Over the past few weeks, two young men in Delhi have made headlines for the gruesome murder of their girlfriends. Both young men, unhappy that their girlfriends wanted to end their respective relationships, responded by murdering the two women. They allegedly wanted to “punish” these women for seeking to break-up with them.
The first young man, Anuj Singh, a 21-year-old final-year sociology student at Shiv Nadar University, shot his girlfriend at close range at the university campus and then proceeded to shoot himself on May 18. The second young man, 20-year-old Sahil Khan, first stabbed his girlfriend 22 times on a crowded street in Delhi and then bludgeoned her to death on May 28. Both men claimed they had allegedly been “wronged” by the two women.
These chilling murders are without a doubt the most gruesome form of men’s gendered violence towards women. But what is also an important and equally chilling detail is the galling sense of being “heart-broken victims” that these men espouse in an attempt to justify and account for their violence.
For example, Singh produced a 23 minute video-recording reflecting on his actions, before murdering his girlfriend. In the video he said, “She broke my heart, she will break other people’s hearts, someone has to punish her, so I’ll do it…” For Singh, it seems justified to “teach” her a lesson.
Similarly, according to media reports, Khan has been unapologetic showing no remorse for his actions whilst in police custody. He murdered his girlfriend in full public glare, merely 300 metres away from her home, allegedly when their relationship soured and she started “ignoring” his calls and messages.
Whatever the reasons for their relationship not working out, these young men’s entitlement at “teaching” women a lesson is a chilling sentiment that needs to be taken seriously. Media reports in both cases indicated that the young women attempted to distance themselves from the two young men as their relationship was breaking-down – but the men did not like this.
Sneha Chaurasia, for example, reportedly complained to university authorities multiple times about Singh’s behaviour, but no action was taken. Likewise, Sakshi had apparently shown Khan a gun, which the police believe was a toy, in an attempt to get rid of him and his unwanted advances and end the relationship. These women were not ambivalent about exiting these relationships, but that seems to have been unacceptable to the young men in question.
As a scholar of young men and masculinities in India, these cases are not simply about one or two bad young men. Rather, they point to the dire state of young men and their warped and dangerous understanding of being a man in India that is linked to the broader gender inequities and sexual culture that prevails. It also reveals the deep sense of entitlement of both men over their girlfriends and their inability to fathom women as sexual citizens.
In a patriarchal and heterosexist social system, women are seen as passive sexual objects, whereas men as active sexual citizens. Men are required to “chase” women, talk to them and coax them into romance and sex. Men decide when to start or end a relationship with women.
Whereas “good” women are not sexually active agents – they do not control and lead their own sexual and romantic lives. Women choosing whom they have sex with or form or end relationships with begins to threaten the way young men’s masculinity and sense of being a man are constructed. Essentially, women have no sexual choice or agency in the eyes of these men.
Hence, ideas of “punishing” women, or “teaching them a lesson” start to seem justified for young men who think of these women as “acting out of line”. This dangerous and regressive idea can lead to a situation where young men like Singh and Khan think that they are “heart-broken victims”, who have been wronged by women.
These masculine forms of power and entitlement over women reveal not just the violence and inequality of the gendered and sexual lives of men and women in India today, but also point to the grave dangers to women entering and exiting sexual or romantic relationships with men.
Young women, in exercising their basic sexual rights to decide when and how to engage with their sexual partners, are deemed “bad girls” with corrupted morals. Feminists have long challenged these ideas and the narrow framing of women’s lives. Yet, men like Singh and Khan continue extreme forms of violence towards their intimate partners for the most minor forms of sexual choice.
While such violence is executed by men, it is not merely a problem of the men in question, but something rooted in the wider culture of men and masculinities that legitimise how gender, sex, love and desire operate in Indian society. Thus, women entering relationships with men do so at great personal risk, because a patriarchal masculine culture not only devalues and derides but also invisiblises gendered and sexual inequalities in India.
Throughout my research with young men in Delhi, this remained a constant theme. More and more young men seemed to get into romantic and sexual relationships with women with ease. Yet, at the same time, women were routinely framed as cheating, unreliable, promiscuous, greedy and untrustworthy. Young men painted themselves as victims who were allegedly under great strain and being taken for a ride by women. In my book, Becoming Young Men in a New India, I chronicle the many complexities of young men and their warped sense of being “victims”, whilst treating their girlfriends with violence and in appalling and sexist ways.
To address these dangerous inequalities, it is important to understand how these complex masculine cultures operate, whom they implicate and why they continue unabated.
While notions of love and dating might be transforming, what is not changing at the same pace are structures of masculine privilege and entitlement. Young men need to fully understand the value and stakes of women’s sexual citizenship and agency, whilst redefining their intimate relationships by seeing women as companions and not just mere sex objects.
Shannon Philip is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of East Anglia, UK. His latest book is entitled Becoming Young Men in a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence, recently published by Cambridge University Press.