On Monday, we celebrated “Raksha Bandhan” in India. It is a festival to commemorate the love and duty between sister and brother. The sister expresses her love by tying a “rakhi” or sacred thread on her brother’s wrist in return for his protection. Simultaneously, both mainstream and social media were flooded with reports about a young woman named Varnika Kundu. She was stalked in Chandigarh last Friday by a couple of young men.
She was driving alone in her car past midnight when she noticed the stalkers. She tried to shake them off by driving through red lights and swerving through traffic. They chased her car across seven kilometres and even tried to open one of the doors. Frantically, she called the police helpline and finally the police arrested the men. It turned out that one of them is Vikas Barala. The son of the head of the Haryana BJP unit Subhash Barala.
Initially, the men were arrested and charged under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 354 D (stalking) and Section 185 of the Motor Vehicle Act (driving by a drunken person or by a person under the influence of drugs) as well as the more serious Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 365 (kidnapping) and 511 (attempt to commit offences punishable with imprisonment). But then the police dropped some of the sections permitting for the release of the two men on bail.
In the meanwhile, the family of the stalker and some of the BJP leadership turned to Twitter to blame Kundu, accusing her of staying out too late. One of the BJP Spokeswomen, Shaina NC, tweeted an old image of Kundu with two men. She called her “victim beti” and allegedly identifying one of the men as Barala. Later the tweet was deleted and Shaina claimed her account was hacked. Whilst the father of the stalker said that, “Varnika is like his daughter and there is no pressure to influence the investigation.”
So what is wrong here?
- The Chandigarh Stalking case reinforces gender stereotypes that a woman out late at night is at fault and therefore fair game for harassment and stalking. It does not seem to matter that a city is supposed to be safe for all of its residents. The onus of a woman’s safety seems to lie only with her – and it shouldn’t.
- The Government’s clarion call “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, (save your daughter, educate your daughter), is only a charade on paper. The Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme (as per the website of the Ministry of Women and Child Development) focuses on challenging mindsets and deep rooted patriarchy in the societal system, strict enforcement of PC & PNDT Act, and advancing education of the girl child. In sum, it focuses on issues of women empowerment on a life cycle continuum. Yet, several BJP members chose to use gender stereotyping and blaming the woman rather than denouncing the crime.
- The police’s actions were far from satisfactory. The very fact that many of the Indian Penal Code sections protecting women’s rights are recognisable offences with strict punishment is because of the constant battering that women and girls have had to endure over the years. Yet, by dropping certain sections of the complaint and watering down the charges, it once again sends the message that women’s rights are not important. How, then, does one have faith in the system if the police take it upon themselves to be the judiciary?
- Finally, our customs and culture like Raksha Bandhan perpetuate the notion that a woman must be “protected”. Once again, it reminded us that women are not equal but dependent on others for her own rights. These norms are so ingrained in our psyche that it seems unthinkable that a woman can have her own life.
Once again, it reminded us that women are not equal but dependent on others for her own rights.
I am glad that Kundu’s father decided to stand with his daughter. Even if it means taking on the powerful politicians and corrupt police in a highly patriarchal society. It is time that we address this issue, call a spade a spade. And stop letting the stalkers get away with just a light sentence.