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The Netflix show Indian Matchmaking depicts how deeply entrenched arranged marriages are in India. Ideas about the practice narrated in the show have often invited memes and social media trends. But far away from the privileged worlds of 30-something Indian-Americans, it’s no laughing matter. For many in the hinterland, defying the tradition can have grave consequences.

Forbidden relationships, especially in adolescence, can throw you into long battles against your family, suggests data released recently by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Out of the 98,860 alleged victims of kidnapping who were rescued last year, 13.7% had actually eloped or been in a romantic relationship. “Elopement/love relationship" was one of the few kinds of “kidnapping" that had a hint of agency on the part of the supposed victim. Most cases involved underage girls, far away from large cities. Another 24% of kidnapping cases were for marriages, which, too, may include cases of elopement along with forced ones.

Young couples fleeing the family and community are charged under the provision when furious parents—usually the girls’—learn of the transgression. A 2019 study by Partners for Law in Development (PLD) found that adolescents do so to avoid the crisis that unfolds—censure, abuse, threats and confinement—when parents discover their relationship or premarital pregnancy. Some run away to avoid a forced marriage.

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Madhu Mehra, one of the study’s authors, said taboos force interactions with the opposite sex into secrecy, and when such romances are discovered, “elopement becomes the only escape". The patriarchal stigma and taboos against female sexuality as well as caste hierarchies then compel parents to file criminal charges to protect the girl’s perceived 'honour', retaliate against the male partner, and regain her custody, she added.

Young lovers

In 2014 and 2015, journalist Rukmini S. analysed sexual assault trials in the local courts of Delhi and Mumbai for The Hindu. She found that between a quarter and one-third cases whose trials concluded were of “parents on the prowl", against the young men with whom their consenting daughters had eloped, mostly ending in acquittals. The median age of complainants was 16 years; the girls often turned hostile in courts or said they had eloped because they loved the alleged kidnapper. Many were cases of inter-caste or interfaith couples whose parents opposed their relationship.

The NCRB data, too, showed that 80-90% of elopement cases deemed as kidnapping had been filed on behalf of female “victims". More than half were on behalf of girls below 18 years of age, even as the overall share of girls aged 16-18 in victims of kidnapping was one-third.

Child marriage

The NCRB classifies a case only based on the highest offence that is alleged in the FIR. Young eloping men are often also charged with harsher charges of rape, while the anti-child marriage law, which has no minimum sentence, is invoked relatively rarely as the highest offence, even though the National Family Health Survey says that 23% of women aged 20-24 had been married underage. Only 1,050 cases with child marriage being the highest offence were filed in 2021, compared to 7,907 children who were deemed kidnapped on account of elopement or “love relationship".

Even when the child marriage law is invoked, over 65% are against eloping couples rather than against forced or arranged child marriage, showed another study by PLD in 2021. The study also showed that two-thirds of the cases were initiated by girls’ families. The good news is that judicial outcome was favourable to girls or couples in 49 out of 57 elopement cases.

Runaway girls

Meanwhile, there is another kind of “kidnapping" where the victim’s agency may have been involved: 6,971 minors—nearly 70% of them girls—were “victims" of “kidnapping" where it was found that they had left their house by their own will or after being “scolded" by parents, the NCRB data showed.

The higher share of girls may be because of a greater propensity for filing complaints by girls’ parents. It also highlights the same social attitudes that translate into elopements, too. The expectation of housework by girls is only one of the many reasons that also result in school dropouts and poorer social connections.

“Welfare interventions—such as residential schools, safe transport, cash stipends and food—are necessary to ensure access to secondary schooling for girls from underprivileged backgrounds," Mehra said. “Also, taboos against female sexuality must be tackled, and legal age of sexual consent should be restored to 16 years to decriminalize consent between young people who are close in age."

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