The Idea of Illicit Love: Tales of Power, Politics and Patriarchy

The childlike scrawl, diligent correction of spelling errors and the tentative title ‘suicide note’ are more poignant in expression than Geetika Sharma’s delicate profile in the one picture that accompanies the various stories about why this beautiful young woman decided to become her own executioner.

Her distress, her final horror before ending her life is stamped in every line of the crumpled note, now an exhibit before the court like every other aspect of her life. “I am shattered inside,” she wrote, marking her tormentors in capital letters ‘GOPAL GOYAL KANDA’ and ‘ARUNA CHADHA’ – the absconding Sirsa MLA and his business associate respectively. “I have forgiven them a number of times,” she said, admitting it was her “biggest mistake”.

“The discovery of the stunning Anuradha Bali’s maggot-ridden body in her Mohali house earlier this month is a macabre reminder of her travails.”

Why did she? A man who stalked her when she was still a student, whose obsession is evident in the staggering 400 SMSs that the police say he sent her at an alarming frequency. The Managing Director of MDLR group, who stipulated that she report to him “on each and every day after work”. This is the precise clause in the agreement drawn up when Geetika joined the company in January, 2011!

She agreed to these terms? Her parents had their pictures taken with him? She let his company sponsor her studies?

Kanda’s responses are more predictable. In the application for bail— in anticipation of arrest— that this Haryana legislator has filed before the Delhi High Court, he describes Geetika as “hypersensitive” and “unable to strike a balance between her personal life and work”.

This should sound familiar. It is the typical sort of puerile refrain men propagate with boring frequency. Kanda could be among countless male bosses who find it more convenient to attach labels i.e. “hypersensitive”, “unable to separate personal and professional” than deal with their own confusions and complexes regarding female colleagues. But this seemingly common male delinquency should have triggered off that frisson of fear, the subliminal sign that separates routine boorishness from tangible peril.

Which brings us back to why Geetika chose to go back to a company that made her sign an agreement to meet the Managing Director (Kanda) every evening. It could be argued that he left her very little choice. She quit the MDLR airlines and fled to Dubai, apparently to escape him. But he forced her back by forging a letter on behalf of a station house officer in Gurgaon to tell Emirates, her Dubai employers that she had defaulted on a loan from his company. She subsequently came back and became a director in his company in 2011.

Geetika was 22 years old at the time, legally an adult who could make informed choices. It is difficult, however, to deduce whether the choices Geetika made imply complete comprehension of her own place in the power equation between her and Gopal Goyal Kanda. There can be no gender judgement on such shortcuts young people routinely take, sometimes to compensate for the lack of talent, but mostly in a haste to sit at the high table. Men do it by an almost effortless exhibition of camaraderie with male superiors, bonhomie at the nearest pub and easy banter that excludes women. Women have the option of manipulating sexual tension and holding out promises.

What separates such commonplace sexual jugglery from Geetika and scores of others like her – Anuradha Bali aka Fiza, Bhanwari Devi, Madhumita Shukla, Kavita Chaudhuri, Shashi Sen, Shivani Bhatnagar et al – is that these women only had an illusion of the power to manipulate. They cultivated liaisons with men with whom they never had the capacity to negotiate. They were out of depth in situations they only imagined they controlled. And each paid a horrific price for her illusions.

The discovery of the stunning Anuradha Bali’s maggot-ridden body in her Mohali house earlier this month is a macabre reminder of her travails. Once as breezily romantic as her acquired name ‘Fiza’, this beautiful girl from a modest, middle-class Punjabi family raised quite a few eyebrows in the well-manicured streets of Chandigarh when she became the Assistant Advocate General of Haryana. For a while, it seemed she was a conqueror in the murky world of Haryana politics, elevating herself to high offices and marrying Chander Mohan, the Deputy Chief Minister of the state who expediently converted to Islam for the purpose.

But her triumph was as short lived as Chander Mohan’s conversion to Chand Mohammed. He went back to his wife on his father, the redoubtable Bhajan Lal’s diktats and all was forgiven. Anuradha Bali remained Fiza, preserving her lover’s e-mails and SMSs in a CD, telling the police they should prosecute him for rape and cheating – a complaint he described as “nothing more than toilet paper”. Now she is dead. Her gruesome end has inspired as little sympathy as her desperate efforts to recapture the elusive limelight once the Fiza-Chand story had played out in the razzle-dazzle of 24/7 television reports. The police do not seem too keen on investigating whether she was murdered or committed suicide. And Chand Mohammed is back in business as Chander Mohan.

