Shraddha and Aftab: The Star-Crossed Lovers - Hindustan Times
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Shraddha and Aftab: The Star-Crossed Lovers

ByHindustan Times
Dec 19, 2022 02:03 PM IST

The article has been authored by Anita Anand, Clinical Therapist, Greenfields Health and Healing.

The year is 2018. A young woman living in Maharashtra goes on a dating app and comes across the profile of a man. She swipes to the left or right and she and the young man become friends. She’s Hindu and he’s Muslim. But that does not matter to them. Their relationship grows and they plan to live together. Her parents disapprove because he is Muslim. She moves out of the house, and they start living together. In 2021 they move to Delhi.

Aaftab Poonawala and Shraddha Walkar. (File)
Aaftab Poonawala and Shraddha Walkar. (File)

In November 2022 it became known that the 28-year-old man Aftab Poonawala had strangulated and killed the young woman, Shraddha Walkar, after a fight. He cut up her body in 35 pieces, keeping them in his refrigerator and disposing them, part by part, in a wooded area in South Delhi. Poonawala, who confessed to the murder, is now in Tihar Jail, Delhi.

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Shraddha Walkar’s father in his first public statement, called for a death sentence for Aftab. Her friends say she had spoken to them about violence in the relationship and wanted to leave Poonawala but could not. She was afraid he would kill her. Records show that Shraddha had filed an FIR of violence in Maharashtra, which seems to have been retracted. In a statement to the Delhi Court, Poonawala confessed he had killed Shraddha ‘in the heat of the moment.’

How does this happen? Is it possible that two people, in love and living together can end up in this situation? It is possible and happens, a lot. Known as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), and defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours. Globally, an estimated 736 million women—almost one in three—have been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged fifteen and older).

In a first appearance since Shraddha’s death was made public, her father asked that dating apps should be banned for the safety of women, and that if Shraddha and not met Aftab on the app, his daughter would be alive. But will such a ban on apps ensure that young women are not beaten and killed? Like Shraddha’s father, many believe that social media and modernisation are to be blamed for their children going astray. Young people, growing up in India in vastly contrasting times than their parents and grandparents are aspirational. They want freedom - to pursue what they want, love whom they want and most important, to make their own decisions. Hierarchical and patriarchal families find this difficult to accept, often using emotional and physical blackmail to reign in their children (who are adults).

Shraddha Walkar could be faulted for poor judgment in that she did not see Poonawala for what he was and then did not leave him, for fear or other reasons. She felt trapped. When relationships go wrong, and they often do, much of it because young people have little experience of relationships with each other. If Indian parents encouraged their children, as boys and girls to intermingle, they could develop an understanding of themselves and others. But this is not so. Girls turn into women and boys into men and are attracted to each other. Their idea of a relationships is derived from movies, books and pornography. And parents are their role models. When expectations are not met, disillusion sets in. They begin to see other sides of each other’s personalities they had not seen before. There is disappointment, anger, frustration and violence. There is heartbreak, suicide and murder.

Young people have little experience of sexual and non-sexual relationships with the other sex. Dating apps meet a demand and the service has an incentive to connect people and gloss over differences. People develop profiles of themselves as they want to be seen (real or imagined). Verification is difficult and safety and security are not guaranteed. And there are apps for various kinds of relationships – friendship, marriage, same sex, religion, etc.

People, young and old, are hungry for connection. Historically these needs were met with classifieds in newspapers and magazines. In India, alliances (marriages) were arranged through relatives and friends, people known to families. If friendships developed between men and women, it was in colleges or through friends. As the marriage age rises men and women find it harder to find partners. And the pressure to be in a relationship (especially marriage) is great. Technology now offers a much wider possibility of meeting and developing relationships. Shraddha’s and Aftab’s online relationship went wrong. So do of-line and other relationships.

Not much is known about the two people, except through family, friends and police statements. In social media Poonawala runs a website called Hungrychokro Escapades. He describes it as “not just about one hungry boy (chokro) but about a person’s craving - be a little boy craving and throwing a tantrum for a lolly or a corporate famished after day’s work craving for some pizza and beer.” Hosted by WordPress, the site is sophisticated with good photography, but not much original content. Shraddha’s Instagram account is sparse and wistful, with one-line postings with photos of her travelling, just before she was killed.

Studies on dating apps indicate that they are used by the more liberal minded. Liberals are those who are more willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one's own and open to innovative ideas. As lifestyles and ideas from the West swept into India decades ago, increasingly young people see themselves as liberals. But many come from traditional families who frown upon dating, pre-marital sex, choosing a partner, live in relationships or marriages of their choice. The young people are emotionally and financially dependent on their parents and extended families and live in environments that straddle the worlds of tradition and modernity.

Parents and children often clash over values and tradition. Indian families often assume that values held by parents should be passed down to children. This does not allow children to develop their own set of values, and as they move into adulthood, it is a challenge for them. Traditions are passed down over an extended period, again with the assumption that they are still relevant, while so much has changed. Allowing young people a chance to develop their set of values and decide the traditions they would like to continue is important. They may make good or bad choices, but it will be their choice.

Could Shraddha’s death have been avoided? Maybe. As an adult, she made a choice to leave home for a life she wanted. She cut off ties with her family as they disapproved of her choice. She did not have the tools to navigate the relationship. But what if her parents expressed their views but supported her decision for the relationship and stayed in touch with her? What if she had moved out of the flat, she shared with Aftab in good time? What if her friends had paid attention to her sharing that she was afraid for her life and insisted she leave him and offered their home to her?

Then, it is possible that her death could have been avoided and Aftab would not be in prison. Only then.

The article has been authored by Anita Anand, Clinical Therapist, Greenfields Health and Healing.

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