18/10/2016 5:25 PM IST | Updated 18/10/2016 5:51 PM IST

A Young Woman's Mysterious Death In Kolkata Has Raised Troubling Questions About Domestic Violence

Mita Mondal died in suspicious circumstances last week.

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KOLKATA - 2016/10/17: A protest by the students of Jadavpur University against domestic violence on women in front of the main campus. A few days ago, Mita Mondal, an alumnus of the university, died allegedly due to domestic violence. (Photo by Debsuddha Banerjee/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Mita Das, a resident of Sukantapally, in Garia, Kolkata, completed her Master's in Bengali from Jadavpur University last year with a first class degree. In April this year, the 24-year-old married Rana Mondal, a laboratory technician at a private hospital in Kushberia, Uluberia, close to his home, and became Mita Mondal. Within six months of her wedding, Mita was found dead last week, having allegedly committed suicide by hanging herself with her dupatta at her husband's home.

Mita's family members and friends, who refuse to believe this version of her death, accuse her husband and in-laws of torturing her, leading to her demise. Her "suicide", they claim, was staged. According to her uncle Ranjit, Rana was an alcoholic who used to beat her up. "She has been been murdered," he told Anandabazar Patrika, the Bengali daily.

His sentiment, shared by many who knew Mita, saw a group of students of Jadavpur University coming together to take out a rally in Kolkata yesterday to protest against domestic violence. Mita, daughter of a mason, is remembered as a gutsy woman, who helped out her lower-income family by giving private tuitions and working as a seamstress. In spite of her hardships, she was academically gifted and proved herself in the MA final examinations.

Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has met Mita's father at her office in Kolkata and offered a slew of compensations. Banerjee has promised to write off a loan of Rs 70,000, which Mita's father had taken to marry off his daughter, with money from the CM's special funds. She has also promised a job to Mita's brother and ordered the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to take up the case.

With the CID taking over from Kolkata police, Mita's husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law have been arrested in quick succession, though Mita's mother-in-law, Kalpana Mondal, also allegedly involved in her death, is absconding. In the mean time, the sequence of events leading to Mita's death has deepened suspicions of foul play.

According to Rana, who Mita had met at a wedding two years ago and fell in love with, the couple had gone out on Monday evening to celebrate Nabami, the penultimate day of Durga Puja. Mita had gone home to spend the first few days of the puja with her family, after which her husband fetched her back on Saptami, in the middle of the puja.

Rana also said, on returning home after an evening out on Nabami, Mita had insisted on going out with him again. Although Rana went off to see his friends instead, he promised to take her out again. When he returned home in the dead of the night, he found his wife had killed herself by hanging and rushed her to the private hospital where he was employed.

Reports in the media say Mita was brought dead and her body, apart from being stained with blood, was badly bruised. There were signs of injury to her face and forehead. Rana told the doctors that his wife's body had hit the furniture as he was trying to pull her down, but his explanation wasn't convincing. The police did not find any suicide note either, indicating the case was one of suicide.

The autopsy report revealed deep wounds and marks of stabbing in other parts of her body and also said that indications of death by hanging were palpable. There were only preliminary observations, not the final confirmation of the exact reason behind the death, which would be ascertained after the viscera have been examined.

Under the circumstances, it is not established yet if Mita killed herself or was assaulted by her husband in a violent altercation and then hanged, which eventually ended her life.

Mita's brother Khokon claimed it was not possible for anyone to hang themselves in the room his sister shared with her husband. He also informed the police the family had noticed marks of injury on Mita's face on her earlier visits, but she had refused to divulge any details on their questioning. During her last stay with her family, Mita had asked her father for a loan of Rs 100,000 to help her husband with a business venture. When her father expressed his inability to fork out such a sum, Mita was worried about being insulted by her in-laws.

Khokon also told reporters that his family was aware of tensions between Mita and her husband. "Rana's drinking habit was the reason of his fights with my sister. We used to intervene and resolve these tiffs," he said.

Mita's horrific death, without a doubt, is shocking, but no less tragic is her family's knowledge of her trial at her in-laws and reluctance to take a stronger stand on it. A woman being abused and assaulted by her alcoholic husband is not a matter that should be left entirely to being resolved through the intervention of their families. Such a situation is not a personal but a law-and-order problem, violating human rights and carrying the threat of severe repercussions.

India has The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, which identifies legal provisions that can be invoked to address specific instances of gender injustice. Recently, the Supreme Court passed a ruling to make women equally culpable as men under this law. Such an amendment, legal experts worry, may dilute the power of the law to act within a sphere where women are already in a position of disadvantage. (According to a recent report, 20,000 housewives in India killed themselves in 2014 — harassment for dowry, linked to domestic violence, being a major trigger for them to take such an extreme step.)

But even as the law stood earlier, and in spite of having acted as a deterrent in many cases, it has not been able to conquer the stigma and shame attached to the idea of being a victim of domestic violence. And Mita Mondal's death is, once again, a reminder of that grim reality.

We do not yet know for a fact if Mita was murdered by her in-laws. But we do know — from the testimonies of her family — that some of the people closest to her were aware of her continuing plight at her in-laws. And yet, they did not urge her to complain to the police — or took it upon themselves to do so.

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