On November 8th, 28-year-old Aftab Ameen Poonawala was arrested for allegedly strangling his live-in partner Shraddha Walkar. They had had a violent argument. He cut her body into 35 pieces, kept them in a 300-litre fridge. Over the next few days Aftab disposed of the pieces at various places in Delhi’s Mehrauli forest area. While this incident — the Delhi Fridge case, as it is being referred to — has received relentless media focus, an increasing number of such gruesome crimes, often labelled crimes of passion, has been reported in the recent past.
Family disputes and the breakdown of relationships have been cited as the main motive for some of these ghastly murders, mostly committed by family, friends, spouses or those in a relationship.
Does this mean people have become more intolerant and quick to get violently angry? What is the psychology of the perpetrators of these crimes? Has anger management become a mental health issue that now needs to be taken seriously?
Take another case, that of 25-year-old Keshav, recently back from rehab. On November 23rd, Keshav killed his parents, sister and grandmother. He used a sharp object to slit their throats and stabbed them multiple times.
Or that of Yogesh Kumar who killed his wife, Archana on November 20th. The family was facing financial difficulties and Archana had borrowed some money. The couple argued and Yogesh strangled Archana.
The list of such violent crimes from different parts of the country in what one would consider normal families is long. In Kota, Rajasthan, Nikhil Sharma, 32, was killed by his friends over a payment of Rs 2000 on November 20th . In Thane on November 12th, a 32-year-old man was killed because he refused to share a cigarette with his friends. In Hyderabad, on November 8th a man killed his two-year-old toddler son because he was crying.
These are just a few of the cases reported in just one month, November. It is anybody’s guess how many other such cases have gone unreported. In September, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released the data for crime incidents and crime against women in particular.
According to experts, there has been a year-by-year rise in crime, particularly crimes against women, committed by young people. “More such crimes are being reported and such cases for which there are multifactored reasons,” says Ashoka Fellow Dr Rajat Mitra, Clinical Psychologist, author and professor.
Dr Mitra has worked extensively as a psychologist with terrorists in Indian prisons and with human rights workers across Asia. “For Gen-Z, a lot of values are relative. There is no absoluteness about values, unlike earlier times when values were held in black and white”.
Anger a constant companion
Today, anger seems to have become a constant companion for people, particularly youngsters. If the neighbour’s dog is barking, the dog is killed; if the father does not give money to his children, he is killed; if the girlfriend argues, she is bruised, battered and at times killed.
“There is no support system now,” says Dr Nimesh Desai, eminent Psychiatrist, and former Director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), Delhi. “Earlier, our society was protective. But now with societal-sociological changes, there’s a breakdown of family support system and this breakdown is impacting the psychology of people.”
Crimes were committed earlier too. “And they were as brutal as the Delhi Fridge case,” says Dr Desai. “How can one forget the Nirbhaya case or the infamous Tandoor case of 1995? There are plenty of other cases as brutal as the Delhi Fridge case”.
According to him the changing ethos in society and social media without any checks and balances are also to be accounted for the crimes.
Dr Mitra feels that society today has become highly detached “more so after COVID and so the violence is also high. There is a tendency to club murders as collective mindset, meaning the crime that results from an identity that comes from belonging to a particular group. Far from it. Crime is an individual psychological disorder. We need to see crime as a behavioural problem.”
The world sees crime as a behavioural issue. But India still does not see the psychological aspect. “How many psychologists testify in the courts?” asks Dr Mitra. “Our country still does not value it. A shift in the perception of crime is required along with preventive education and sensitization of police.”
A few years back, the Delhi police along with Dr Mitra began the Preventive Education project to educate and create awareness among young girls about predators. The project was dropped after three years due to funds shortage and hesitation from schools and parents in implementation.
“None of the schools wanted to begin the programme because they did not want to be the first ones,” says Dr Mitra. “They thought it will leave an impact on their school’s image. In the West, Preventive Education is encouraged. But in our country it is not accepted”.
Awareness can prevent a lot of crimes, say behavioural experts. Though mental health is today being discussed, it is still to be accepted. “There’s no change in the perception of mental illness or psychological disorder,” says Dr Mridula Seth, author, mental health advocate and Vice-President, Delhi Chapter of Richmond Fellowship Society, which provides psychosocial rehabilitation to the people with mental illness.
“Young people are still reluctant to talk about their mental health. There’s stigma and discrimination attached to it.” Dr Mridula takes workshops in colleges to sensitise students about mental health.
For suspects like that of the Delhi Fridge case, she feels that one needs to go back into their childhood. “One does not become anti-social or behave in such a bizarre manner overnight. The seeds must have been there from childhood,”she says.
The mind is fragile and one of the most complex parts of the body. According to Dr Desai, the traits of personality disorder are visible from an early age. “And personality disorder is a quagmire,” says Dr Desai. “It manifests indifferent ways, like the person being anti-social, drug abuse, having multiple relationships, self-centred, egocentric, having cold relationships, manipulative,and smooth talkers.”
