Can someone be arrested for the other’s inability to take a heartbreak?


The past week has been dominated by high politics: the chequered rise of Narendra Modi, the pendulum moves of LK Advani, the tremors in the NDA. The days ahead portend much more as the breakup of the NDA and the emergence of a Third Front “East Bloc” — an axis of “backward states” — becomes more imminent. But as we saw last week, a few hours could reverse all of this as well. Tehelka’s cover this issue analyses much of this and more. Perhaps then, it is fit to focus a little attention on a less public event.

This week also saw the suicide of actress Jiah Khan — at the poignant age of 25. Ordinarily, this would’ve been just one more tragic trace in the neurotic, kaleidoscopic world of showbiz. One would have meditated on the keen hungers of that acetylene world, its desire for fame and money and perpetual limelight, the ease with which one can get trapped in its beautiful make-believe patterns, and how hard its crashing aftermaths of anonymity can be.

But the arrest of her live-in boyfriend Suraj Pancholi — four years younger than her — for “abetment to suicide” has cracked open a whole other debate. Soon after her death, letters were discovered in Jiah’s room where she spoke of “losing herself” in her love for him, and how she could not bear his refusal to commit to marriage. She also spoke of the trauma of aborting a baby and wrote, “I don’t know why destiny brought us together. After all the pain, the rape, the abuse, the torture I have seen previously. I didn’t deserve this.” Reportedly, she hung herself soon after he sent her a “break-up bouquet”.

If indeed Pancholi raped her or was habitually violent with her, his arrest is warranted, but the wording of her letter is ambiguous. Does the word “previously” refer to him, or does it stretch back to someone in an earlier dark phase of her life? Did she speak of this to anyone? Her death, in many ways, makes it very hard, if not impossible, to ascertain whether Pancholi raped her. On the face of it, she seems to have continued in the relationship, continued to love him, continued to wish for marriage. The equation of that is difficult to understand.

Apart from this allegation of rape, therefore, Pancholi’s arrest for “abetment to suicide” raises many troubling questions. Can one be jailed for a consensual love affair gone sour? Can one be held responsible for another’s suicide on the ground that there’s been a betrayal in love? That one partner proved too fragile for the inexplicable wear and tear of the heart?

Fortunately, several Supreme Court judgments have stated that “abetment to suicide” — which is an offence under Section 306 of the IPC and is punishable with a maximum 10 years of rigorous imprisonment — must constitute a “proven intent” or “positive act” by the accused “to instigate or aid the committing of suicide”.

But a fair application of the law is only one facet of the prism. Jiah’s desolate sense of rejection also exposes a much more complex and continuing faultline in India: between old mindsets and new ways.

In the past, abandonment or romantic betrayal in India was linked with the idea of shame and humiliation because it was supposed to leave the woman with no respect and no future: she was deemed “damaged goods”. But in the modern, high-urban India that Jiah was a part of, none of this holds good any longer. In this world, relationships are voluntary, individualistic, fluid: in a word, they epitomise choice. They make and break at will (or else, of course, they last a lifetime at will); they are heterosexual, bisexual, gay; being a non-virgin does not mean you cannot marry; remarriage carries no stigma; and sex is no sin even if casual.

The heartache of this world — the heartache of two young 20-year-olds who decide to live together then fall apart — can be huge and hard to bear. But surely, as long as such arrangements are not coerced, a refusal to commit to marriage — or even going back on such a promise — should not evoke any aspect of India’s penal code?

Unless we want to wind ourselves back into a narrow, judgemental time, one must embrace the right to individualism ever more intensely — and find the survival strategies for its downsides. Jiah — beautiful and talented as she was — should have walked out on her petulant boyfriend and proudly kept her child, if she wanted to. We can grieve that she felt too broken to do this. But — unless there is grievous proof there was more to it — we should beware of jailing anyone for it.

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.


  1. Thank you for taking a balanced view, something which is rare in Media these days. Feminists seems to have captured all the corridors of power and even if women get flu these days, it is men who are blamed.

  2. I am a woman and this issue has been troubling me for some time. So it is nice to see another person taking this view. Every time a celebrity commits suicide the boyfriend is hauled up to the police station and made a media mockery. This has to stop. This is a violation of a persons fundamental rights. Suicide is an extreme step and people who suicide are clinically depressed. Very soon men will be afraid of talking to girls if this continues. This woman took a lot of abuse but did not leave him. That was her choice. What was her mother doing when she told her about the abuse? Why couldn’t she intervene and remove her daughter from this relationship? I have no empathy for the Pancholi boy, but this can be our sons and brothers tomorrow. We need to fight this trend by the police to arrest boyfriends when a girl commits suicide. A girl was killed with acid in Mumbai, has the cops done anything about it? Only when it is a celebrity incident, they go into overdrive. Shameful and troubling.

  3. Nobody should be and can be made responsible for ones decisions whatever they may be. Already due to huge misuse of laws Men are harassed in India and treated as a disposible commodity. Children are brought up compulsorily in a fatherless society, thus victimising them and eventually leading to depression. Thorough counselling has to be established for these young lost souls.

  4. Just yesterday, two teenagers got killed by falling in front of a train in Britain, apparently a case of a suicide pact. Had one chickened out at the last moment, what would have been the legal position ? People must, ultimately, take responsibility for their lives. It is possible to make the case that Suraj was emotionally even less mature and responsible for all that happened than Jiah Khan. Had such a star cross’d marriage taken place, it would have folded up in a short while.

  5. Heartbreak or not Jiah chose to be in this relationship. If she felt he
    should be given so many chances it was her choice, I am guessing he was
    not keeping her prisoner in his home. Heartbreak are hard to cope but
    committing suicide is a chickening out on life and self. But her
    boyfriend should pay for her act of committing suicide is wrong and him
    not getting a bail is grave injustice meted out to him by our justice
    department. As long as he did not knot the rope and help her kill
    herself he is not responsible for her death. He might be a jerk, the
    lowest of lowest for mistreating her or abusing her (if at all that is
    true) but in the end it was Jiah’s choice to be with him inspite of all
    the abuse. So blaming the boyfriend is unfair.

  6. The article misses the whole point, which is that suicide is a desperate act which is preventable given the will by society to see it as a disease which has a cure.
    Where are the helplines, who is publicising these, who is accountable to reduce this waste of life. We are all responsible for the violence in our society. No matter whether it is physical or emotional. Jhia needed help, she had lost her baby and alsp vunerable to rejection from her lover and trade. It is a waste of a life and we all need to take full responsiblity for allowing this waste of life. Untill then not much will change.


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