How often, in the recent past, have you opened your morning newspaper and been confronted with the smiling image of a pretty bride, only to realise that the girl in the picture has taken her own life following ‘harassment’ or ‘abuse’ in her marital home? And how many times can you recall the girl’s parents filing a criminal complaint against the husband and/or in-laws, citing extreme mental or physical abuse, while belligerently stating that she had ‘repeatedly told them about it’.
My question to such parents is: if she had, then what did you do about it while she was alive; and now that she’s gone, what the hell kind of difference does it make?
India has various laws to protect women from marital abuse, some of which have been strengthened to the extent that they, according to defendants, border on draconian while being unfairly tilted in favour of the woman. So while the controversial Section 498A may make many an innocent mother-in-law shiver at the thought of a cold jail cell, inspire poor-husband-in-the-dock support groups by the dozen or make judges re-think the sweeping powers granted to a woman’s word, the truth is it exists. And it works. But certain more serious crimes of omission continue to fall through the cracks, because no separate law exists to address them. For example, rarely has a dowry-death related judgement been imaginative enough to take note of gross parental neglect.
Take the recent case of a girl who jumped off the deck of a cruise ship last week, after allegedly being beaten mercilessly by her husband. This, after the family claimed to have prior knowledge of her being beaten so badly that she had to quit her job due to a dislocated jaw. We may never know the whole truth in such a case but the idea that any parent would allow their child to knowingly suffer such abuse is not just shocking but, quite simply, criminal.
The Domestic Violence Act enacted in 2006 has broadened the scope of abuse, both in and out of wedlock, to include sexual, verbal/emotional and economic violence, apart from the more obvious physical abuse. Emotional abuse may sometimes be difficult to pin down convincingly. Not so with physical cruelty. What’s more, any man who raises his hand to subdue or intimidate his spouse or to end an argument — even once — will never stop. No matter what. And those who ask their daughters or daughters-in-law to ‘kindly adjust’ should know that provocation is a shifting goal post; and each time we let a shove or a thwack go unprotested or unpunished, we lower the threshold of tolerance.
What’s most distressing, and even inexplicably macabre, is the fact that, in many cases, it is the woman’s parents who compel her to withdraw a complaint or return to an abusive marital home. Reasons vary. Sometimes its just plain economics; with resources stretched to breaking point, an additional financial burden may threaten to break the backs of some. But it is that other reason — the unwillingness to stand up against so-called ‘societal’ pressures — that must be treated as criminal negligence on the part of those who choose not to respond to their child’s cry for help.
Every time a girl tells her parents that she is being physically or mentally ill-treated — whether or not she bears the visible scars of such abuse — and is told to ‘compromise’ and ‘hang in there’ till things get ‘better’, a crime is committed. And if, then, she takes her own life, her parents must not be absolved of all culpability. They should not be allowed to palm off the tragedy and loss of life on a ‘cruel’ husband or in-laws alone. As silent witnesses to their child’s growing despair, they are as much an accessory to a crime as those who are guilty of physical or mental torture.
So, every time a harassed wife/daughter-in-law takes her own life, it’s because someone failed —or chose not to — listen, signifying the closure of a trusted avenue of redress. Sometimes all it takes to avert a tragedy is to refuse to cover up the ugliness. And all those who ignore the obvious, for fear of what people might say, should know that their child might not be there to hear it.