Cluster A Personality Disorders: This is characterized by odd, eccentric thinking or behaviour. They include paranoid personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder and schizotypal personality disorder.
Cluster B Personality Disorders: This is characterized by dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behaviour. They include antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
Cluster C Personality Disorders: This is characterized by anxious, fearful thinking or behaviour. They include avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
According to him, such people are great charmers. “Unfortunately, young girls get attracted to them. Once they are in a relationship with smart, manipulative partners, they are trapped. They cannot let go nor stay there. The victim becomes emotionally co-dependent.”
According to him, the victims live in the hope that everything will get better.
Over the years, especially during and after the pandemic the figures for violence and intimate partner violence (IPV) has increased. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women worldwide faces violence.
Most reported cases are IPV. Sonali (name changed), an IT professional, 28, approached an online counselling session for stress and anxiety attacks. As the therapist tried to reason the cause of her anxiety pangs, it became clear that the girl has been living in an emotionally toxic relationship. Her partner doesn’t give her the freedom to meet her friends. Her parents disapproved of her decision to move in with the person.
It was only when they began to live- in she realised her mistake. “The guy is full of self,” says Sonali. “I am blamed for anything wrong in his life”. She wants to break off but regrets that she feels weak and frightened. She is financially independent, yet feels helpless.
“Often people who have a personality disorder do not accept that something is amiss. (Personality disorder syndrome is grouped into three clusters – A, B and C, according to similar characteristics and symptoms (see box above). To them, what they think and believe is natural. More often they blame others for challenges they face in life,” says Dr Desai.
Suffering toxic relationships
In the wake of the Delhi Fridge case involving victim Shraddha Walkar and accused Aaftab Poonawala, the girls’ security and safety while living in toxic relationships, forces one to ponder upon support systems and mental health.
According to the NCRB data, there has been a 15.3% increase in crime against women. The figures may be much lower than the actual numbers. Many women in cities do not report because of a lack of support systems and counselling helplines.
The social stigma about living alone prevails. When women, try to break away from abusive relationships, it is like jumping from a frying pan to a fire. Parents often do not support them. With no one to support or stand by them and a lack of decent shelter homes in cities, women stick to toxicity and continue to cling to the abuser with the hope that one day everything will be fine.
Also, the fear of being abandoned torments them. “Somewhere they equate toxic relationships with their failure,” says Dr Seth. “It is fear of failure and abandonment that deters them from walking out of a relationship. And fear kills their identity and soul.”
Girls need parents’ support, say the experts. Shraddha’s case would probably not have happened had her parents been in touch with her and offered her unconditional support.
“Also, girls should be taught life skills so that they can make wise decisions. Importance should be given to mental health, wellness and timely counselling,” says Dr Seth. She takes Life Skills workshops in colleges.
Understanding emotional abuse
Unlike physical violence, emotional abuse is not tangible. But it is based on control, isolation, manipulation, throwing the partner off-track psychologically. So much so that the victims begin to doubt themselves. “Perhaps this was one of the reasons for Shraddha not walking away from her partner,” says Dr Seth.
Terms like emotional abuse, gaslighting, silent treatment, and love bombing have begun to be understood by people now. But years pass before a victim understands that one is being emotionally abused.
I met a 62-year-old woman in a mental health workshop. She had been living in an abusive relationship for the last 34 years where her partner was manipulative, controlling and self-centred.
“By the time I understood personality disorder and narcissism, I was in my mid-50s,” the woman had said and added, “He wouldn’t let me do things or let me meet my friends. He would unnecessarily point out mistakes in whatever I did. If I would question, he would convince me that he was doing it for my good.
“So, time just passed without my understanding of the real issue. Also, nobody would have understood then if I had said that I am living in an emotionally abusive relationship. There was no concept of emotional, silent abuse. Visible physical scars mattered then. But it changed my personality.
“During my younger days, I was not timid, diffident or weak. Somewhere I lost myself.” She had joined the workshop to understand mental health and to heal herself.
According to Dr Mitra, Preventive Education, mental health workshops and gender sensitisation ought to be imparted. “After the Nirbhaya case, the government released Rs 1000 crore for making India gender-sensitive. But not one rupee has been utilised, as far as I know,” says Dr Mitra.
The way a survivor of violence needs counselling so does the perpetrator of the crime. “Victims need healing and emotional healing takes time,” says Dr Desai. ‘The perpetrators of the crime need to be assessed psychologically. As personality disorder symptoms are quite often visible during childhood and proper counselling should be done.”
Dr Mitra also feels that a change in perception in looking at such crimes is required. “We need to build up a system and to identify the personality disorder indicators early in life and to give importance to mental health.”
As a word of caution to young girls, Dr Mitra adds: “Do not make the mistake of living on the hope that a toxic relationship will be fine one day and that a partner who manipulates and controls will ever change.”