I first read the news of the young woman allegedly killed by her partner in Mehrauli in Delhi on an online news portal. It was disturbing for many reasons, the most important being the fact that a life had been cut short and any remnants of it brutally disposed of. It was no less disturbing that the context and the lives in it appeared very close to me. They could have easily been people I knew — the woman as well as the man. Young, aspiring, attracted to one another, believing they were in love and ready to defy norms that dictated whom one could or could not love.
Shraddha Walkar’s is not a story that is distant from us or rare in any way. Many of us have seen our friends in troubled and toxic relationships that they continue to hold on to, sometimes because even in that toxicity it may be one of the few things stable in their lives. This morning, as I walked into my father’s room while he was reading the newspaper, he remarked, “What is going so wrong with the world today?” I knew what he was referring to, but couldn’t agree with the conclusion he had drawn. For me, the “going wrong” didn’t begin today. I thought of the young woman who was courageous enough to take a risk for her choice, convinced that her partner had her back. Who would have her back if she were to move out and end what might have been the only long-term relationship that remained?
Families and communities are often unkind to women who defy them or rebel. I choose to not use “unforgiving” as that would be an acknowledgement of the belief that an assertion of choice is an act deserving of forgiveness. People wait until the lives of these women can be cited as cautionary tales to other young women like them. Some will remind us of the friends who may have encouraged her to walk out of the relationship and yet, anyone who has stayed in a metropolis for long enough knows that the perceived safety or reassurance of a long-term companionship, where one remains a priority for the other, is not something that has many ready alternatives or can be easily replaced.
In such a context, if one were to revisit the position of the parents and consider the possibility of them having embraced her choices, or at least remained open to them so that they could have had the possibility of engaging with and knowing the new “other” in her life, is it possible that that person might also have been more cautious with her, aware that there were people who would notice her absence and would care if she is hurt? Without trying to or even wanting to make a case for the young man alleged to have murdered his partner, it is important to think about the possible reflections that this brutality can push us towards. Does it suffice to only demonise the man and not think of what contributed to his power over her or perhaps to his belief that her absence would not evoke concern, giving him sufficient time to think of an elaborate plan to destroy evidence?
This is not the first time that an incident involving an attack on a woman has pushed me to think of the ideas around care, safety, honour and kinship that several continue to uphold. I am reminded of an incident that occurred at the university where I was previously teaching. A woman student came to me and shared a harrowing story of being stalked by a young man (not from the university) during her daily commute from home. He was pushing her to accept his “proposal” and on her refusal threatened her. Worried for her, I suggested that we inform the police so that her safety can be ensured and it could be clearly communicated to the stalker that if any untoward incident was to happen, he would be the primary suspect. The girl strongly rejected this suggestion, saying that if the matter was to go to the police, her family (which was otherwise not very keen on her pursuing higher education) would withdraw her from the university.
Over the years, I have seen teenagers, and equally frequently, young adults hide their cross-community friendships, interactions, and romantic relationships from their parents, fearing repercussions. The fear pushes them to take risks that they could have otherwise avoided and alienates them from the one support system that they should otherwise have been confidently able to rely upon. To avoid being seen by those known to their family, they are forced to find unsafe, obscure places to hangout. When met with abuse and violence, they are afraid to report to the authorities as well as their families, believing that in the eyes of both, they would be treated as accomplices rather than victims. While the Mehrauli case must also push young people to seriously deliberate on the notions of care, equality, freedom, and dignity in relationships, we would do well to remind ourselves that the “going wrong” did not begin with them.
The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Education Studies in Ambedkar University, Delhi