The murder of 26-year-old Shraddha Walkar allegedly by her live-in partner Aaftab Poonawala has dominated the headlines since the crime came to light on November 12. The brutal details of the killing have been widely publicised. So too have toxic communal narratives, because Poonawala is a Muslim.

“Where is this claim coming from that there is an army of Muslim men who are out to rape and forcibly convert innocent Hindu women?” asked Mary E John, feminist scholar and former director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi. “These notions are being deliberately spread without any evidence whatsoever.”

In a conversation with, John discussed broader questions of women’s safety and the vulnerable place live-in relationships occupy in Indian society. Excerpts:

How do we look at the communal and polarised narratives about the incident?

I think we shouldn’t be so surprised that the coverage has taken the turn that it has, given its nature. It’s a magnet for police investigation, but also for news coverage. This makes it even more important for those of us who are concerned to think about what the issues are, what is a woman’s situation in such a context.

However horrifying and even bizarre, there have been similar cases in the past. In the so-called “tandoor case” in 1995 Sushil Sharma murdered Naina Sahni, his wife, cut up her body and hid the body parts in a tandoor. No one identified him as a Hindu or as a Brahmin. The focus was on his being a Youth Congress leader and the damage it was doing to the party.

Contrast that with how the media is now picking up the present case and making so much out of the identities of the accused and the victim. Whereas Sushil Sharma could be without caste and religious markers – “casteless” as it were – in the current highly communalised atmosphere some religious identities, Muslims in particular, are not allowed anonymity.

How do we understand these allegations of love jihad [ a conspiracy theory propagated by the Hindu right that Muslim men are out to lure Hindu women into relationships and marriage with the aim of converting them to Islam] that have come up and how this conspiracy theory has gained legitimacy in recent years?

The ideology that is gaining ground now, that is communalising the atmosphere so pervasively about Muslims, about their population growth, feeding irrational Hindu fears about becoming a minority in their own country – these have been simmering since over a century. Love jihad is a recent addition to this brew of claims that do not need to have any factual basis.

What are the cases of love jihad that one can point to? Where is this claim coming from that there is an army of Muslim men who are out to rape and forcibly convert innocent Hindu women? These notions are being deliberately spread without any evidence whatsoever.

Even though evidence has been given proving the falsity of such claims, this has not prevented their deliberate circulation in the current political climate. Look at what Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of Assam, reportedly said that there will be an Aaftab in every city unless there is a powerful leader. Did anyone warn against a Sushil Sharma and a “tandoor case” in every city?

ABVP members protest at Fergusson College in Pune, on November 19. Credit: PTI.

Relationships and incidents like these are used to defend arranged marriage and the Indian family system. There’s been online commentary about “listening to your parents”. Union minister Kaushal Kishore has blamed live-in relationships for such crimes. It feels like there’s a larger argument here about marriage in India.

The fact that these comments are setting up the Indian family and Indian marriage as a solution to this very tragic situation is actually another tragedy. Let us indeed use this moment to look at Indian marriages and families.

To start with, look at the official government data on crimes against women, brought out every year by the National Crimes Records Bureau. These are based on recorded crimes in police stations, and are therefore undercounting what may actually be happening on the ground.

Under crimes against women in 2020, as in previous years, by far the highest number of crimes that are recorded are under section 498A, which is cruelty by husband and relatives.

Now, “husband and relatives” is everybody’s definition of a woman’s family in India. This would make the Indian family responsible for the highest rate of crimes against women according to officially recorded FIRs. This outstrips, by far, recorded rapes and even cases of sexual harassment. However, dominant social ideas tell us that families are spaces of safety and that the greatest danger lurks from strangers in public spaces after nightfall.

But in reality, the most dangerous spaces for women are in their marital homes. These cases are happening in the most conventional arranged marriages, where women did indeed “listen to their parents” and elders.

