Given the identity of the people involved — a former actor, a high-profile businessman and both co-owners of a cricket team — the media storm over a three-page police complaint should not come as a surprise. What does is the subtext surrounding the chatter on social and mainstream media.
Investigations are still on. Witnesses are yet to be summoned and Ness Wadia, against whom Preity Zinta has lodged the complaint, has not yet been questioned. But already instant judgment is being pronounced: Why has Zinta spoken up? What are her ulterior motives? Isn’t her charge a trivial one, given the enormity of crimes that women in this country face? Even Justice Markandey Katju, Press Council chairman, weighed in, dismissing the charges as a ‘tiff’.
Zinta’s complaint — available on the Internet — comes less than two weeks after an incident that she says took place on the night of May 30 in public view at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. According to Zinta, Wadia, a former boyfriend but continuing business partner, “grabbed my arm and tried to pull me by his hands”. He also, she says, called her a “f****** b****”. Then, she continues, he warned her with ‘dire consequences’, telling her he was a powerful person who “could make me disappear”. He has been abusive in the past too, she adds. After verbal and written warnings she has now gone to the police.
For millions of women around the world who face daily violence in silence, the alleged ‘tiff’ has a familiar resonance. Those who speak up are often seen as ‘trouble-makers’. Those who complain are placed under scrutiny.
To be sure, the violence that Zinta alleges is nowhere near as heinous as some of the violent crimes against women in the recent past; crimes so gruesome that they have resulted in a national uproar and a new conversation against violence. A generation of women brought up to suffer quietly now increasingly tells its daughters to speak up, to fight back, to resist.
Where does the trajectory of violence begin? Perhaps it begins by grabbing someone’s arm. Perhaps it begins with a slap. Today’s stalking becomes tomorrow’s acid attack. Today’s groping becomes rape. And quietly, insidiously a culture changes because we simply didn’t fight it when we should have.
At what point do we find our voices and say enough? Do we reserve our outrage for certain types of victims or only for the most depraved crimes? Surely, an independent, single, successful — and, yes, wealthy — woman is also deserving if not of our sympathy then at least a fair hearing. Surely, we deserve to hear her story without judgment until an investigation is completed.
The United Nations reports that 30% of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence from their partners. It defines intimate partner violence as behaviour by a partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm.
Two facts lie at the root of violence against women: Gender inequality and a culture of complicity. If the incident Zinta describes in her complaint did indeed play out in public, why were the bystanders silent? Did they seriously believe that this was a personal, private matter?
Violence against women, or men, is never personal or private, more so when the alleged perpetrators are leaders of businesses with a certain public standing. Given society’s indifference and tendency for victim-shaming, given our sluggish judicial system and police inefficiency, it takes enormous courage for any victim — whether an impoverished Dalit in Haryana or an actor in Mumbai — to speak up.
It may well be that the police will not find enough evidence or the charge might be false altogether or even that the parties settle out of court, yet to dismiss it as a trivial tiff is to belittle every woman who struggles with violence as a part of her daily life.
This is why no matter what the outcome, Zinta’s complaint is deserving of our attention.
(Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal)