This is not, perhaps, the best time for the police in Calcutta to set themselves up as marriage counsellors. Most would agree that confronting the brutality within their own ranks would be a better means of achieving social harmony. But the police in Salt Lake are planning to set up a panel of experts which would deal with cases arising from what the police perceive to be marital discord. This panel, to which individuals and their spouses would be referred by the police, would act as a filter, cutting down the number of people who would go to court with their complaints. But the declared point of the exercise is to give the couples a chance to patch up. All this sounds well-intentioned and holistic, until one realizes that the idea is in response to the number of atrocities against married women — usually more than 50 every year — the police have to deal with in the Salt Lake area. And these include the burning, poisoning and torturing of women by in-laws or husbands because of dowry or property-related feuds.
Everything is wrong — dangerously and demeaningly wrong — about this approach. Setting up a buffer of “experts” between an abused woman and the law could become an insidious means of denying her justice, or of complicating her access to it. This panel, the police intimate, will consist of gynaecologists and psychologists, among others. But violence against women in their matrimonial abode is not exactly a gynaecological crisis. The fundamental problem with this way of dealing with criminal behaviour against women lies in a profoundly regressive attitude to the sanctity of marriage. A woman must adjust and accommodate, and “keep” her marriage, instead of disruptively dragging it out into the public legal arena. A burnt or battered wife, or one fighting for her rights to property, may not feel secure or empowered after a chat with a doctor. This is precisely the attitude which informed the revised domestic violence bill which met with so much opposition from more sensible quarters last year. What most women need in such situations are clarity of legal definition (of what constitutes “domestic violence”, for instance), and equality in the eyes of law and its keepers. Expert advice on how to make it work again could end up being brutally condescending and conservative.