MUMBAI, India — “Envoy shames India.” “India-UK diplomatic row.” “Diplomatic cover for domestic violence?” “Wife beating hardly diplomatic.” These are some recent headlines peppering Indian news outlets.
Put plainly, the case of a senior Indian diplomat allegedly beating up his wife at their London home has caused quite a stir. Indians are debating everything from the role of diplomatic immunity to what extent one allegedly violent husband can shame an entire nation.
But perhaps most strikingly, the case reflects India’s complicated relationship with and often tolerance for domestic violence. In India, many communities still condone marital abuse.
Here's what occurred in this most recent high-profile case: According to press reports, Anil Verma, who ranked third in the Indian High Commission in London, became angry with his wife, Paromita Verma, over a gift of a Christmas tree by her relatives last December. The couple fought, and Paromita Verma ran crying into the street in their quiet neighborhood in north London with blood dripping from her face.
The British Foreign Office wanted India to waive the husband’s diplomatic immunity, which would have left him open to suit in Britain. India declined and instead recalled the diplomat last week. The government then announced an inquiry into the domestic violence allegations. Paromita Verma went into hiding with her 5-year-old son from a previous marriage and has since applied to the British home office to stay in the country.
It is all rather high-drama, given Anil Verma's position as a high-ranking government official. But the case of the "wife-beating diplomat," as he has been dubbed by the media, highlights how everyday domestic violence is in India.
Reflecting a long-held belief that fighting between a husband and wife should be kept as an intimate, marital affair, some television commentators have blamed Paromita Verma for putting the issue in the public eye and argued she should have handled the matter privately. Others have accused her of making a fuss out of a single incident because she wanted an excuse to get British citizenship for her and her son.
“Some of the discussions on TV have been quite appalling,” said Kalpana Sharma, journalist and editor of “Missing Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters.” The commentaries have reflected the general attitude among many men that this should not be made into such a big deal, and the family should settle the problem privately. “I think that attitude is the worrying part,” Sharma said.
And yet, the case has also generated disgust. Indian TV journalist and celebrity Barkha Dutt sent a Twitter message to her followers: “National pride lies in acting swiftly against men who abuse, not worrying about a possible PR problem their trial may bring.”
Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath demanded “strong action” taken against people in power who commit offenses like Verma, and the Indian High Commission called domestic violence “totally unacceptable.”
Domestic violence affects a wide section of Indian society with 35 percent of women aged 15 to 49 having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. Spousal violence has caused an injury in at least one in seven married or divorced women.
“Definitely there is a feeling that beating wives is not a big thing,” said Madhumita Das at the International Center for Research on Women’s Asia regional office. She added that the statistics do not even show the true extent of the problem. “In most of the cases a woman doesn’t report [the abuse] because of fear.”
Given the low status of women in many segments of Indian society, a high level of violence against them may not be altogether surprising. Activists argue that women face discrimination at each stage of life, resulting in everything from female feticide and the neglect of girl children to child marriage and disregard for widows.
“Violence against women has a lot to do with patriarchal values which are not challenged within our educational system. Once deeply engrained it is very difficult to dislodge them,” Noor Jehan Safia Niaz of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement) wrote in an email. Domestic violence therefore continues in India “unabated.”
Some women who face abuse have nowhere to go. There are few women’s shelters, and women are likely to be financially dependent on their husbands.
Likewise, many families and communities pressure women to stay with abusive husbands and accommodate their behavior rather than go through the public humiliation of divorce, according to Leena Joshi, the director of Apnalaya, an organization working with women and families in Mumbai’s slums.
But while India has a long way to go in stamping out domestic violence, the country has made gains in raising awareness about marital abuse as a crime and one that must not be tolerated, say gender specialists.
India passed legislation in 2005, called the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, that makes domestic abuse a specific crime and grants women the right to protection orders, non-molestation orders and the right to live in a shared home.
However, the act has not been effective because the government has not spent the money necessary to fully implement it, said Flavia Agnes, a leading human rights lawyer in Mumbai.
For example, the act calls for the appointment of protection officers, but that rarely happens. When officers are appointed, they are untrained in how the act works and incapable of offering much help to battered women. Similarly, most judges and lawyers have not received training in the act’s provisions.
Many police find the act a waste of time or energy and do not consider domestic abuse to be within their mandate, said the Centre for Social Research’s Amitabh Kumar. His organization does trainings with police officers about what the domestic violence act means and how to implement it.
“They are totally hostile to it,” he said, referring to the police officers. “The person who is supposed to implement it needs to believe it and know it and stand by it.”
Nonetheless, said Sharma, the law is significant because it recognizes domestic violence as a specific crime and has led to civil society groups around the country educating women about their rights.
“A law is always just the first step,” she said. “But as a first step, it’s a very important [one].”
To make further progress, Sharma and other gender specialists say India needs better monitoring of the implementation of the act, more education of women about their rights and greater sensitization of authorities to domestic violence.
Follow Hanna on Twitter: @Hanna_India