IN A COUNTRY OF PATCHY statistics, the most dependable number for murder that we have is from the annual National Crime Records Bureau report, culled from official sources like police cases across the country. For 2021, the latest year numbers available tell us that in metropolitan cities with a population greater than 2 million, there were 1,955 murders and of them, 122 came under the heading of “Love Affairs”. The most prevalent motive was, however “Disputes” at 849 cases, about seven times more. Yet, what usually catches the public imagination are the love murders. We saw it this year when Aftab Poonawalla killed and then chopped up the body of his live-in partner Shraddha Walkar, and then kept the pieces in a fridge, and then over a few weeks, disposed of them little by little across Delhi. It is a crime that Indians can’t get enough of more than a month after Poonawalla was caught.
The killing was sensational because, as detail after detail trickled in, it painted the tragic picture of a girl who, despite the resistance of family, managed the difficult thing of being together with her partner. On the surface, this should have been a love story and, with the inter-religious element thrown in, a frequent stereotype of relationships in a country where orthodoxy was being forced to make way for new generations with modern ideas of love. Even the relationship turning sour, with reports of his refusal to marry and physically abusing her, and the rancour that trailed them after the beginning, wouldn’t be remarkably novel. It is in the murder and what he did to the body that every element is regurgitated and comes together to turn the wheels of a country’s tabloid imagination. Now, each event in their life was a moment leading up to her death, even though police leaks of Poonawalla’s confession suggest that the killing was impulsive after a fight.
Murder in relationships becomes shocking precisely because love is supposed to symbolise the opposite, an essence of life that gives it meaning. Structures of society are created to sustain it. Everyone knows that romance dies out of marriages but the idea of permanency must be maintained. Murder is the breaking of this illusion, exposing the bitterness once the surface is scratched. In 2015, a famous murder in Mumbai would show just that. It was in art school in Baroda that Hema and Chintan Upadhyay met and fell in love. They married in 1998 after moving to Mumbai to make a career there. Over the next decade, both became renowned names in the Indian art world. Along with success, the marriage was collapsing. In 2013, Hema would file a case against Chintan for making obscene paintings on the walls of their home and reporting on it, Mumbai Mirror, would write: “Every difference between the couple, once seen as joined at the hip, became magnified and grist for gossip mills. They filed for divorce in 2010 which has still to come through, and Chintan has since moved to Delhi.” In 2015, Hema’s body was found in a drain along with that of her lawyer. They were alleged to have been killed by a fabricator who worked with both Hema and Chintan. Police soon arrested Chintan accusing him of contracting the murder.
In one of her books, The Murder Room, author PD James, whose works are known to bridge the whodunit genre and literary fiction divide, writes through its main character, detective Adam Dalgliesh—“Wasn’t that what he had been taught as a young recruit to the CID by the older experienced sergeant now long retired ? ‘All the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. They’ll tell you, laddie, that the most dangerous is loathing. Don’t you believe it. The most dangerous is love.’” In murders within relationships, all four of these L motives not only exist but are often together. In the Upadhyay murder, love became loathing and there was then lucre—the dispute over maintenance for the divorce to come through.
Murder in relationships becomes shocking precisely because love is supposed to symbolise the opposite, an essence of life that gives it meaning. Structures of society are created to sustain it. Everyone knows that romance dies out of marriages but the idea of permanency must be maintained. Murder is the breaking of this illusion, exposing the bitterness once the surface is scratched
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A STUDY IN AUSTRALIA of what they called “intimate partner homicides” looked at 149 such murders to find out which were the dominant motives. Writing about the study, the online journal, The Conversation, said: “The most common reason for intimate partner homicide was jealousy, followed by gain, and then love. Jealousy accounted for the largest number of intimate partner homicides that were examined in the study (40%). These jealousy cases all included husbands who killed their wives. In court documents for these cases, jealous rage or morbid jealousy were often blamed for spurring the murders.” A famous example of it in India was the killing of Neeraj Grover in 2008. Maria Susairaj was an actress trying to make it in Mumbai and Grover, an executive in a production company, was helping her. Her boyfriend Emile Jerome Mathew, a navy officer, did not approve of their friendship and on a surprise visit to her flat found Grover there and killed him. Like Poonawalla, he chopped the body up and Susairaj helped in buying a knife and bag. The disposal of the body didn’t help them. People knew Grover was coming over to her place when he went missing and the police easily cracked the case.
Another layer of sensationalism was added when it was reported that Mathew forced Susairaj to have sex immediately after the killing. Lust, jealousy, love, and loathing all came together here.
Many decades earlier, a naval person was involved in a murder that changed the very nature of jurisprudence in India. This was the killing of Prem Ahuja in 1959. After the wife of a navy commander, KM Nanavati, confessed to him about having an affair with Ahuja, he dropped her and their children at a theatre for a movie earlier planned and went to the naval base. He collected a pistol there, went to Ahuja’s flat, and shot him dead. He then turned himself over to the police. There was support for him in public and sections of the media, like Blitz, a popular tabloid then, mounted a campaign to create sympathy. In the court case that followed, a jury held him not guilty. The judge found the decision so egregious that he refused to adhere to it and referred the case for a fresh trial to the high court where Nanavati was found guilty. It was a big reason for the ending of jury trials in India. This murder remains perpetually alive in Indian pop culture with movies inspired by it often being made. In 1963, there was Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, and as recently as 2016, the Akshay Kumar movie Rustom.
Murders like that of Walkar or Grover become headlines because of the nature of the murder, while others just because of the personalities involved. Like the murder of the Indian Express journalist Shivani Bhatnagar in 1999. It would take three years for the police to come up with an accused and it turned out to be one of their own, a high-ranking Indian Police Service officer Ravi Kant Sharma. Sharma immediately went absconding and a drama played out in public with his wife holding a press conference and accusing the late Pramod Mahajan, who was a minister at the Centre, of being behind the murder. Sharma surrendered after being on the run for three months and was convicted by a trial court in 2008. Three years later, a high court however acquitted him for lack of evidence. Another murder in which high-profile personalities were involved was of Madhumita Shukla, a poet, who was shot down in her house in Lucknow in 2003. She was seven months pregnant. Police investigations led to Amarmani Tripathi, a gangster-politician who was a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government. The investigating officer was suspended in a bid to protect Tripathi but after the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case, he was arrested. He had been having an affair with Shukla and the child she was carrying was his. There was a curious twist—the killing was organised by Tripathi’s wife, who had found out about the affair, and he had given the go ahead. Both were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
India has a phenomenon about murder within marriages that is unique to a handful of countries—dowry killings. Its prevalence is lesser as compared to the past because of draconian laws instituted to contain it but, even so, in sheer numbers, it is startling even now. Just last week, the government revealed that as many as 20 wives were being killed daily. A report by the news agency PTI said: “According to data shared by Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Kumar Mishra in Rajya Sabha, 35,493 dowry deaths were reported in the country between 2017 and 2021. In 2017, 7,466 dowry deaths were reported, 7,167 in 2018, 7,141 in 2019, 6,966 in 2020, and 6,753 in 2021, he said replying to a written question.” This is the category of “gain” that the Australian study mentions, or the “lucre” of PD James. In terms of shock value, these deaths don’t get much resonance from the average Indian. People are inured to it. They need a body to be chopped up to get them interested even though the value of every human life is just as much.