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The last time Shraddha Walkar's father Vikas Walkar spoke to her was in mid-2021, over the phone. This was almost a year before she was murdered, allegedly by her live-in partner Aaftab Amin Poonawala in May 2022 in Delhi's Chhatarpur.
Speaking to The Quint, Vikas said, "I didn't approve of the relationship because his religion is different from ours."
Shraddha Walkar was practically cut off from her family, who claim to have no idea that she was in an abusive relationship. Her friends, on the other hand, knew about Aaftab's alleged assaults – until all communication stopped in mid-May this year.
Details about how Shraddha's body was allegedly chopped into 35 pieces and disposed of across Delhi emerged on 14 November, two days after the accused – 28-year-old Aaftab – was arrested by the Delhi Police. In its 6,600-page-long charge sheet in relation to case, accessed by The Quint earlier in February, the Delhi Police wrote:
“…Tortured and tormented Shraddha decided to break up with the accused several times but she could not because she had no support system and she was largely banking on the accused, or rather, she was at no return point.”
How did no one try to reach Shraddha since May?
"This is very common for women in interfaith and inter-caste marriages. They are cut off, practically disowned by their families, making it more difficult for them to not only speak about their abuse but also seek help."Kavita Krishnan, Feminist Activist & Author, told The Quint
Feminist activists say that while abuse is the responsibility of the abuser, one must not forget how silence and isolation enable the person, leading to brutal incidents like the Shraddha Walkar case.
"In this case, the father had not spoken to her for over a year. There are families – irrespective of their educational and financial background – who do not talk to their daughters for years because they got married or is in a relationship they do not approve of. Where do women go in such a situation, when there is a complete lack of support system?"Shabnam Hashmi, Social Activist and Human Rights Campaigner
Internalised Guilt & 'I Told You So'
It is harder for women in interfaith and inter-caste relationships to seek help against domestic abuse, because in most cases, the family 'verbally disowns' them.
"Even if they do not disown and merely disapprove of her relationship, she will still hesitate to complain about her partner for fear it will confirm their prejudices," Kavita Krishnan elaborated. Then, there is the internalised guilt.
"Survivors of abuse – in marriages and relationships that do not conform to the so-called societal norms – hesitate to even talk about it or consider their options because they chose their partner despite all odds. They want their family and friends to be there for them, not say 'I told you so,'" Krishnan told The Quint.
Shraddha's 59-year-old father, too, had a similar response.
"I told her not to live with him. Yeh galat hai. I told her to not take this relationship forward…. Nahi toh biraadari se baahar nikal jao. She didn't listen to me."
Isolation Is Exactly What the Abuser Wants
A Delhi Commission for Women counsellor, who works on the ground in north Delhi, noted that isolation is exactly what the abuser wants. As a part of her day-to-day work, she counsels women in distress, including those in interfaith and inter-caste relationships.
"From what I have seen, men who are abusive want their partners to be isolated, because they know that no one will notice signs of emotional and physical abuse. For example, in Shraddha's case, Aaftab would have known that no one would try to reach out to Shraddha immediately – neither her family nor her friends because she was cut off from them. She actually took a very hard decision to stay, because she had no other choice. It makes abusers emboldened," she says.
This is true, asserted Hashmi.
"The first thing that an abuser wants is to cut off the woman's relationship with her mother. When men know that their partner is being watched, that she might tell her parents who will stand up for her, or that she might reach out to helplines, they are more cautious. This is why the first thing any abuser wants to do is to cut off his partner's communication lines. It is the first red flag."
Self-Doubt About Their Decision-Making
Madhubala, a feminist activist, who was working with Jagori NGO, explained that apart from the internalised guilt, women in such marriages also develop self-doubt over their decision-making.
"I don't want to mince my words but our society is casteist, communal, and anti-women. It does not like it when women go beyond the role defined for them. And, when women do not conform to it, like by choosing their partner, families make two things clear – You do not belong to us, you are on your own," Madhubala said, adding that, when the relationship turns abusive, the survivors start questioning themselves and not their partner."
"I have seen multiple cases where the families say – 'Dekha tumne yeh decision li. Hum the tumhare saath, ab kaun hai? Do you really think you can stand on your own?' But women just want to hear that their families are with them and that they can come back to their parents or friends' homes in such a situation. I cannot stress enough how emotionally taxing it is for women to come out with their stories."Madhubala to The Quint
Hashmi added, "There is a very small fraction of families in India that tell women that it is their right to live with dignity."
'Demand Better': What Can Be Done?
Feminist activists say that we, as a society, must demand better – put the interest of women and survivors ahead of the political issue of communalising interfaith relationships.
"Not just domestic abuse, women who are in 'love marriages' or 'relationships' hesitate to even say that their partner is alcoholic, or their marriage is increasingly becoming toxic. If parents and communities make it clear to women and stand with them, it will make a difference," Krishnan said.
"Whether it is the state government or the central government, put pressure on the elected representatives for sustained, non-judgmental and respectful justice."
"As someone who works with survivors of domestic violence, there are not enough shelter homes in the country. When we are working on the rehabilitation of one survivor, activists do not have the resources to work on another. There are times when we take survivors to our homes and offices because they have nowhere else to go. The system has completely let down women, and is not doing much to fix it."Shabnam Hashmi to The Quint
"The issue is not men from one community being abusive towards women from another community. Making this the focus simply surpasses the actual cause," added Krishnan.
(This was first published on 16 November 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after Delhi Police's charge sheet in the Shraddha Walkar case.)
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