In 2015, the Sheena Bora murder case made headlines for the grotesque manner in which the crime was committed. Reams of newsprint and hours of TV programming were devoted to chronicling sordid details about Sheena’s mother Indrani Mukherjea’s personal life and criminal tendencies. Indrani was accused of killing her daughter, and of plotting to kill her son, Mekhail. In these acts, she reportedly had the active connivance of one of her former spouses, even as her present husband claimed to have been ‘unaware’ of this side of her personality.
But in the din and theatrics around the Sheena Bora murder case, one glaring anomaly screamed out for attention. That anomaly is the murky truth behind the Indian family ideal. In effect, the Sheena Bora murder case has painted a deplorable picture of one particular Indian family. To some, more appalling than the alleged act of murder itself, is the façade of normalcy that surrounded this family unit.
And while such a shocking reality may not apply across the board, many have begun questioning the almost-holy aura that surrounds families in India.
The Numbers Tell A Different Story
Statistics point out how most crimes in a family in India – rape, child abuse, murder, domestic violence — are committed by close family members, relatives and friends.
In 2014 (records for later years are unavailable), according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the total number of rape cases registered in the country was 37,413. Out of these, the number of cases in which offenders were known to victims was 32,187, a shocking 86%! Among these, the total number of cases in which offenders were related to the victim was 12,207. These relatives included the victim’s grandfather, father, brother, son, close family members and other relatives.
Again, according to NCRB figures, 89,423 cases of crimes against children, including incest rape, were registered in the year 2014. Among the perpetrators, a very high percentage was known to the victims.
Given the high rate of crimes against women and children committed inside homes, it may finally be time for the ideal of the ‘great Indian family’ to be laid to rest. Also, the same ideal — which makes better economic sense than single-unit households — needs to be critically, dispassionately examined. This will not only work toward providing redressal to victims of such violence, it might help prevent further crimes of a similar nature.
According to UNICEF, violence against children can be “physical and mental abuse and injury, neglect or negligent treatment, exploitation and sexual abuse. Violence may take place in homes, schools, orphanages, residential care facilities, on the streets, in the workplace, in prisons and in places of detention.”
CHILD ABUSE has many forms: physical, emotional, sexual, neglect, and exploitation. Any of these that are potentially or actually harmful to a child’s health, survival, dignity and development constitute abuse.
PHYSICAL ABUSE is when a child has been physically harmed due to some interaction or lack of interaction by another person, which could have been prevented by any person in a position of responsibility, trust or power.
EMOTIONAL ABUSE can be seen as a failure to provide a supportive environment and primary attachment figure for a child so that they may develop a full and healthy range of emotional abilities. Examples of these acts are restricting movement, threatening, scaring, discriminating, ridiculing and belittling.
SEXUAL ABUSE is engaging a child in any sexual activity that he/she does not understand or cannot give informed consent for or is not physically, mentally or emotionally prepared for.
NEGLECT or NEGLIGENT TREATMENT is purposeful omission of some or all developmental needs of the child by a caregiver with the intention of harming the child. This includes the failure of protecting the child from a harmful situation or environment when feasible.
But most cases of such physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect are never reported. After all, the perpetrators are the very people that a child trusts most in the world. It’s traumatic to imagine the agony and emotional damage such acts cause to children.
A case in point is Meeta Tripathi (not her real name), who grew up in Central India and was repeatedly abused by a cousin till she left her joint family home at age 18. “The first time he did it, I was 12 years old and he was 14. I didn’t know what to do, who to speak to and what to tell them. After that, my cousin would sneak up on me at night and continued the abuse till I finally left that house,” she says. “I had the feeling that my mother and other women relatives knew what was going on. But I could not speak to them and they never asked me if something was wrong,” adds Meeta.
Child abuse in India is often carefully hidden behind the fictitious concept of family ‘honour’, particularly when it happens inside the home and is committed by family members. Families in India still have this ‘holy aura’ that somehow seems to make heinous crimes go unreported and unpunished.
