The murder of Shraddha Walkar has generated a lot of interest, not just in the gruesome details but also about her boyfriend-murderer Aftab Poonawalla. People have sought out his social media profiles to leave comments that express anger, shock and pain. Media outlets have recreated scenes via animations or dispatched their journalists to the Mehrauli forest, where the chopped-up parts of her body were disposed of by Poonawalla. Human beings have always been fascinated by the nature of evil. We are told that evil is the antithesis of good and that in matters of morality, grey areas do not exist. In such a world, how does one make sense of this crime?
One way to approach it is to sensitise ourselves about the dynamics of abusive and toxic relationships. It would be prudent if the media, instead of poring over every brutal detail of the crime, brought in psychologists who can speak about trauma. Perhaps we need more awareness of trauma bonding, a psychological phenomenon due to which the abuse victim is unable to leave the abuser. It might stop the litany of questions thrown at the deceased victim, among which the main one is, “Why didn’t she leave?”
The lack of awareness about the complex nature of abuse, and the ability of abusers to gaslight and manipulate victims is reflected in the communal angle being given to the crime. Prima facie, it seems that the suspect is a psychopath who felt no remorse and carried on with his life after murdering his partner. It also appears that he was on the extreme end of the narcissistic spectrum and must have manipulated Walkar to the extent that she felt depressed.
A victim of abuse is unable to share how they feel when they are being abused; they are trapped in the vicious cycle of abuse, which resembles a pattern of drug addiction. Like an addict who goes back for the high, the abused victim goes back to the abuser for love and affection. They seek to stop the abuse by changing their own behaviour. They think that by pleasing their abusers, their relationship will go back to the “love bombing” phase. When cases of abuse become public, we see that women are often not believed. Does it take murder for a woman to be believed?
Walkar seems to have no dignity in death, as her choices and her actions are being denigrated by all and sundry. The moral police are using this case to reinforce the patriarchy upon educated women who exercise free choice, terming the ‘liberalism’ of live-in relationships as the root cause of the murder. But the root of the matter is that women have few safe spaces and sometimes, what are red flags might appear as a loving, safe space to someone.
There are numerous cases of serial killers appearing as hapless victims to entrap women; cult gurus sexually abusing women and children in the guise of preaching polygamy. As a society, we have a voracious appetite for films and documentaries about serial killers. But why are there fewer profiles of men accused of domestic violence, even though the threat of domestic violence is much more prevalent for women that the chances of encountering a serial killer? It is strange that most of us are aware of the dynamics of serial killing but not about gendered violence like domestic violence, which occurs much more.
The fascination with serial killers and psychopaths shows us how we love to fetishise others’ trauma. This is happening on social media with the trauma of Shraddha Walkar. Because of the nature of global mass media, we are consuming content about violence. We are all privy to the ghastly details of the murder but not about the nuances of domestic abuse.
How many of us will believe a friend if they choose to tell us about abuse by an intimate partner? Wouldn’t we wash our hands off it because we don’t want to ‘meddle’ or get in the middle of two people? “Sort it out yourself,” is how most people respond to victims of domestic violence.
This murder should bring the focus back to gendered violence in India. While many of us may not be able to spot a psychopath, we can easily spot red flags in relationships we have with other people. The need of the hour is more awareness and empathy towards survivors of abuse and gendered violence. Abuse victims should be taken for counselling; they should be helped with breaking trauma bonds and disengaging with the abuser. Parents need to create safe spaces in their homes so that women do not feel scared to share intimate stuff. Notions of “honour” and “chastity”, which further pin the blame on women, should now be done away with.
We need to stop romanticising and fetishising the perpetrators of gendered violence and create more safe spaces for women. It is heartbreaking that Shraddha died believing in true love and did not have access to safety. But we need to now give her dignity in death and stop assassinating her character for exercising her choices.
The victim blaming that is rampant on social media, the memes and the “love jihad” angle are all sad spectacles of the lack of collective empathy. Shraddha Walkar deserved better in life and now in death.
Isha Singh has recently completed her doctorate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has worked on inter-generational trauma and memory of the Holocaust and has taught communication and English.