Everyday the inside pages of the newspapers give some coverage to cases of wives being attacked, dowry being demanded and so on. These are considered routine and not worthy of further attention.

So to those who think that the traditional “Indian family” is the solution to all problems, I say please do take a careful look at the Indian family. Why do our families show such high rates of abuse and cruelty?

The other data that desperately needs more attention, and is barely discussed, is suicide. In the early years of their marriage, wives are pushed into taking their own lives. In many states, the official rates are higher than rates of farmer suicides, but have received no public attention. While farmer suicides have been examined as a sign of an agricultural and rural crisis nothing similar has happened in the case of these wives.

What is it about our marriage system that creates a crisis in the lives of newly married women rather than the expected companionship and care? Those who blindly praise existing marriage and family arrangements are quite out of touch with its realities and the violence that it produces.

An undated photograph of Shraddha Walkar. Credit: PTI.

There has been a lot of violent abuse and also how much more complicated things become when you are in a live-in relationship, which is also drawing a lot of focus – that they were living together and why she didn’t leave. How do we understand such relationships in our society, where these are treated as anomalies or something wrong requiring correction, especially if they involve an inter-caste or inter-community relationship?

According to reports in this particular case, Shraddha and Aaftab did not have the support of their families. Rather than having more freedom in such a relationship, most women are placed in an even more vulnerable position. Where is she supposed to go if she needs help? We hear about one friend that she sometimes turns to, but there does not seem to be any real support system.

This is what makes self-choice relationships, whether within marriage or especially as a live-in relationship, particularly vulnerable. You’re not getting even the minimum kind of support that everybody needs to survive. We all need people around us.

To call live-in relationships a space of more freedom is not correct, given the dominant social structures. Most women end up bargaining for a kind of marriage-like structure, hoping to rely on familial support when things go wrong, given that there are bound to be occasional problems.

In a live-in relationship, women are taking the risk of choosing companionship, love and care from a particular partner, while being invariably denied any of the other support that is supposed to come with marriage. So, there is a need to rethink the nature of conventional marriages – the costs and problems they often involve – to then recognise the extreme vulnerability of those who choose their own partners.

Police personnel at the Mehrauli forest during their investigation on November 15. Credit: PTI.

What implications do you feel such an incident will have for women’s freedom and autonomy?

First of all, we need a much more substantial understanding of what is freedom and autonomy, and who has freedom and autonomy. Why is freedom and autonomy defined only in terms of sexual choices, choices of people to live with? That alone is a very incomplete picture.

Why do women stay in bad relationships and not leave? Freedom and autonomy ought to mean that they are free to enter or to exit from self-choice relationships. . In order for this to be possible, there has to be some freedom and autonomy at the economic level of one’s own livelihood.

The current news is full of the nature of their relationship, the abuse, all the forensic horror and fascination of what happened to the victim and to her body afterwards. But what information do we have about her life, her work? Did she even have a job? Who took care of the household? Why don’t we hear any of these kinds of details that would give us some basis for thinking more fully about autonomy and freedom?

What does it take for someone to be able to be in a position of real, sustainable, choice? It requires economic, social, sexual autonomy and interdependency– it requires all these dimensions of living so that you have that space from which you can negotiate relationships in your life.

How many single women are there in our society? Only the tiny numbers who never marry or think that they could actually live on their own, able to engage in relationships with some measure of freedom.

These numbers are so small though they ought to be much larger, because our society and our economy considers women as dependents, neither giving them value nor encouraging them to support themselves and those they care for.

We need to redefine what we mean by freedom and autonomy such that it has a more genuine, a more thorough basis from which women could decide whether they wish to live with someone or not, and whether they wish to marry or not.

The terrible murder of Shraddha Walkar should become a moment of greater introspection on the part of those who place so much faith in Indian marriages and families.

Also read: What the Delhi murder says about Indian masculinity and everyday violence against women

Every 11 minutes, a woman or girl is killed by an intimate partner or family member, says UN chief