By Devangana Kuthari
Law and society inexplicably evolve while influencing each other. One does not need to move very far away to see law’s reflection in society. Lawmakers often heavily borrow from this fleeting reflection, enhancing a custom or ritual to the podium of legality. In this article, I will try to engage with the concept of marriage as portrayed in Hindi Bollywood songs, as a major component of the Indian Society, comparing it with the implications of the case, R. v. Ahluwalia and its critique by Alison Young.
The case of R. v. Ahluwalia, is an English case involving a housewife of Indian origin, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who murders her husband, by throwing petrol all over him, and setting him alight. She is held guilty for murder, but later in a retrial, her offence is reduced to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. The court attributes this reduction to the ‘battered woman syndrome’ in lieu of the domestic violence Kiranjit faced at the hands of her husband, which caused her depression.
To begin with the judgement, it portrays Ahluwalia as a perfect ‘dutiful daughter’ who forgoes her education to marry the man chosen by her parents. Filial duty overshadows other aspects of her personality. Young calls this marriage ‘doubly foreign’ as she lands in the UK, an alien country, with an equally alien husband. However, this makes her virtuous in the eyes of law; her troubles are ironed out to make this neat image of her. Similar imagery is created in popular culture where, the sole dream of a daughter is shown to get married and join the household of her husband. The lyrics in songs such as “Babul ka ghar chod chali main,/Ab to piya ke desh mein sara, jeevan mujhe bitana hai,/Mujhe saajan (Lover) ke ghar jaana hai” and “Ek nadi se maine poochha ithla ke chaldi kahan, … Thoda woh ghabraayi thoda sa sharmaayi, … Saagar se milne ka uska to sapna tha meri hi tarah piya” portray a docile ‘womanly’ woman in popular culture.
Ahluwalia is sketched by Lord Taylor in the judgement as a dutiful wife and mother because after years of bearing torment in the hands of her husband, she still puts up with him. He “weaves a web of familial responsibility” which makes her an ‘ordinary woman’ of her community. This gender binary is imbibed by Indians when they hear their first songs, nursery rhymes like “Mummy ki roti gol gol, Papa ka paisa gol gol … Dadi ki bindi gol gol.” There is an added element of domesticity, where the circular shape is attributed to roti and bindi for the mother and the grandmother because they are female. This domesticity is also found in the act of homicide when Ahluwalia uses things like caustic soda. This ‘domestic responsiveness’ is further emphasised in her immediate reaction to the house burning.
In her ordinariness, the law overlooks her grievances to be a normal attribute of her life. It tries to uphold her to be morally upright and chaste. In diaspora as at home, women always define the boundaries of Indian-ness, whereas men can take the liberty to play with tradition and religion. No eyebrows are raised at the domestic violence she faces. Such is the indifference of the court that it refuses to incorporate the characteristic of a battered woman as a legal one. The legal imagination of her persona restricts her to be an “immigrant, married, educated woman.” The conjugal violence that Kiranjit faces is not given the same importance as assault, just because this violence has crossed the sacred threshold of home and world.
One should not be surprised at this reluctance of the Court to uphold domestic violence as equal to any other form of assault. Violent behaviour and the absence of consent is considered romantic in numerous Bollywood movies and hit songs. Lyrics such as “Hai tujhpe right mera, tu hai delight mera, tera rasta jo roku, chaukne ka nahin”, “Yeh usaka style hoinga, hontho pe na, dil me han hoinga, aaj nahee toh kal bolegee”, “Tu haan kar, ya naa kar, tu hai meri… Kiran”, “Kab tak ruthegi chikhegi chillayegi … ik din hasina maan jayegi” show how women are objectified, echoing a sense of entitlement men feel, giving no heed to her consent.
Interestingly while reading the judgement one can feel a brewing ‘notion of sacrifice’, which is problematic in many ways. This sacrificial element in also ingrained in how Indian society portrays marriage. In songs such as “Meri jiji ne, bade tap hain kiye, mandiron mein kiye phere (2), pooja saanjh sawere, teen lok – taintees devon ko yeh rahi ghere”,  marriage is portrayed as a religion and husband as the Supreme Lord, where the duty of a wife is to revere her husband as she reveres her lord – “Tumhi mere mandir, tumhi meri puja, tumhi devta ho” – an ideal wife or ‘adarsh naari’ is supposed to sing to the tune of “Pati parmeshwar ke siva, mujhko na parmeshwar chahiye.”
