The Darshan-Vijayalakshmi episode underlines society's high tolerance for abuse of women

The account of Kannada actor Darshan Toogudeepa allegedly brutally beating and burning with a cigarette his wife Vijayalakshmi has seen many cinematic turns ever since it was first reported late last week.

While the FIR filed by Ms. Vijayalakshmi graphically laid bare a series of episodes that clearly point to sustained domestic violence over the years, Kannada film industry bigwigs lined up before the hospital where she was admitted to counsel her to “save the family”. This eventually led to the embattled wife agreeing to retract the charges, though it did not save the actor from being taken into judicial custody as they were grave and non-compoundable.

Woman victimised

In another bizarre development that further highlights the entrenched patriarchal values in the industry, the Kannada Film Producers' Association decided to ban actor Nikhita Tukral, alleged to have a relationship with Darshan, leading to discord between him and Ms. Vijayalakshmi.

Ironically, while the alleged perpetrator of violence who stands accused in the eye of law received full support and sympathy from the industry, the woman, with no proven charges against her, faced the wrath of the moral police.

The incident yet again highlights domestic violence and how it continues to have wide acceptability in our society, across the class divide, despite stringent laws to tackle it. It also highlights the strength and resilience of attitudes that privilege notions such as “saving family honour” over the fundamental right of a woman to a life of dignity.

2005 cases in city

According to C. Manjula, Chairperson of the Karnataka State Women's Commission, protection officers (nominated by the State Government under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, to conduct enquiries into cases of violence) received 2,005 cases of domestic violence in Bangalore city alone in 2010. “These are only DV Act cases. There may be more booked under other laws,” she says.

Marital disharmony, leading often to violence, is high among the cases reported to Vanita Sahaya Vani, women's helpline run by the Bangalore City Police. For instance, records of July this year show that 46 out of 107 cases were related to marital discord, with dowry harassment coming next at 21.

Only so far

Mahalakshmi B.S., family counsellor with Janodaya Santwana Kendra in Koramangala, says that most women reach out for help only in the worst case scenario. Even when they do, they often only expect a person of authority to summon the husband and counsel him to mend his ways. Santwana Kendras are centres for women in distress run by the Department of Women and Child Development.

“In 9 out of 10 cases, women don't want to approach the police or court. This is, firstly, because they don't want their reputation tarnished, and secondly, because they cannot afford the time and money,” says Ms. Mahalakshmi. Moreover, the families often advise the women to “adjust”.

Ms. Mahalakshmi points out that the situation, ironically, does not always work in the woman's favour when she is financially strong. “We have had cases where a woman who earns better is abused because the husband feels threatened,” she says.

Across classes

Aarti Mundkur, advocate who has taken up several domestic violence cases, says that the common perception that only women from poor socio-economic backgrounds suffer domestic violence is far from true.

“In fact, because of the privacy that wealthier women are accorded, it is easier for them to conceal and hide the situation,” she says.

Even in cases where they complain, the pressure on women from “respectable” families to strike a compromise to save the reputation is high, as borne out by the Darshan episode, adds Ms. Mundkur.

Role of law

What role has the law then played to deter violence against women? For one, attempts at conciliation seem to begin only when the woman picks up the courage to speak up because the law is strong. “Until then, the abuse of the wife is perceived by many as a matter of right,” says Ms. Manjula.

Positive sign

Ms. Mundkur believes that more women are now stepping out to report violence. Laws enacted to address domestic violence can only be of use when and if they are enforced irrespective of who the complainant is.

“At the end of the day, if we as a society cannot stand up and say that domestic violence cannot be excused as a minor infraction, the situation will not improve, no matter how good the law is,” she adds.