Two days after a chilling Facebook post detailing her brush with a midnight stalking and apparent kidnapping attempt while she was driving from the Sector 8 market in Chandigarh towards Panchkula, the daughter of an IAS officer is now facing the commonest form of malice women in India encounter when up against rich and powerful male perpetrators — that of victim-shaming.
While politicians from the Communist Party of India and the Congress joined voices to support the question the media has been asking for the last two days — Why was the FIR diluted to let the alleged stalkers, one of them the son of a BJP leader, off on bail? — the fact remains that whenever such an incident happens, the finger is predictably pointed at the woman by the upholders of moral purity.
Why was she out driving at midnight? Why was she unescorted? Was she drunk? Was her politically-connected father manipulating the incident for personal gains? Is she familiar with the stalker? Why is there a photo of her with her alleged stalker in her Facebook album?
It's to Varnika Kundu's credit that she's taking on these relentless assassination attempts on her character with clarity of thought and straightforwardness that should inspire every woman in her position.
"I won't want to be more careful, but I also won't want to put my parents through what they just went through. More than me, they will be sitting at home and worrying where I am from now on. That being said, I am not going to stop living my life the way I want to just because of some goons. If I have to go out at night, I will still go out at night. That is the whole point of feminism.....
Why should I stop living my life the way I want to? And why am I being asked by some people as to what I was doing out late at night? My parents know where I am. And, people who ask me this question should ask themselves: was I harassing someone? No. Those men were."
It's not entirely surprising that the Chandigarh police swiftly dropped the sections that would make it difficult for Vikas Barala, son of Haryana BJP president Subhash Barala, to get bail. The politically powerful often bring out the subservient side of the Indian police. The FIR against junior Barala was registered under IPC Section 354D (stalking) and Section 185 of the Motor Vehicle Act, dropping the Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 365 (kidnapping with intent to confine) and 511 (attempting to commit offences punishable with imprisonment for life).
This despite the fact that Kundu specifically said in her complaint that Barala and his friend Ashish Kumar, who chased her car for a stretch of seven kilometres while she made frantic calls to the police, "tried to open the door" with the clear intent to abduct her.
These were her words later as she recounted her narrow escape, mainly by keeping her nerve and sheer driving skill: "My hands shaking, my back spasming from fear, half in tears, half bewildered, because I didn't know if I'd make it home tonight."
"To me, it was very clear that these boys intended to abduct me even tried to open the door. Kindly file an FIR under the appropriate sections of law," she told the SHO at the police station of Sector 26, Chandigarh. However, within a day, the accused were out on bail, mainly because the FIR did not have the charges that would keep them off the streets pending investigation.
The clear lapse on the part of the police also throws light on some disturbing aspects about the processes involved when women call in serious crimes in a country that has welfare schemes such as 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao', and street vigilante squads mandated to report men who harass women.
1. The unwillingness of law enforcement authorities to believe women who report sexual crimes: Time and again this has cost lives because the police refused to take a complaint by a victim or their family seriously. A 21-year-old woman was stabbed 22 times on a busy Delhi road last year by a 34-year-old man who had been stalking her for more than a year. The family had complained to the police within six months of aggravated stalking but, as in many cases, instead of taking action against a known stalker, the police allegedly made the two families reach a compromise.
The process of reporting a crime in itself isn't an easy task for a woman, and when it involves dismissive police action, it makes the process even more difficult.
A Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative survey last year found that more than half the crimes in Mumbai and New Delhi go unreported because the police refuse to register most complaints of sexual harassment. The survey of more than 3,000 households in Delhi and 3,575 in Mumbai found that "people who did not report it said they did not want to be caught up in bureaucracy or did not believe the police could help".
2. Political interference and victim blaming: Often when a politician or his/her kin is involved in a crime, the common perception is that the police will be lenient, given the political repercussion. In most cases, a campaign of vilification immediately starts against the victim. In this case, too, ranging from a Supreme Court advocate who questioned why the victim wasn't given a breathalyzer test to a member of the Barala family sharing pictures of Kundu holding glasses purportedly containing alcohol, the process of victim-shaming has started.
The Wire reported that in a now-deleted Facebook post, Kuldeep Barala, a member of the family, accused Kundu of being drunk at the time of the stalking, implying that she was somehow to blame for being chased across a city in the middle of the night by two men in an SUV, determined to get in to her car — all because she posed in a photo with two men.
Ramveer Bhatti of the Haryana BJP also told TV channels that Kundu "should not have gone out at 12 in the night".
Here's the thing. No amount of extra-judicial vigilantism will make the streets safer for women. No amount of political posturing and blame game will fix this rot unless law enforcement agencies act without fear or favour to help women feel safe.
Kundu is the daughter of an IAS officer. Not many women in her situation would have the platform she has to fight back from. The ruling government has time and again campaigned for women's education. But what good are promises to save the girl child when they face stumbling blocks at every step of the way to reach their maximum potential?
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