“Their positions are precarious. The balance of power is so heavily stacked against them that I sometimes wonder how they ever imagined they could survive these relationships,” says Amita Verma, author of Poetry, Passion, Power: The Story of Madhumita on the life of Madhumita Shukla, the poet who was murdered at the behest of her lover, former minister in the Uttar Pradesh cabinet Amarmani Tripathi and his wife and co-convict Madhumani.

There is a common thread among three such cases that Verma has keenly watched as journalist and author – Madhumita Shukla, Shashi murder case in Faizabad that involved legislator Anand Sen and Kavita Rani Chowdhary in Meerut, whose liaisons with three ministers in the previous Mulayam Singh Yadav cabinet are believed to be the cause of her murder. The link is their total miscalculation of the power dynamics involving their lovers and their own ambition. For powerful men, the combination is entertaining only till such time as this fleeting diversion does not threaten their own position.

Amarmani Tripathi was happy to indulge Madhumita Shukla’s minor writing talent in return for her complete devotion. He even took her home, introduced her to his wife Madhumani as his “friend’s mistress”. Madhumita moved to Lucknow from the nondescript Hathipur in Lakhimpur-Kheri and followed Tripathi in furtive tours outside Lucknow. He put her up in five star hotels, never allowing her entry in the state guest houses he stayed in as a minister. But the moment she sought legitimacy, for herself and his child that she was carrying, she was shot dead. All that remains is the countless letters she wrote, her tentative expressions of love and longing and a legal battle that her sister Nidhi fought to get her lover and his wife prosecuted for murder with the help of his political adversaries.

What is astounding in these cases, says Anita Roy, author and editor in the feminist publishing house Zubaan, is the assumption of absolute impunity by the men. They rarely invite social censure; after all they are powerful men who should be allowed these “indulgences” on the side. And what business did these women have to demand more when they enjoyed the perks that were already apparent – a house in Lucknow for Madhumita, a promotion in job for Geetika, confidential information from well-placed men that were priceless to the investigative journalist Shivani Bhatnagar and so on? Their eventual horrific fate does not absolve them of social indictment neither does it inspire popular outrage for justice. The men, of course, do not have to worry about social indictment and are mostly not daunted by the prospect of the law catching up with them.

“The focus is clearly on the woman. If she is dead because her lover was a powerful politician or bureaucrat, then of course she invited it by being daft enough to get involved with a man like that. And if she had traits such as ambition to cultivate such a relationship, there is no end to the social censure. The fact that she is the one who is dead does not end her indictment. The men, in the meantime, are immune to the rule of law and social censure,” says Roy.

A case in point is Kavita Rani Chowdhary, a lecturer at Meerut’s Chowdhary Charan Singh University, who went missing in October, 2006 amid reports of her links with three ministers in the previous Mulayam Singh Yadav government. The investigating agency found that Kavita was killed in a dispute over sharing of an extortion amount of about Rs 35 lakh, extracted as blackmail from former UP irrigation minister Mehrajuddin Ahmed. Kavita and Ahmed were lovers for some time. A CD showing Kavita with the minister shot at his official residence was apparently used for the extortion. The net result of these sordid events is that Kavita has disappeared and presumed dead. Sultan Singh, a farmer and Ravinder Singh, a businessman from Bulandshehar have been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and there is no apparent harm to the ministers involved.

Another forgotten tale is that of graduate student Shashi in the twin towns of Faizabad/Ayodhya. The young girl was in love with former minister in the Mayawati government and BSP MLA Anand Sen, the son of powerful local politician and former MP Mitra Sen Yadav. Mitra Sen Yadav is incidentally also being investigated for human trafficking along with former MP Babu Lal Katara. Shashi was pregnant and deeply distressed about Anand Sen’s refusal to acknowledge the relationship. Naturally, the only conclusion to her predictable story was that she was killed. Despite her father’s repeated pleas, the police refused to register a case after she disappeared, having last been seen with Anand Sen’s driver. The case was finally registered when Mulayam Singh Yadav raised the issue in the state assembly. Anand Sen’s driver later confessed that Shashi had been strangled by a local gangster and thrown into the Gomti river.