Consequently, since most of them go unreported, it is hard to obtain the exact numbers of cases of such abuse. This is partly due to the structure of family in India, where children are completely dependent on their parents and elders. Worse, they continue to have submissive or obedient roles towards their parents even after moving out of their parents’ home and shifting to an independent living environment.
No Legal Recourse
The belief that parents and family are the sole caretakers of the child has negatively impacted upon child protection laws and strategies. As a result, India still does not have a law that protects children from abuse inside home. Mal-treatment by care givers has the potential to emotionally and mentally harm children to a very ‘different’ degree. Studies in intra-familial child abuse in the US have shown correlation to delinquency, crime, teenage pregnancy, and other psychosocial problems.
Anuradha Mishra (not her real name) grew up in an upper middle class home, with a bureaucrat father and influential relatives. Her story is hair-raising. “I grew up in a high-strung, abusive, staunchly religious and ritualistic family environment. My father was an authoritarian man, who once threatened me, saying, ‘Tujhko chaurahe pe nanga khada kar dunga’ (I’ll strip you and make you stand naked on the road) after a boy from school (in Class 8) started following me home and hanging around outside the house. As I grew older, everything I did was under scrutiny, from the clothes I wore to the posters on the wall in my room to what I wrote in my diary. One day, I had put on a figure-hugging t-shirt, which my mother asked me to take off. Her logic was, ‘Tumhara bhai bhi tumhein nazar bharkar nahin dekh sakta’ (With such clothes on, even your brother cannot look at you). I wondered why a brother would want to look at his sister ‘that way’?!” she asks.
Anuradha’s horror story continued after her wedding. When she did not conceive, by choice, after 4 years of marriage, her parents stepped in again. “This time, they took me to meet a Swami from Haryana. When I objected, they said you are a blight on us. They would even ask my husband and in-laws about my sexual health and ‘performance’. The Swami took me inside a room, along with another man. This man asked me to lie down on my back on the floor and then he attempted to have sexual intercourse with me, in the garb of ‘healing’ my reproductive system,” she narrates, still visibly distressed from recounting a 6-year-old incident. “Tell me, what kind of family values are these? What is the psychological make-up of these people, who call themselves your parents and inflict such violence (I consider this a form of violence) on you? Why aren’t there laws to punish such acts?”
Large Family spells Big Money
As with all issues where culpability is glaringly evident but finds no restitution, there is bound to be an economic angle to the glorification of the family ideal. If you have ever found the romanticised depiction of happy families and joint families and festival shopping on television and movies to be suspect, you are not off the mark. A large (with 3 or more members) family certainly makes more economic sense than single-unit households (atleast to the multinational conglomerates in the FMCG sector). Thus, the endless idolisation of the large family and conversely, the censure and castigation of ‘divorcees’ and single parents.
Here’s a convoluted theory, with a Nobel Prize to back it, as proof. The New Home Economics (NHE) model –propounded by Nobel laureate Gary Becker and labour economist Jacob Mincer in the 1960s — is the approach to the study of consumption, labour supply, and other family decisions. NHE centres on the household rather than the individual and emphasizes the importance of household production. In short, NHE declares the primacy and continuance of the household (family) model over the individual (single-unit) model.
When NHE was criticised, in response to data suggesting a lack of progress among women in rising to top positions in the United States, Becker told the Wall Street Journal, “A lot of barriers [to women and Blacks] have been broken down. That’s all for the good. It’s much less clear what we see today is the result of such artificial barriers. Going home to take care of the kids when the man doesn’t: Is that a waste of a woman’s time? There’s no evidence that it is.”
Endless romantic, rainbow-hued depiction of the family as the most important aspect of one’s life has given it a veneer of invincibility. Be it pop culture, movies and commercials, family values seem to be the Holy Grail of the Indian ethos.
But the lived reality of family life in India is a very different truth. The question that needs to be asked is does carrying the flag of imaginary ‘family values’ nullify the crimes committed inside a home? Can these ‘family values’, rooted in exploitative mores, chauvinism and misogynism, ever get to score over an individual – importantly, a dependent, defenceless child – and her right to a life of freedom and dignity?