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Blindness: Not His Excuse or Ours

In broad daylight on April 10, 2021 in Delhi, India, a forty-year old man, Harish Mehta, stabbed his twenty-six year old wife of eight months, Neelu Mehta, to death. Among other tensions in their marriage, he had been upset over her decision to work in a hospital, wanting her to remain a homemaker instead.¹ He stabbed her nearly 25 times, and the hospital to which she was eventually taken declared her as “brought dead.” Video footage of the attack shows a bustling street, with several people walking out of nearby shops and two men standing behind the attacker. No one stepped in to intervene.


Why does the husband get to be “blinded by rage” and from where did such anger stem? During his police interrogation, Mehta acknowledged that he did not want his wife working, that he wanted her to quit her job and stay home instead.² In addition, the police statement he gave reads that the fact that Neelu was a divorcee “strengthened [Mehta’s] belief in her character,” leading him to suspect that she was having an extramarital affair.³ Inherent in Mehta’s frustration is the notion that he needed to give his wife permission to work, and that by having a job against his wishes, she had severely wronged him. He openly admits that he viewed poorly on his wife’s, a divorcee’s, character, despite the fact that he willingly chose to marry her. From this character judgment due to her previous marital status (and seemingly without other evidence to support this doubt), Mehta thought that his wife may be having an extramarital affair. Apparently, these circumstances were enough to “blind” him in rage. Let’s be clear: blind rage is no justification here. There are times we all feel frustration and even fury, but violence, especially to this extent and against one’s own partner, is never an excusable answer.


This murder underscores the deeply-rooted nature of male dominance and power in South Asian society — women are expected to remain subordinate to men and their “character” is constantly in question. I listen as my women relatives talk about how grateful they are that their husbands let them have a career. I hear the conversations around a woman being “pure” or else she is unsuitable for marriage. I witness men joke about how their woman isn’t “chaste,” but since they’re such “nice men,” they’ll accept her anyways. The problem is, we detest Harish Mehta for his atrocious behavior, but do we call out the people in our lives who also, albeit in a more subtle manner, embody these same outdated beliefs? When we live in a society that upholds these deeply engrained misogynist ideals, are we really that surprised that when a man feels intimidated by a woman’s freedom, or when her fidelity is even slightly in question, he feels entitled to take action, even if that action is murder?



And perhaps the most disturbing element of this murder is the fact that it occurred on a busy street in broad daylight. People saw, people stopped, and some people even recorded the incident on their phones. Yet, no one stepped in as a woman was stabbed to death in front of their very own eyes. Pluralistic ignorance is when members of a group reject a norm, but go along with it because they assume incorrectly that everyone else accepts it. This classic explanation of the bystander effect might partially help explain why no one did anything: a mixture of shock at the situation and collective confusion over others doing nothing resulted in everyone doing nothing.


But I think there’s more at play. The idea of ghar ka mamla, or private home matters, permeates throughout Indian culture. The paradox of our society is that we think we value the family unit more than other cultures, often shaming Western cultures for their more individualistic values. Yet, this same loyalty to family leads us to sweep problematic dynamics under the rug. We aren’t supposed to think our family is even slightly less than perfect, let alone talk to our friends about these things. Thus, when we catch even a glimpse of someone’s family dynamics in public, this display makes us uncomfortable. I can’t help but wonder how many people thought it was just another ghar ka mamla. The video of the incident circulating on social media is not entirely clear, but it seems that the husband is screaming something to the effect of (and several social media users have commented on this), “meri biwi hein bich mein aane ka nahi,” or “this is my wife; don’t get in between.”


I can’t help but wonder how many people were conditioned to look the other way just at the fact that a “private matter” was playing out in public, such that they failed to fully process the gravity of the situation they were beholding. Of course, my first thought was “I would have done something if I was there.” But no one ever thinks that they’d let something so vicious happen in front of their very eyes, and yet, it happened to Neelu Mehta today, and it pains me knowing that it has happened to plenty of women before her, too.


Every time I hear another story like this, of another sister lost, I wince. It’s troubling how blindness operates as an excuse both for the husband’s inexpiable behavior and for bystander silence. Men shouldn’t get to be “blinded” by rage when they are angry with women, and certainly not to the extent of stabbing someone nearly twenty-five times. And as bystanders, we shouldn’t get to simply “blindly” witness these incidents unfold. Every time we turn the other way, we signal that these types of violent acts are okay. The circumstances of Neelu Mehta’s murder are shocking and devastating, but her murder was certainly not the first of its kind. It breaks my heart to say that unless we figure out a way to break down the deep walls of the patriarchy and we each muster the courage to speak up even when no one else is, her story won’t be the last of its kind, either.


 

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