Internet Infidelity

Six months into her marriage, this Delhi-based therapist started getting suspicious about the unduly long hours her husband spent on the Internet. “He was a software programmer, so at first it seemed normal,” she recalls. “Then I began to notice that he would be on the computer in the early morning hours when I was asleep, or act shifty if I went up to him while he was on the laptop.”
It turned out her husband was into sex-ting, or conducting intimate conversations with women online. “I stumbled on to chats he had with various women, all of them sexually explicit in nature. Some of them had taken place even while we were dating. I felt utterly hurt and humiliated,” says this 40-year-old who has since remarried. “But he simply didn’t see my point of view. His argument was that since it was not a physical relationship, he was not being unfaithful and he wouldn’t stop.”
It is an excuse marriage therapists say they hear all too often. And they are hearing it plenty of late.
“About five years back, I would meet some two to three couples in a month who would meet me with complaints that their partners were in an online relationship. Now I see about 10-15 in the same period,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologistSeema Hingorrany. “Mostly those involved in such behaviour—and women are as much a part—don’t think they are being unfaithful. They don’t see it as emotional infidelity; the tremendous hurt and a sense of betrayal felt.”
You can be what you want on the World Wide Web; the anonymity leads to an addiction that can be hard to shake off. New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, caught in a sexting scandal for the second time in two years (2011 and July 2013), is a case in point.
A common mode for entering into such relationships is Facebook (FB). In fact, emails and messages over Facebook are increasingly being cited in many divorce petitions. “I have used FB uploads of people displaying their status or pictures and taken orders from the court,” says Mumbai-based advocate Amit Karkhanis, senior partner, Kay Legal. “What you do on FB is inadmissible as evidence, but it is good enough to prove a point,” says Karkhanis. In the UK, Karkhanis adds, family courts view online relationships as infidelity. “People may think they are in the clear because they are not meeting the other person, but hooking up with someone online is seen as an intention to cheat in the eyes of the law.”
In India, there are few cases of online fidelity being cited as sole grounds for divorce. “But it is becoming an important factor,” says lawyer Kranti Sathe, who has been practising for over 20 years in the Mumbai family court. “When online communication starts affecting family life, leading to neglect of the spouse and children, it is then cited as causing acute mental agony for the partner.”
A 2013 study by the Texas Tech University, US, says online acts of infidelity are as painful as those committed in person. The study, which used data from, a Facebook page where jilted lovers share their stories, points out that “people have the ability to be more vulnerable online, which facilitates a greater emotional response which can be just as devastating, if not more, than an offline response”.
Another widely quoted 2003 University of Florida study based on interviews with 86 married men and women who were into online relationships found that about a third of the participants went on to meet the person with whom they made contact.
While there is no India-based study, counsellors say the findings reflect their experiences on the ground. “There is sadness, hopelessness, rage and a feeling of not being good enough. Just because the other person does not have a name or face does not make it any less painful,” says Mumbai-based counsellor Harish Shetty, visiting psychiatrist, Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital.
“It definitely affects the emotional connect,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani. “No one feels it is just a minor thing. There is a sense of comparison and a feeling of inadequacy felt”.
The University of Florida study also found an “escalating quality” to these contacts, with the anonymity encouraging participants to share more about themselves with online partners than they do with their spouses. In most cases what starts off as a friendly exchange, progresses to a desire for a sexual relationship.
“The usual explanation is that it began accidentally during a spell of boredom and frustration,” says Dr Shetty. “It becomes a way of building emotional intimacy which is lacking in today’s world where couples spend long hours working.”
“Two years ago, during my sister-in-law’s wedding, I was regularly chatting with someone I met up with on Facebook,” says a 35-year-old Baroda-based stockbroker, who did not want to be named. “As the older brother-in-law, I was expected to participate in the functions. But I would make excuses and stay away.” During one such function, he made a work-related excuse and got caught sex-chatting at home. His wife left him and it took months of counselling before matters were resolved. “I liked the anonymity of it. I felt I could say things to her that my wife might not like to hear,” he recalls. “I felt a deep connection.”
“You can act out your fantasies,” says Dr Mirchandani. “You can imbue that person with the qualities and ideals you are looking for and take on any persona you want.” Adds Hingorrany: “One man told me that the woman he was involved with online made him feel so good that he started despising his wife.”
Counselling cases of online infidelity can be a long drawn-out affair. “It can be like treating an addict,” says Dr Mirchandani. “Many of them are in denial and many don’t want to change their behaviour. Sometimes there are pre-existing issues which need to be looked into.”
“On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. In the darkness of the world wide wilderness, there is a swampy netherworld where you can get down and dirty without difficulty or disease. You could get a second life, you could buy a penis. But what you won’t get is heart.

