Minister is pitching for? Leaders like Sarma; who use a most horrific crime to bolster their toxic Islamophobia instead of addressing the root cause of such crimes, are a shame to this country. Clearly, it is not violence against women that is of concern to him. Nor is the Assam Chief Minister bothered about facts. The Shraddha murder and aftermath happened in the capital of India, where the police are directly under the Modi “strongman” government. There is a huge increase in crimes against women in Delhi, making it the most unsafe city in the country. Where is the strongman? He and his shadow were busy releasing criminals convicted for heinous crimes of rape and murder precisely because the names of the criminals were not Aftab.
Shraddha Walkar’s boyfriend Aftab Poonawala is accused of murdering her.
The perpetrator of a crime against a woman is a criminal to be punished whether his name is Aftab or Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana – the rapists and murderers in the Bilkis Bano case; or Sandeep, Ramu, Lavkush and Ravi, the rapists and killers of the young Dalit woman in Hathras. Communalising a crime is an assault on the legal framework of India.
It is not just the Assam Chief Minister who displays such utter insensitivity towards women. Another worthy in the leader line-up, Kaushal Kishore, Minister of State for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in the Modi Government, is reported to have said “Educated girls should not get into such relationships. They should learn from such incidents. They should stay with someone with the approval of their parents – and register the relationship.” His statement has been rightly slammed by many as blaming the girl for her own murder. In this view (1) she was wrong to chose her own partner defying her parents (2) if she had registered her relationship, got married, instead of being in a live-in relationship, this would not have happened. (3) she should have known this because she was educated. His view has to be taken seriously because it has not been refuted or disowned by a single person in government or a functionary of the party.
Assuming the Minister is educated, he should know better. The latest NCRB report notes that 6, 589 women were killed in dowry/related deaths last year (2021). These are almost all within marriages “approved by parents”. The NFHS data is also of families mainly in this category. Did approval of parents for the marriage prevent the killing of these young women or the domestic violence faced by one-third of women? Further, the Minister should educate himself about the law – live-in partnerships are recognised by the law in cases of complaints of domestic violence. Even recently, the Supreme Court upheld reproductive autonomy for all women, regardless of whether they are married or single.
Himanta Biswa Sarma used the Shraddha Walkar murder to make an election pitch for the BJP and PM Narendra Modi.
Arguments such as those of the Minister are objectionable not only because they blame the victim, but because they conceal and ignore the domestic violence faced by women in “approved” marriages and constitute a justification of violence against a woman if she transgresses patriarchal lakshman rekhas such as Shraddha did. Judgemental attitudes lead to the fear of social stigma that is an additional barrier for girls from reporting violence against them and breaking out of a relationship which is violent.
The horrific murder of Shraddha Walkar by Aftab Poonawala and the brutality and inhumanity involved in the dismemberment of her body have shown the utter vulnerability of a young woman trapped in a relationship with a serial abuser. The testimonies of her well-wishers and her colleagues at work reveal that she had shared with them her experience of being the target of repeated violence, yet efforts made to bring her out of that abusive relationship did not succeed. The evidence of violence against her now being shared with the media was never shared by her friends with the police.
Male violence in a domestic relationship is empowered by a culture which normalises or tolerates such abuse, and expects a woman to adjust to it, a culture which vilifies a woman who rebels, or who speaks out against subordination, who questions the concept of pativrata. In the words of the Manu Smriti, “a good woman should always worship her husband like a God”. Our education system for young people does not even question, leave aside demolish, such ideas; on the contrary, son-preference ideologies prevail. Today we have in power those who subscribe to such ideologies, who want, for example, to teach our children as directed by the recent UGC directives the wonders of Khap panchayats, casteist institutions indicted by the Supreme Court for their role in “honour crimes” and killings.
The last decade has seen a serious regression in the framework of women’s rights and equality. The power of patriarchal notions and practices has got new life in India with a political dispensation which has no hesitation in promoting the most regressive social thinking which is dead against women’s autonomy. The forces which wanted the Manu Smriti as the basis of India’s Constitution are now in power. As long as these are the prevailing cultures being promoted by those in power, India’s daughters will find it difficult to exercise the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution – the right to life – and the protection of laws won after much struggle. No woman should have to face violence within a relationship, irrespective of whether it is one approved by her parents or one of self-choice. We need to build a society and a social infrastructure which gives young women the power to walk away. It is this which may have saved Shraddha.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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