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Opinion | It’s 2020 but Indians still hate live-in girlfriends

Rhea Chakraborty’s role in Sushant Singh Rajput’s death is for the law to decide but the custodians of public morality have already deemed her guilty

A case like Rhea Chakraborty’s gives us the perfect cover to give vent to all our prejudices against live-in relationships.
A case like Rhea Chakraborty’s gives us the perfect cover to give vent to all our prejudices against live-in relationships. (Getty Images)

Even though news channels have appointed themselves judge, jury and public executioner, there is much we do not know about the Sushant Singh Rajput and Rhea Chakraborty case. Although she has been arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, we do not even know what role drugs actually had in his death. We do not know the true extent of his alleged mental health problems. We do not know the role Chakraborty played or did not play in the final unravelling of his life. And we certainly do not know what went through his mind that fateful day when he died.

But there is one thing we know for sure.

Rhea Chakraborty was his live-in girlfriend. And it’s hard to think that has not coloured our perception of the entire story, a saga that now has all the elements that make for a perfect storm of moral outrage—drugs, sex, money and Bollywood.

Long before the media started talking about drugs and money-laundering, the live-in girlfriend was already an object of suspicion in a way a wife would never have been. She became the Bengali girlfriend who knew black magic. A cartoon on a Facebook group called Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput put up a picture of Chakraborty next to the coronavirus and asked, “Which virus is more dangerous?" One of the young men administering the group, a final-year engineering student in Faridabad, Haryana, tells Newslaundry: “How can they suddenly call him crazy now? It must have something to do with the fact that Rhea was living with him, right?" Another administrator of that group says he too has a girlfriend but “woh Rhea jaisi nahin hai (she is not like Rhea)." Now with the suspicion that she somehow aided and abetted his alleged drug use, Chakraborty has become a veritable vishkanya, as some have already dubbed her. As photographer and film-maker Ronny Sen writes in Akademi Mag, “the high-profile drug scandal reflects how Indian society sees drug use and addiction as a moral crisis, not as the public health issue that it really is." Add a live-in partner to the mix and the morality play reaches maximum outrage decibels.

When Chakraborty tried to defend herself against a media trial and made a comment about the Bihar chief minister’s statements, a director general of police questioned her “aukat" (status). Rajput’s family lawyer dismissed a video Chakraborty made saying she was just trying to play the part of a “simple woman" because the real Rhea would not have ever worn that kind of salwar suit. While the media has treated Rajput’s ex, Ankita Lokhande, more sympathetically, it’s also worth remembering that when they broke up, press reports had blamed her alleged insecurity about Rajput’s rising stardom. In our heart of hearts, we still think that a live-in relationship, whether it’s for six months or six years, somehow lacks something in commitment anyway.

As the legal website SCC Online has documented, the courts have gingerly waded into this loaded territory of the human heart. In 2010, the Delhi high court had to hear a case involving a petitioner whose partner had a live-in relationship with her and had fathered a child even though he was not divorced from his wife and had a child by her as well. The court had called such a relationship “walk-in walk-out", with no legal safeguards, something that was “renewed every day" and could be terminated any day with or without the consent of both partners. But in another case in 2010, the Supreme Court had ruled that a live-in relationship, if it continued for an extended period, could not be called “walk-in walk-out". It has also ruled that women in a live-in relationship are entitled to the same reliefs and claims as a legally wedded wife. In 2013, it even tried to define what constituted a live-in relationship, from partners socializing with friends in public to women doing household activities like cooking and cleaning just as a wife would! In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that an adult couple has the right to live together without marriage. Live-in relationships are also recognized by the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which talks about couples related by “marriage or through a relationship in the nature of marriage". But the court understood that it needed to mind the gap between public opinion and the law. The Allahabad high court once observed that if a man and woman live together without getting married, “this may be regarded as immoral by society but it is not illegal. There is a difference between law and morality."

Except, as the media has discovered, morality (or rather immorality) is much better for TRPs than the law with its spoilsport presumption of innocence.

With time, the law and the custodians of public morality have had to make peace, sometimes grudgingly, with many changing social mores. In the wake of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized gay sex, being read down, it’s certainly not cool, especially in Anglophone circles, to display homophobia or even homo-discomfort. Yet we still hear too many stories of young men and women forced to marry despite families knowing they are gay/lesbian. Gay rights might be okay in a hypothetical sense, a gay child in one’s own backyard is a different matter. Few want to admit to championing caste discrimination but baulk at their daughter falling in love with a lower-caste man, stories that too often still have terrible, tragic bloody endings. We may have to keep our discomfort with a “live-in" relationship in check publicly but a case like Rhea Chakraborty gives us the perfect cover to give vent to all our prejudices without being accused of being old-fashioned prudes.

That’s partly because we often treat modernity as a fashion accoutrement, something we want to flaunt as a marker of cool like a Gucci bag rather than a system that aspires to fairness, equality and individual choice, one whose values we want to internalize. We want the symbols and perks of a liberated lifestyle without the hard work of living up to those values. A snazzy rainbow meme is always easier (and more fun) than actually cultivating and mentoring true diversity in the workplace. There is an innate distrust of cosmopolitanism as being a sort of cultural globalization that threatens age-old social values, tantamount to what the writer Mark Gevisser dubs the “globalisation of perversion". The story of Rajput’s rise and fall fits perfectly into this story of decadence and its comeuppance, with Chakraborty as the femme fatale.

In Sreemoyee, a popular soap opera on Bengali TV that preaches women’s empowerment, a meek housewife learns to stand on her own feet after her husband leaves her for his “modern" office colleague—think chic hair cuts, sleeveless blouses and a smattering of English. But in the serial it is that other woman who quickly becomes the scheming, shrieking villain of the piece rather than the married man who willingly chose to have an affair with her. He quickly becomes more sinned against than sinning.

In real life too, the late Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar remained the untainted heartthrob of the masses while Supriya Devi, the actress he chose to have a long live-in relationship with while never divorcing his wife, was the epitome of the scheming home-wrecker. Every time she would appear on television ads to sell some masala mix with a photograph of Uttam Kumar placed prominently behind her, thousands of middle-class Bengalis would crinkle their noses in collective disdain at her wanton “shamelessness".

This is not to let a Rhea Chakraborty or her family off the hook. That’s for the law and police to determine. But the rush to tar and feather her, to pronounce her guilty even before she was arrested, to find sinister meanings in fairly innocuous WhatsApp chats, reveals how ready we are to question the aukat of a live-in partner to demand society’s respect.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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