In a judgment passed last week by a Mahila Court in Chennai, a man who killed his wife when she refused sex with him has been handed a lighter sentence because she “provoked” him. The provocation? Refusing sex, and allegedly saying that she only wanted sex with another man, whom she had been having an affair with. The 34-year old accused was found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The incident took place four years ago, and the couple had a child, now aged 12.

I went looking for more information about this judgment a few days after I first came across a single press report on it. Strangely, there were no further articles in the mainstream English press. At the same time, coverage about a woman in Delhi who had been burnt to death by her live-in partner was everywhere, as were stories about one man who murdered his partner and stuffed her body into a mattress, and another man who murdered his partner, disposed of her body in a fridge and got married to someone else on the same day. The last is a copycat crime: a similar one took place a few months ago. In all these other cases, the headlines – and there were many – often included the word “live-in”, to indicate the status of the relationship.

            The contrast in coverage is marked. Events which feed into conservative morality are sensationalised, perhaps in order to prove a point. “If only she’d obeyed her parents, if only she didn’t date someone of another religion, if only she hadn’t sought to live on her own terms – don’t be like her, stay alive”. But when it comes to a story about what is essentially an attempt at marital rape, and about a woman exercising her right to not just say No but also to name her desires, it is almost buried.

            So let me unbury it here, and add to the miniscule coverage over a problematic judgement. I don’t wish for increased sensationalism around this case; what I fear is its use as legal precedence in domestic violence and homicide situations in future.

Judge Mohammed Farooq has been quoted as follows: “This court has no hesitation to hold that the accused stabbed the deceased on account of the grave and sudden provocation caused by her by pushing him down and refusing to cooperate for having sexual intercourse and asserting that she will do so only with the other man.”

This is victim-blaming, and greatly diminishes the deceased’s right to not have intercourse against her will. It also paints what must have been physical defence against rape as “pushing him down”. Marital rape has still not been criminalised in India, and entitlement to sex is beneath this case’s other layers, including the adultery that has been highlighted instead. The judgement also plays up her comment on preferring another person, which was insulting, but perhaps honest as well. If anything in this case can be justified as being in the heat of the moment, it’s a harsh statement like that. Yet somehow, it’s the murder – or technically, the culpable homicide – that’s been granted an explanation.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in February 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.