A day before she died, Supriya Sharma called up her mother and said, "I fear for my life." It was the last time she would ever speak to her. Supriya had been married to Chandra Vibhash Sahu, a surgeon at the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital for under a year. The families knew each other; the fathers
had been colleagues in Jharkhand. It should have been an ideal marriage.
It wasn't. Within weeks, Sahu began beating his wife. She complained to her parents. He sent her back home to them. The parents sent her back: make up, make it work, they said. The husband said she had mental problems. Then Supriya was offered a job for Rs85,000 a month. Her husband said she couldn't work. A few days later she was dead.
The portrait of this urban marriage is now another statistic in India's expanding landscape of domestic violence. Chetan Chauhan reports in this newspaper that domestic violence kills more people than terror strikes - 8,383 domestic violence deaths for 2,231 in terror strikes in 2009. A National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) finds that nearly one in three women in the age group 15-49 have experienced physical, s*xual or emotional domestic violence.
With a BTech degree and a post-graduate management degree, Supriya didn't fit the stereotype of a battered woman. Why would a young woman capable of earning Rs85,000 a month tolerate daily humiliation? What kind of parents would send their daughter back to a man who is torturing her? Why does an educated woman backed by a law against domestic violence not seek legal intervention? And who do we blame now that this woman is dead?
According to NFHS-3, only one in four women report abuse, mainly to parents rather than the police. Often the advice they get is 'please adjust'. And when there is no happy ending (how can there be?) these parents belatedly wake up to justice. If these women are to get justice, then perhaps we need to think of their parents as enablers of the crime.
Despite the Domestic Violence Act, we treat marital violence as a private matter that is none of our concern, unlike, say, terrorism which is seen as a crime against society. When battered wives find the courage to file complaints, they are often coerced by parents, in-laws and their own warped sense of social propriety to withdraw those complaints.
Vijayalakshmi's five-page police complaint against her husband, Kannada actor Darshan is a tale of horror that includes a swollen left eye, cigarette burns, a bite mark on her ear, a fractured hand. Yet, hours after filing the complaint, following an intervention by 'friends' including actors Ambareesh and Vijay Jaggesh to 'save the family', the wife recanted - not a beating, she said, she had fallen in the bathroom.
Fortunately, two lower court judges have not bought her story. Bail has been denied twice to Darshan who is in jail. But public opinion is more generous. A Times of India survey found 68% respondents saying Vijayalakshmi was wrong to have filed a police complaint. Kannada film producers have withdrawn an idiotic ban on an actress Darshan is alleged to have been having an affair with but there has been no condemnation of Darshan himself. In fact, there has not been one voice of approbation from the film industry, including Bollywood's rent-a-soundbite celebrities.
The battered wife, like all battered wives, stands alone. Domestic violence is a crime committed by one person against another. But it's a crime in which society participates either by silence or by pressurising women to compromise. 'But he's a good father.' 'This is your karma.' 'What will people say?' 'Who will support you?' 'You provoke him with your nagging.'
Domestic violence rages in India, even against women of a new generation - educated, capable of being financially independent, articulate. It rages because we allow it to.