It almost seems that the Court wanted Ahluwalia to sacrifice herself. Women have always been seen as an object of sacrifice, whose sufferings make the marriage the sacrament it is. In the song “Kajra Mohhabat Wala”, the words, “Apanaa banaa le meri jaan, haay re mai tere qurabaan (sacrifice)”, echo the same sentiment.
The Court’s understanding of fire bath reeks of orientalism. In this interpretation one can find an echo of the debate on sati, where sati as a sacrifice was glorified and legalized. The moment of sacrifice is best captured when she holds her child within a blazing window. According to Young, Ahluwalia could not have escaped the flames of her blazing house. As legal imagination did not have any escape routes for her, the law would prefer her to be sacrificed in the fire. If she would have escaped it, it would again imprison her to be a murderer or acquit her as being mentally abnormal.
Kiranjit is sacrificed to save the legal archetype of marriage, the law’s representation of feminine subjectivity. It holds her guilty on the count of the laws of marriage that require her commitment, reverence, faith and worship. Through this judgment, law tries hard to uphold this hierarchical institution of subservience and dominance. According to Young, through this sacrifice a woman seeks citizenship. What is given is secondariness. This sentiment is mirrored in lyrics such as “Tere man ko, jeevan ko, nayi kushiyaan milne waali hain” and “Shaadi hai dilli ka laddu, laddu ye har man me phoote, isakaa lage har daanaa bhalaa.” In each of these songs, marriage is glorified as the best and essential chapter in a woman’s life. This consigns women to subjection as her identity is defined in tandem with the male, where she can only be a mother, domestic servant, sexual partner and so on. She never gets the status of an equal human being, with her own agency and voice.
Women are either lionized or victimized in our society. The first reading of the judgement makes one shirk at the atrocities faced by Ahluwalia; she is portrayed as a victim of violence. However, crime against her is not realized in the eyes of law, just because they occur in the domain of the sacred marriage.
The model of marriage which is forced down our throat in popular culture glorifies it as a sacred institution. Some of these songs such as “Tumhi mere mandir, tumhi meri puja” have also received the Filmfare Award for their lyrics. The influence of these songs and movies on the common diaspora is immense. It creates an unhealthy and imbalanced power dynamics between the two counterparts of marriage. This understanding is then imbibed in our unconscious from the movies we watch and the music we listen to. It is so deep-rooted and normalized that women themselves believe in these notions, unwilling to forego them, to realize their equal status.
When such a similar model of women’s place in a marriage and society is found to exist in criminal or family law, it often goes unnoticed as it has already been normalised in society through popular culture. Law is nothing but an extension of the society we live in. If a problem exists in society, it is more than often echoed in the laws and legal understanding of the judges.
 (1993) 96 Cr. App. R. 133.
 Alison Young, The Universal Victim and the Body in Crisis, Imagining Consent, Sage, (1992).
 Young, (n 2).
 Mujhe Saajan ke Ghar, Lajja, (2001).
 Piyu Bole, Parineeta, (2005).
 Young, (n. 2).
 Jenny Sharpe, Gender, Nation, and Globalization in Monsoon Wedding and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Meridians, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2005), pp. 58-81.
 R. v. Ahluwalia, (1993) 96 Cr. App. R. 133.
 Young, (n. 2).
 Tere Agal Bagal Hai, Phata Poster Nikla Hero, (2013).
 Apun Bola Tu Meri Laila, Josh, (2000).
 Tu Hai Meri Kiran, Darr, (1993).
 Haseena Maan Jaayegi, Haseena Maan Jaayegi, (1999).
 Young, (n. 2).
 Wah Wah Ramji, Hum Aapke Hain Koun, (1994).
 Tumhi Mere Mandir Tumhi Meri Puja Tumhi Devta Ho, Khandan, (1965).
 Pati Parmeshwar Ke Siva, Ganga Jamunaa Saraswati, (1988).
 Young, (n. 2).
 Kajra Mohabbat Wala , Kismat, (1968).
 Supra 9.
 Lata Mani, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India”, Recasting Women, Essays in Colonial History.
 Young, (n. 2).
 Mehendi Hai Rachnewali, Zubeidaa, (2000).
 O Jiji, Vivaah, (2006).
 Young, (n. 2).
 Supra 9.
 Devesh Sharma, ‘Unsung Melodies’ (filmfare.com, 2017) <https://www.filmfare.com/features/unsung-melodies-9938.html> accessed 3 November 2017.
Devangana Kuthari is pursuing the five-year integrated B.A. LLB (Hons.) Course at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Writing in Academia”, edited by Anannya Dasgupta, Krea University and Madhura Lohokare, O. P. Jindal Global University, India.