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India: "Wife-beating diplomat" shames nation

The Anil Verma case exposes the extent to which India condones domestic abuse.

A Kashmiri woman in Srinagar, May 11, 2009. (Rouf Bhat/AFP/Getty Images)

MUMBAI, India — “Envoy shames India.” “India-UK diplomatic row.” “Diplomatic cover for domestic violence?” “Wife beating hardly diplomatic.” These are some recent headlines peppering Indian news outlets.

Put plainly, the case of a senior Indian diplomat allegedly beating up his wife at their London home has caused quite a stir. Indians are debating everything from the role of diplomatic immunity to what extent one allegedly violent husband can shame an entire nation.

But perhaps most strikingly, the case reflects India’s complicated relationship with and often tolerance for domestic violence. In India, many communities still condone marital abuse.

Here's what occurred in this most recent high-profile case: According to press reports, Anil Verma, who ranked third in the Indian High Commission in London, became angry with his wife, Paromita Verma, over a gift of a Christmas tree by her relatives last December. The couple fought, and Paromita Verma ran crying into the street in their quiet neighborhood in north London with blood dripping from her face.

The British Foreign Office wanted India to waive the husband’s diplomatic immunity, which would have left him open to suit in Britain. India declined and instead recalled the diplomat last week. The government then announced an inquiry into the domestic violence allegations. Paromita Verma went into hiding with her 5-year-old son from a previous marriage and has since applied to the British home office to stay in the country.

It is all rather high-drama, given Anil Verma's position as a high-ranking government official. But the case of the "wife-beating diplomat," as he has been dubbed by the media, highlights how everyday domestic violence is in India.

Reflecting a long-held belief that fighting between a husband and wife should be kept as an intimate, marital affair, some television commentators have blamed Paromita Verma for putting the issue in the public eye and argued she should have handled the matter privately. Others have accused her of making a fuss out of a single incident because she wanted an excuse to get British citizenship for her and her son.

“Some of the discussions on TV have been quite appalling,” said Kalpana Sharma, journalist and editor of “Missing Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters.” The commentaries have reflected the general attitude among many men that this should not be made into such a big deal, and the family should settle the problem privately. “I think that attitude is the worrying part,” Sharma said.

And yet, the case has also generated disgust. Indian TV journalist and celebrity Barkha Dutt sent a Twitter message to her followers: “National pride lies in acting swiftly against men who abuse, not worrying about a possible PR problem their trial may bring.”

Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath demanded “strong action” taken against people in power who commit offenses like Verma, and the Indian High Commission called domestic violence “totally unacceptable.”

Domestic violence affects a wide section of Indian society with 35 percent of women aged 15 to 49 having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. Spousal violence has caused an injury in at least one in seven married or divorced women.

“Definitely there is a feeling that beating wives is not a big thing,” said Madhumita Das at the International Center for Research on Women’s Asia regional office. She added that the statistics do not even show the true extent of the problem. “In most of the cases a woman doesn’t report [the abuse] because of fear.”

Given the low status of women in many segments of Indian society, a high level of violence against them may not be altogether surprising. Activists argue that women face discrimination at each stage of life, resulting in everything from female feticide and the neglect of girl children to child marriage and disregard for widows.

“Violence against women has a lot to do with patriarchal values which are not challenged within our educational system. Once deeply engrained it is very difficult to dislodge them,” Noor Jehan Safia Niaz of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement) wrote in an email. Domestic violence therefore continues in India “unabated.”

Some women who face abuse have nowhere to go. There are few women’s shelters, and women are likely to be financially dependent on their husbands.

Likewise, many families and communities pressure women to stay with abusive husbands and accommodate their behavior rather than go through the public humiliation of divorce, according to Leena Joshi, the director of Apnalaya, an organization working with women and families in Mumbai’s slums.

But while India has a long way to go in stamping out domestic violence, the country has made gains in raising awareness about marital abuse as a crime and one that must not be tolerated, say gender specialists.