The past week has been dominated by high politics: the chequered rise of Narendra Modi, the pendulum moves of LK Advani, the tremors in the NDA. The days ahead portend much more as the breakup of the NDA and the emergence of a Third Front “East Bloc” — an axis of “backward states” — becomes more imminent. But as we saw last week, a few hours could reverse all of this as well. Tehelka’s cover this issue analyses much of this and more. Perhaps then, it is fit to focus a little attention on a less public event.
This week also saw the suicide of actress Jiah Khan — at the poignant age of 25. Ordinarily, this would’ve been just one more tragic trace in the neurotic, kaleidoscopic world of showbiz. One would have meditated on the keen hungers of that acetylene world, its desire for fame and money and perpetual limelight, the ease with which one can get trapped in its beautiful make-believe patterns, and how hard its crashing aftermaths of anonymity can be.
But the arrest of her live-in boyfriend Suraj Pancholi — four years younger than her — for “abetment to suicide” has cracked open a whole other debate. Soon after her death, letters were discovered in Jiah’s room where she spoke of “losing herself” in her love for him, and how she could not bear his refusal to commit to marriage. She also spoke of the trauma of aborting a baby and wrote, “I don’t know why destiny brought us together. After all the pain, the rape, the abuse, the torture I have seen previously. I didn’t deserve this.” Reportedly, she hung herself soon after he sent her a “break-up bouquet”.
If indeed Pancholi raped her or was habitually violent with her, his arrest is warranted, but the wording of her letter is ambiguous. Does the word “previously” refer to him, or does it stretch back to someone in an earlier dark phase of her life? Did she speak of this to anyone? Her death, in many ways, makes it very hard, if not impossible, to ascertain whether Pancholi raped her. On the face of it, she seems to have continued in the relationship, continued to love him, continued to wish for marriage. The equation of that is difficult to understand.
Apart from this allegation of rape, therefore, Pancholi’s arrest for “abetment to suicide” raises many troubling questions. Can one be jailed for a consensual love affair gone sour? Can one be held responsible for another’s suicide on the ground that there’s been a betrayal in love? That one partner proved too fragile for the inexplicable wear and tear of the heart?
Fortunately, several Supreme Court judgments have stated that “abetment to suicide” — which is an offence under Section 306 of the IPC and is punishable with a maximum 10 years of rigorous imprisonment — must constitute a “proven intent” or “positive act” by the accused “to instigate or aid the committing of suicide”.
But a fair application of the law is only one facet of the prism. Jiah’s desolate sense of rejection also exposes a much more complex and continuing faultline in India: between old mindsets and new ways.
In the past, abandonment or romantic betrayal in India was linked with the idea of shame and humiliation because it was supposed to leave the woman with no respect and no future: she was deemed “damaged goods”. But in the modern, high-urban India that Jiah was a part of, none of this holds good any longer. In this world, relationships are voluntary, individualistic, fluid: in a word, they epitomise choice. They make and break at will (or else, of course, they last a lifetime at will); they are heterosexual, bisexual, gay; being a non-virgin does not mean you cannot marry; remarriage carries no stigma; and sex is no sin even if casual.
The heartache of this world — the heartache of two young 20-year-olds who decide to live together then fall apart — can be huge and hard to bear. But surely, as long as such arrangements are not coerced, a refusal to commit to marriage — or even going back on such a promise — should not evoke any aspect of India’s penal code?
Unless we want to wind ourselves back into a narrow, judgemental time, one must embrace the right to individualism ever more intensely — and find the survival strategies for its downsides. Jiah — beautiful and talented as she was — should have walked out on her petulant boyfriend and proudly kept her child, if she wanted to. We can grieve that she felt too broken to do this. But — unless there is grievous proof there was more to it — we should beware of jailing anyone for it.