Maharashtra finally has a government. The process has been long drawn out. It has consumed many column inches of news and several hours on television. But even as the convoluted process of government formation dominated news pages in Mumbai, another simpler, and more predictable, story caught the attention of people in the city. For over a month, newspapers have reported the excruciatingly slow progress in the inquiry against Deepak Pandey, ADC to Maharashtra Governor, Mr. Mohammed Fazal, who has been accused by his wife of extreme violence and dowry demands. The man is a police officer, and his wife, Nidhi, happens to be an IAS officer.
Nidhi first levelled charges against Deepak in April this year. Nothing happened. In October, 11 women IAS officers in the Maharashtra Government, many of them holding very senior positions, went together to meet the State Director General of Police and urged him to order an inquiry. Their intervention helped. The police looked into Nidhi's complaint and found it stood up to scrutiny. But that is where the matter rested.
A month later, Nidhi is still waiting for some action. Meanwhile, no strictures have been passed against Deepak as he continues to work for the Governor. Finally, as a result of media scrutiny of the case, Deepak has gone on leave. Only this week, did matters move forward when the new Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Mr. R.R. Patil, who also holds the Home portfolio, asked the Mumbai police to treat Nidhi's complaint as a First Information Report (FIR) and proceed against Deepak.
I give all these details merely to bring home the point, as I have done in the past, that regardless of a woman's position in society, her education, her economic status, when it comes to the violence she experiences within the four walls of her home, she is reduced to a victim status not very different from women not so well provided for as her. If despite media attention, and her own position as an IAS officer, Nidhi has had to overcome so many obstacles to get her case heard, what about other women? Can they ever hope for justice?
No one can fully understand why Nidhi, or other women like her, tolerate the intolerable for as long as they do. They hope things will get better. They feel they have to make their marriages work. They are afraid that if things fall apart they will be blamed. They fear the public scrutiny that follows a police complaint or a case in court.
But even if all this is understandable, the reasons why men hit and abuse their wives is something for which there can never be a reasonable explanation or a generalised answer. There seem to be as many reasons as there are instances of violence. And class, caste, creed or country makes little difference. The physical violence leaves scars, sometimes even results in death. But the verbal violence is just as searing, also leaves scars and can sometimes lead to death if the women is left feeling that she is completely worthless.
I have personally witnessed the transformation in a well-educated, good-looking, confident professional woman into an emaciated nervous wreck within six months of her marriage. She genuinely believed that she was to blame for her husband's abusive behaviour. She had begun to hate how she looked because he told her she was ugly. And she was convinced that there was no future for her except as his wife. Such stories have become so commonplace that they do not shock us any more.
Suppose a woman does finally say, "enough is enough", what are her options? Will the law come to her aid? Before 1983, there was no specific law dealing with domestic violence. Women were expected to produce witnesses to prove that they were the victims of abuse. Between 1983 and 1986, several amendments were made to the Indian Penal Code such as the introduction of Section 304B where the death of a woman from unnatural causes within seven years of marriage had to be investigated as a dowry-related death.
But does a woman need to die before she can get justice? The problem with existing laws is that they do not provide a woman any protection from her abuser. She cannot take out a restraining order; there is no clear direction in terms of custody of children or right to the marital home. This is where women's groups hope the new law, the Domestic Violence Against Women (Prevention and Protection) Bill, if it is brought in with the changes they have suggested, could go some way in giving victims of domestic violence some hope.
But even the finest and most foolproof law cannot substitute for a change of mindset that we need. Where do we begin? How do we bring up our daughters so that they know that there is a line beyond which they should not tolerate humiliation and violence? How do we bring up our sons to recognise that getting married to a woman does not mean that she loses her rights as a human being? Men who are secure in themselves will have the generosity of spirit to understand women and be sensitive to their needs. Insecure men are the ones who feel threatened by women, even those they ostensibly love, and like the typical bully seek to assert their rights and power through verbal and physical abuse.
A sensible, workable law and secure men this is the combination that could make women more secure and protect them from being tortured behind closed doors. Is that impossible?