Harassment or Domestic Violence? The Case of Preity Zinta and Ness Wadia: Amrita Mukhopadhyay


On Friday, 13 June 2014, a well known Bollywood actress Preity Zinta lodged a criminal complaint against her former boyfriend and business associate Ness Wadia, with the Marine Drive Police Station, Mumbai. In this case, the actress brought about criminal charges against a powerful businessman under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The criminal complaint, which forms the basis of the First Information Report (FIR), alleges a range of behaviour that amounts to different crimes under the IPC falling under specific sections categorised as ‘offences affecting the human body’ and offences dealing with ‘criminal intimidation, insult and annoyance’. The first offence of ‘assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty’ under Section 354 of the IPC is a cognizable non-bailable offence liable with imprisonment ranging from one to five years with or without fine. Section 504 of the IPC forms the basis of another offence dealing with breaching ‘public peace’ on account of intentional insult or provocation, is a bailable non-cognizable offence with a maximum punishment of two years in imprisonment with or without fine. Under Section 506 of the IPC, the businessman is accused of criminal intimidation with ‘threat’ that may deal with intention to cause ‘death or grievous hurt’ or ‘destruction of property’ or to ‘impute, unchastity to a woman’. This offence is liable with imprisonment for seven years and is non cognizable and bailable. Finally under Section 509 of the IPC, the businessman stands accused of a cognizable and bailable crime of insulting the ‘modesty’ of a woman based on ‘any word, sound or gesture’ and carries a term of imprisonment for three years with or without a fine.

Ness Wadia dismissed the allegations as ‘false’.

In this maze of criminal charges, the glaring anomaly is the absence of a focus on nature of the relationship between the person who lodged the complaint and against whom the complaint is alleged. While the acts alleged by actress are criminal offences, the acts can also be the basis of allegations of domestic violence under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) and can form the basis for obtaining a Protection Order against the businessman against further acts of violence. However there is a glaring omission of construing the acts of the businessman as acts of domestic violence by the complainant herself as well as those who have commented on the Preity Zinta- Ness Wadia saga in the public space. The actress herself has alleged that the criminal charges have come after ‘several warnings over the years’ and that her intention to lodge a criminal complaint was to ensure that every women has a right to live a life free from ‘violent and aggressive behaviour’ irrespective of the socio- economic background of a woman.

I am not a lawyer and am not in a position to offer legal advice to anyone in the case but the absence of a discussion of domestic violence in the whole affair is revealing of common perceptions on domestic violence in India. Contrary to the western context, where domestic violence is conceptualized in a gender-neutral term as family violence; in India the law on domestic violence – the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA)– directly recognizes that women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence and allows only women to bring charges of domestic violence against a male with whom a woman has been in a close personal relationship. The PWDVA is a civil law, which lays down a broad definition of domestic violence for the first time in India and explicitly recognizes that domestic violence is distinct and unrelated to matrimony (even though the interpretation of the various provisions of the Act by the judiciary have been in the context of matrimony). The definition of domestic violence under the PWDVA includes a range of behaviour going beyond physical assault and recognises that sufferers of domestic violence are often subjected to multiple forms of abuse – physical, sexual, verbal and psychological and economic abuse- which can go beyond specific incidents or acts of domestic violence. Under the PWDVA, if a woman has been in a ‘domestic relationship’ with a perpetrator of violence in a ‘shared household’, she is eligible to lodge a domestic incident report and if required may pursue a legal proceeding under the Act to secure different kinds of relief including a Protection Order under which a Magistrate can forbid the perpetrator from committing specific acts of violence. I am not in a position to know if the two parties lived in a ‘shared household’ in a ‘domestic relationship’ which would fall within the purview of the PWDVA but the account of suffering recounted by Preity Zinta testifies to a conceptualization of the acts of Ness Wadia, as acts of domestic violence.

The case of Preity Zinta – Ness Wadia exemplifies the condition of many sufferers of domestic violence who unlike other victims of crime, share a close personal relationship with the perpetrator of violence at some stage of their life, and only come out openly to voice their suffering (or seek help) after prolonged pattern of tolerating a multitude of abuse. Researchers on domestic violence have argued that sufferers of domestic violence are at a heightened risk of abuse on separation, which is increasingly being termed as ‘separation assault’ in the domestic violence literature.

Rather than looking at the incident at Wankhede Stadium as an isolated incident of harassment, there is need to conceptualise the incident as domestic violence given the nature of the relationship between the two parties. Rather than treating the Wankhede Stadium incident as a random incident of crime, it is necessary to conceive the offences under the IPC as acts of domestic violence, which many women in non-marital and marital relationships are subjected to as a result of their personal relationship with the abuser. The specific acts alleged in the criminal complaint align with an overall pattern of coercive control with the aim of driving fear among the woman who resists the abuser.

Additonally the Preity Zinta-Ness Wadia case shows the vulnerability of women suffering domestic violence in business households as allegations of domestic violence is likely to hurt the business interest of a woman who may be involved in business enterprise with their intimate partners. Further the occurrence of the acts in a public space in front of people who stood as witnesses further testify that there is nothing ‘domestic’ in domestic violence and such acts should be conceived as domestic violence in addition to criminal charges of harassment.

Amrita Mukhopadhyay is a Ph. D scholar working on domestic violence at the University of Sydney.

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