5 Nov 2006, 0003 hrs IST

Soli Sorabjee
Former Attorney General

In principle there is no objection to including verbal abuse in the definition of domestic violence. The problem lies in the wide definition of verbal abuse which includes “name calling and insults”. Name calling in every case cannot be equated with verbal abuse.

Have we not called our friends, male or female, ‘shorty’ or ‘fatty’ or ‘snooty’ or ‘sexy’ and referred to them as such in conversation? An average person of ordinary sensibilities would not consider these nicknames as insults or verbal abuse. We must be guided by the standards of rational human beings.

If a female consumed by intense curiosity tirelessly questions her husband or partner about his friends, male or female, and makes disparaging remarks about them, the man in exasperation may say “stop behaving like a jealous cat”.

On account of the wide definition he would be guilty of domestic violence on different scores. And therein lies the rub. One of the meanings of insult is “to hurt one’s feelings”. There are hypersensitive persons who perceive hurt and imagine insults when none is meant or intended.

For example, in a heated discussion on the subject of religion and some religious practices, it is likely for a man to call his wife or female partner a fanatic and that may well be for good reasons. Is that an insult?

Take the case of a debate about the advisability of the abolition of capital punishment. If the wife is fervently for hanging convicted criminals by the neck till they die, the male in exasperation may call her a blood thirsty moron.

In the above examples it would be absurd to hold that the man has indulged in verbal abuse and is thus guilty of domestic violence. But that is precisely what would happen in view of the indiscriminate and imprecise definition of verbal abuse.

This state of affairs would inevitably have a chilling effect on expression. Healthy and vigorous dialogue would become impossible, conversation would lose its flavour and punch and all that on the slippery subjective criterion of name-calling and feelings being hurt. It would also plant seeds for marital discord.

If name-calling is persistent and abusive, that is a different matter altogether and may be dealt with appropriately. Therefore, the need is to define verbal abuse narrowly and with precision and to prevent the Domestic Violence Act from being a paradise for lawyers, a hell for husbands and nightmare for enforcement authorities.

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