When push comes to shove

When push comes to shove

India is a signatory to various international laws, which expressly deem domestic violence a crime. Five years ago, the country had enacted a national law — the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) — that seeks to protect the rights of women who face abuse within the home.
 
But you wouldn’t know any of this if you went by the immediate response of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to news that one of its senior diplomats based in the United Kingdom was alleged to have committed domestic violence. As more details of the story emerged, and the woman who faced the attack went public, the MEA tried to recover some lost ground by recalling the envoy to India a full week after the incident.

The MEA said it was “carefully looking into the incident”, and went on to submit that these are “sensitive and personal issues” that pertain to “individuals”. It also said: “It is now expected that this matter will be resolved between husband and wife to their mutual satisfaction.”

This brings to mind another sordid incident that happened a decade ago, involving another Indian diplomat based in Paris. At the centre of that story was Lalita Oraon, an Indian domestic worker, who was working for the diplomat’s family and who fled from the home of her employer alleging gross mistreatment, an accusation that seemed to be borne out by the wounds on her body.  

When the French media had reported this case in September 1999, a furious Indian embassy refused to even admit to the possibility that anything was wrong, roundly and immediately stating — without the benefit of an independent investigation — that the allegations were “false and strongly denied”.

The case was sought to be seen through the lens of national honour. In an official release at that point it also made the following accusation: “The Embassy requests the French media to cease its campaign of defamation against the diplomat from this Embassy based on mendacious statements by individuals and organisations who are themselves responsible for Ms Oraon’s actual plight.” How the French individuals and organisations that came to Oraon’s aid were responsible for her plight was never, of course, explained.  

The MEA’s reaction had, at that point, attracted a great deal of opprobrium from various quarters. One of the concerns raised then was that in defending its diplomat to the hilt, the Indian Embassy was neglecting its responsibility to Oraon, who was also after all an Indian citizen and entitled to its concern and protection.  

This argument holds true in the London case as well.  Chennai-based commentator, Swarna Rajagopalan, has asked in her blog, “Should diplomatic immunity extend to those who perpetrate violence against the vulnerable? Should domestic violence be treated as a private and lesser issue than the sanctity of diplomatic status? No one should be pronounced guilty until proven as such, but how can that happen in this case, where the accused cannot be investigated or tried?”   

Domestic violence has a long, if largely unrecorded history — unrecorded because it was never perceived as the crime since it occurred within the time-honoured sanctity of the home, and was invariably perpetrated by those wielding power within it. It was not until the last quarter of the 20th century that women’s and human rights activists succeeded in putting domestic violence on the table. They underlined that such crime was not just a matter between “individuals” and pointed to the psychological and sociological links between such abuse and unequal power relations between men and women. They demanded that the crime be brought out into the open through society's active intervention, not secreted away as a “personal” matter.

Today, there is a growing realisation in India, too, that this is the only way to regard such behaviour. The PWDVA has defined domestic violence in the broadest possible terms and which includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal, emotional abuse, as well as economic abuse, and the Delhi High Court recognised the importance of this when it commented in a 2010 verdict that often “laws are passed to ensure normative changes in the society”.

By any reckoning, punishing the perpetrators of domestic violence, once they are proved to have committed it, is a matter of national interest.

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