This article also appeared  in the Mint. To view click on

Assam Riots – 1 Year Later

“Since I was 8 years old I have dreamed of joining the police force”, says Sharifa Khatoon. “I see the uniform as an opportunity to make a difference, especially help women”, adds this 13-year-old.

We are sitting inside her cramped, tidy hamlet in the village of Bhawanipur in Assam’s Chirang district. Located in the northeast, Assam has dominated the headlines for a year now, mostly for all the wrong reasons. In July 2012, parts of the state were witness to a series of bloody riots between the tribal Bodo community and Muslim settlers. No one is certain what triggered it off; both sides blame each other. The conflict has displaced several thousand people from both the communities. Even today many people live in makeshift camps, their homes destroyed and means of livelihood disrupted.

Now there is fresh tension, this time over the Bodos renewing their longstanding demand for a separate state, Bodoland. Last week many vehicles were burned down and rail traffic to this region disrupted for over 12 hours after protests by different Bodo outfits. There is no sign of an immediate end with the Bodos refusing to back down unless the government meets their demands.

I was interviewing Sharifa for a documentary on how children, especially girls, have been impacted. Sharifa and her family returned to their village a few months ago. But life, as she knew it, is over. There is little hope of her ever donning that police uniform. Later this month, she is all set to marry a 17-year-old from a neighbouring village.

 “Everything we had burned down, including her books and uniform”, says her mother Rukhsana. “There was no school in the relief camp either so she missed an entire school year”. I ask her why she could not resume school after their return. “We lost our fields. There was no income so how could we pay the fees or for books”, asks Rukhsana. “Right now we can afford to send only one child to school and we chose Sharifa’s brother”.

Money is just one aspect. The other, more abiding reason is insecurity. Given how isolated parts of this region are, families are reluctant to send their children, particularly daughters out of the immediate neighbourhood.

Given just isolated many villages are, the reluctance is not hard to understand. We travelled to Boraisera village in Chirang district, home to both Bodos and Muslims. There is no road connecting to the village, which is surrounded by four rivers. It took a boat ride and then a bike journey down some treacherous tracks to get there.

Boraisera is home to both communities but after the riots they have moved to different corners of the village, with boundaries distinctly drawn. Since the riots occurred, not a single health worker has visited Boraisera and 12 other villages in this area. “It is not like that they visited frequently earlier”, says a villager. “But now they have an excuse. They tell us they are too scared to visit these riot scarred areas”. The bitterness is all too evident in his voice. Given the huge distances and the hardship involved in travel, villagers go to health centres in the city only if there is an emergency. The impact of that neglect is all too evident in the children here most of whom are severely malnourished. Not a single child born in the past year has been vaccinated. Nor have pregnant women been given basic check-ups.  

There is just one primary school for a village of 3000 residents; its doors have been firmly shut after the riots. “It took a lot of intervention on our part to make the community aware of the importance of educating their children, especially girls”, says Hasina Khatoon, an activist with the Action Northeast Trust (ANT) which has been working in the region for nearly 10 years. “Over the last 4-5 years, enrolment in schools was rising. The riots have set that process back”, she says, “and worst affected are girls. Over the last year, girls as young as 12 and 13 have been married off”.

Across the divide, we encounter the same sense of displacement and uncertainty.  At a Bodo relief camp in Kokrajhar town, I found that a number of young girls had chosen to stay back so they could pursue their education in a safe environment, even if that meant staying away from their parents. Devruti Brahmo’s family has returned to their village. “I have lost a school year as it is. I don’t want to risk that happening again. I would rather stay on, finish schooling and hopefully get into college.”

It was not an easy decision to make. Devruti is just 16 and apart from a distant relative living two doors away, there is no one looking out for her. She draws support from her best friend Deepa Brahmo, 14, who lives here with her teenage brother. Their lives, however, are tenuous. They can be asked to move out at any time, because the government has begun the process of closing down these camps.

 “There is no doubt that both communities have suffered tremendously”, says Jennifer Liang, co-founder, ANT. “The Bodos may have fared a little better because they are better organized as a community but there is no doubt that this has been a huge setback and will take decades to mend. At this point, I am really not sure when that process will even begin.”