A nation's reputation suffers a beating

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am

Reeling from embarrassment at the damage done to its image, India has recalled a senior diplomat, Anil Verma, who was posted in the Indian High Commission in Britain, after he was arrested for allegedly beating his wife Paromita at their London home. Neighbours saw Paromita Verma running out of the house, her face bloodied, screaming for help.

Instead of recalling him, New Delhi should have agreed to the British government's request to waive his diplomatic immunity (which Verma invoked at the police station) and let them prosecute him in Britain on domestic violence charges. Such a gesture might have caused further mortification, if and when the case came to trial, but at least it would have sent a strong signal to Indian men that violence against women is a vile crime that cannot be tolerated.

If Verma is to be tried in India, his wife will have to return to file a case against him. But, since she has gone into hiding with their five-year-old son, this is not likely to happen. Even if she returns, there are several reasons for not having the trial in India.

First, the Indian legal system fails to deliver justice. With an estimated 30 million cases stuck in the courts, Verma could be senile and doddery by the time any verdict is delivered. He would be released on bail and, while the case ground its way through the courts over the decades, everyone would forget about it and he would get on with his life undisturbed, except for the occasional court appearance. This month, a couple in their 80s were finally granted a divorce after an application was first made in 1982.

Second, the pressure on his wife to withdraw the charges would be immense. Indian culture, barring the tiny liberal elite, still dictates that a wife must be dutiful, loyal and obedient no matter how badly she is battered. Government statistics show that one in five married women experience domestic violence and 75 per cent of victims do not seek help owing to concern for 'family honour'.

The ethos of submission is so ingrained that a shocking number of women, particularly in rural areas, calmly say in surveys that men are justified in beating their wives, the better to 'control' them or as punishment for 'crimes' such as not getting the dinner ready on time.

Third, the rich and powerful in India never feel the force of the law; they are invariably bailed out by their friends in the establishment. The only hope of any punishment for Verma, if he is guilty of the alleged crime, would be disciplinary proceedings against him by the Ministry of External Affairs.

But, judging by its conduct so far, he will probably suffer no more than a slap on the wrist. That, too, will be more for embarrassing India than for any alleged crime against his wife.

Why would his wife seek refuge in Britain if she were confident of getting justice in India? She has said she fears being forcibly taken back to India. Her desire to remain in Britain is another source of embarrassment to India. What does it say about the judicial system when even an educated and affluent woman feels it cannot grant her justice?

Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based writer