These stories evoke whispered condemnation of such ‘shameful’ conduct by women. The men involved, after all, are men but it is the women’s audacity that is unparalleled and thus invites social disapproval. The underlying message is that she was asking to be murdered – a refrain not so different from countless cases of sexual assault on women who exhibited the slightest indiscretion, a departure from conduct most becoming of good girls. Consider what the esteemed chairperson of the National Commission for Women Mamata Sharma dished out in the form of advice after a woman was molested in full view of the public and television cameras in Guwahati – “Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress… Aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”

Women such as Kavita Chowdhary not only “eroded our culture” but were treading dangerous territory. She slept with politicians and allegedly blackmailed them. So it is not enough that the badlands of western Uttar Pradesh should claim her. She must be censured in death, her life is to be desecrated if rules about their rightful societal role and code of conduct have to be drilled into women. In the entire gamut of discussions and reportage following Kavita’s disappearance, the sole focus was on the sex CDs, her audacity in extorting politicians and her association with criminals. The propensity of politicians to use power to procure women, their connections with criminals and finally, their clear exoneration from any legal indictment are presumably too boring for prime time coverage.

“Sex, Lies and Videotape,” the CBI director A. P. Singh put it so evocatively in the case of Bhanwari Devi, an Auxiliary Nurse and Midwife (AN&M) in Rajasthan. Indeed, bad girls end up dead; as they should presumably. So the issues arising out of Bhanwari Devi’s brutal murder are sidestepped in favour of titillating discussions in newsrooms about the prime accused and former minister Mahipal Singh Maderna’s sexual prowess and the designs of an ordinary nurse in luring him to bed for money.

“In all scenarios, it is Bhanwari Devi’s caste, character and behaviour which are at the centre of public attention. Can this negate the reality of the utterly unequal power relations of those involved in the case? …Clearly, she was the supplicant and he the power centre… It is not being argued that she was a victim who had no agency in the choices she made, but the case does raise serious and larger questions regarding the behaviour of elected representatives and the disturbing trends that are reflected in the degeneration and criminality in the political system,” says Brinda Karat, CPM MP and member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in an editorial.

“Firstly, there is blatant use of power for sexual gratification. Secondly, the contacts a cabinet minister had with criminal, murderous gangs. The third issue concerns the long delay in taking action against him. While there is hardly any discussion on these issues, there is a no-holds-barred character assassination of Bhanwari Devi. For example, it was widely reported that CBI officials had found evidence that ‘the nurse had amassed huge amounts of wealth through blackmail’. We now know that this is far from the truth. With their father in jail, her three children are now entirely dependent on the old-age pension of their grandmother, and as a result, have discontinued going to school,” Karat argues.

Karat’s, of course, is the minority view as the media launches a full-throttle campaign on the two latest cases – Geetika and Fiza – with lurid details of whether Geetika had an abortion, the role of starlet Nupur Mehta in the case and the amount of cash and jewellery recovered from Fiza’s residence. With exceptions, as a detailed report in The Indian Express, about Gopal Goyal Kanda’s transition from penury to palatial houses, there is no discussion about how he came to acquire the tremendous wealth that he seemed to have. How he was running casinos in Goa, airlines and other hospitality services.  How Nupur Mehta, the starlet who worked in his casino in Goa, has also figured in the IPL match-fixing scandal.

The heady concoction of cricket, IPL, casinos naturally has women to spice up the flavour. Besides the obvious connection between commercialisation of cricket, consumerism and objectification of women, the underlying message is that if they are party to such hedonism, there must not be any surprise or outrage if they end up dead. Women are either whores or mothers. The whores invite murder, so why complain. Indeed, the honourable chairperson of the National Commission for Women has already warned us to beware of “Western culture” that is “causing such crimes to happen”.

The obvious conclusion in this context is that women ought to be far more discerning and intelligent in furthering their ambition and their choice of lovers. But isn’t the more tangible thread in this narrative that the society and the rule of law discriminate against women, even after they have been brutally murdered?

Poornima Joshi is a Delhi-based journalist and associate editor with multi-disciplinary academic journal Social Change.

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